The growing Success of Free-To-Play Games on Consoles

The highly anticipated releases of the new Xbox Series X by Microsoft and Sony’s PlayStation 5 brought some joy to 2020 at last. Only a few real next-gen games have been released so far, but the libraries of available games are more extensive than at any other previous console launch thanks to backward compatibility, Microsoft’s Xbox Gamepass, and PlayStation’s PS Plus Collection.

Most AAA publishers have increased the recommended retail price for new games for the next-gen consoles to $69.95/€79.95 for the first time in 15 years. While this seems justified given the increased production costs and the long period without a price hike, it is not entirely clear yet how the consumers will react, but I believe this trend could make the business model of Free-To-Play (F2P) games on consoles more appealing.

F2P is the dominant business model on mobile devices. It has played a crucial role in establishing mobile devices as the top platform for video games in growth and revenue generation. The graph: “The Rise of Gaming Revenue Visualized” by Pelham Smithers, which was widely shared within the industry recently, showcases this as well:

Source: Pelham Smithers

F2P games had already gathered huge audiences on the PC with League of Legends, DOTA, World of Tanks & spinoffs, numerous MMOs including World of Warcraft (Starter Edition), and other titles. So far, these games were either not published on consoles, or their success on consoles was moderate compared to their sizeable PC audiences.

The real success story of F2P games on consoles kicked off in 2017 with the release of Fortnite Battle Royale. Other factors contributed to the success of Fortnite as well (please see my article about the impact of influencer marketing to fuel Fortnite’s success), but it is evident that the low barrier of entry due to the game being F2P was one of the critical factors of making it such a megahit.

The success of Fortnite spawned a myriad of further Battle Royale titles for consoles and other gaming platforms. Not every F2P Battle Royale game succeeded, but EA’s Apex Legends managed to find a healthy audience, while Ubisoft’s foray into Battle Royale: Hyper Scape struggled to stay relevant. After Activision didn’t make a significant impact with their first Battle Royale Call of Duty experience, which required a purchase of the main game, they pivoted to embrace F2P as well. Activision published the stand-alone and F2P Call of Duty Warzones in March 2020 (just in time for the global Coronavirus lockdowns), and millions of players were ready to embrace it.

While the Battle Royale genre is currently the most successful F2P category for consoles, the list of available F2P games offers a great variety of content. About 100 different games are already available within the “Free-to-Play” category on PlayStation Network, and the list keeps growing.

Rocket League Key Art (copyright by Psyonix LLC.)

Some of these games were not designed for F2P from the get-go, but the developers and publishers decided to shift to the F2P business model to find larger audiences by lowering the entry barriers. After Epic Games bought Rocket League developer Psyonix, they decided to turn their hit game Rocket League into a F2P game, which they released on September 23. Bungie moved their blockbuster game Destiny 2 to F2P allegedly after they weren’t happy with the number of games sold.

Even AAA hit games like Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2 moved towards a F2P model for some of their game content. Red Dead Redemption 2’s multiplayer mode is available at the moment as a stand-alone download for 4.99$/€ (will move to 19.99$/€ on February 15, 2021). While 4.99$/€ is not free, the tactic to lower the entry barrier and generate higher installs and, therefore, a wider audience is the same. It’s not far-fetched to predict that Rockstar Games will try F2P for the online modes of their megahits Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 in the future.

While Battle Royale games and other shooters are currently the dominant F2P titles on consoles, there is still room for other games. Genshin Impact, a F2P Fantasy-Action RPG by Chinese developer mihoYo, received many snarky “inspired by Zelda” comments at launch, but it was just awarded the iPhone Game of the Year award by Apple. The game is doing very well on all platforms, including consoles, and still has a lot of potential to draw in new audiences.

Many of the biggest games in esports are F2P games, and therefore it is not surprising that most of the multiplayer games with the highest number of views on Twitch in 2020 were F2P games.

Remaining one of the most-played and watched games in the world more than ten years after its launch, Riot Games’ League of Legends will come to consoles in 2021 as League of Legends Wild Rift, featuring new console optimized controls amongst other perks. Riot Games is one of the most successful game companies globally, and part of their success story is the strong player focus and the embracement of F2P for their games.

League of Legends Wild Rift Key Art (copyright by Riot Games)

Riot Games released two new IPs in 2020 with Legends of Runeterra, a CCG featuring the League of Legends champions, and the tactical shooter VALORANT, one of the most successful new game IPs. Legends of Runeterra is available on mobile in addition to PC, and VALORANT is PC only at the moment. If League of Legends Wild Rift has a significant impact on consoles, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see more Riot Games’ IPs on consoles within the next years.

Fair player monetization is essential for F2P games, and the ongoing loot box discussion is a relevant factor that could cause problems for F2P games in some markets. Still, game quality and innovation will remain the key factors to win over gamers regardless of the business model, but the lower barrier of entry and the rising cost of full-price games will help F2P games to further grow on all platforms, including consoles, where their rise has just begun.

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