Uncharted 3 and the Future of Triple-A Games Going Free-To-Play

uncharted-3-multiplayer-free-to-play-bannerI must admit that I was quite surprised to find out that Uncharted 3’s multiplayer component went free-to-play earlier this week. I couldn’t quite make heads or tails as to why Naughty Dog and Sony Computer Entertainment would release a part of a game for free or who would want to play such a thing.

But when you think about it, giving away a part of the game that isn’t the core component that’s the reason why people by the game on release day actually makes perfect sense. That’s because Naughty Dog’s play isn’t your standard free-to-play model of funding the game using solely the minority of gamers who provide microtransaction revenue.

Naughty Dog’s ploy here is to use the F2P multiplayer effectively as a demo for Uncharted 3 and the series as a whole. The idea is that people get a taste of Uncharted 3 through the multiplayer component and if they like what is being offered, they’ll buy the game.

When you think about it, the idea is perfect. While it’s all well and good that a game can get countless glowing reviews and pickup numerous Best PS3 Game and Game of the Year awards, there’s no substitute for getting some hands-on time with the game.

uncharted-3-multiplayer-screenshot-01-chateauAnd this is exactly what Naughty Dog and SCE are trying with Uncharted 3 MP F2P. (You’re lucky I didn’t go full acronym with “UC3 MP F2P” but you never go full acronym.) While it no doubt cost Naughty Dog a fair bit of money to develop the game, that’s all sunk cost. They spent that money already and any money back in covers their ongoing costs. In business, they say that you shouldn’t let sunk costs dictate your course of action as long as you’re bringing in money (as opposed to profit which is more of an accounting concept that doesn’t actually mean that you have more money).

As I said before, the multiplayer going free-to-play is to give gamers who haven’t picked up Uncharted 3 a taste. As fans of the series know, the star of the Uncharted series is the well-written and well-acted single-player campaigns about the adventures of Nathan Drake and friends. While the MP component isn’t quite as good as the single-player side, all you need is someone to say, “This game is pretty cool,” and that’s $40 for a copy of Uncharted 3 GOTY edition in Naughty Dog’s pocket. I’d be willing to bet that most copies of UC3 sold to F2P gamers will be quickly followed by a $30 Uncharted and Uncharted 2 combo pack. They could even be convinced to complete the saga by dropping $40 for Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the PS Vit-HA! You thought I was going to say that someone had a Vita, didn’t you?

This brings me back in time to September’s rumour that Blizzard was considering taking StarCraft II’s multiplayer free-to-play. As with Uncharted, I couldn’t make heads or tails of this one. Unlike UC3, the multiplayer component of SC2 is actually a critical part of the game. For years, people we’re still playing the original StarCraft’s multiplayer. It’s a mainstay of the competitive gaming scene. Multiplayer may be more critical to the success of SC2 than the single-player campaign.

starcraft-2-screenshot-01-protossSo why would Blizzard think about shooting themselves in the foot? I hadn’t figured out an answer to that problem myself until Blizzard released that epic trailer for Heart of the Swarm back in January and it all fell in place. The second that the Heart of the Swarm expansion is released, everyone that loves StarCraft will buy it. They’ll get access to all the new units, maps and associated bits and baubles that come with an RTS expansion. Meanwhile, everyone else, like the F2P brigade, is left in the dust.

Blizzard’s idea is to get people into the massive StarCraft multiplayer community and get them paying by releasing new things that the F2P crew wouldn’t otherwise have access to unless they pay for the Heart of the Swarm expansion (and the Legacy of the Void expansion after that). In other words, Blizzard is playing a very long game if they make SC2’s multiplayer free-to-play.

So with those two admittedly big examples out of the way, could anyone else benefit by taking parts of their formerly $60 game and releasing them for free over a year after their release?

My first instinct is franchises that aren’t on an annual release schedule would be the best candidates. With annual releases like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, most gamers would have moved on from the old games as soon as the new one comes out. Going free-to-play for deserted games isn’t exactly sound business practice when you’re trying to get people interested in buying the full game or future editions of the game. Even if the multiplayer community is made up of a bunch of 10-year-old twerps using language that would make a sailor blush, it beats being the only man on a server.

Based on that criterion, the first two games that come to mind would be Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3. However, multiplayer IS Halo 4. Sorry, Halo fans, it’s not a massive assumption to say that more people are interested in MP than that thing you claim is a story. While there are two more Halo games on the way, they’re going to be on the 720 rather than the 360 which it makes the require up-sell from F2P to full games a little harder.

mass-effect-3-multiplayer-earth-dlc-screenshot-01-londonI assume that you’ve immediately countered with: “Steve, Mass Effect 4 is a next-gen game. Why would next-gen be an issue for Halo 4 and not ME3?” Well, hopefully easily anticipated reader, that’s because ME3 has microtransactions to generate revenue. It can also sell a catalogue full of older games and DLCs (on the same generation of console, unlike Halo) given the nature of the Mass Effect trilogy’s narrative that arcs across three games. It’s the ability to get people to pay for microtransactions and get them into a $60 story that makes ME3’s multiplayer free-to-play friendly as opposed to Halo 4’s.

So while there are reasons why a company would transition a game from a discounted purchase to free-to-play, it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. Right, Star Wars: The Old Republic? No, that’s not an invitation to talk about free-to-play MMOs because we know that the ones that launch for free are looking for microtransaction money and aren’t shy about asking for it. Right, every F2P MMO ever?

Back to my point, there is definitely a business case for going free-to-play. Any cash coming in is good cash coming in. Maybe I’m just being cynical but I just don’t believe that F2P can be done without some ulterior motive. Bringing games to the masses is a great idea. That’s why people were excited about the promise of the Ouya console with a low price and “free” games. It’s too bad that going from paid to free isn’t about letting everyone play quality games.

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