In an increasingly fractured market there are less and less outright villains in the games business, save for one business model: free-to-play.
Those that don't find F2P creatively satisfying, or who see it as a challenge to their business, are the most vocal. Most recently that debate has spilled over into consumer commentary as companies like EA make this a more aggressive part of their strategy (and for good reason when its boxed products are missing quarterly guidance and causing its CEO to commit hara-kari).
After my trip to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week I've got some bad news for the haters: free-to-play doesn't just have an edge over the market at the moment, those games are getting deeper, more complicated, better looking and richer (in all senses of the word).
They are challenging console games. They are more like core games than ever. And they are making as much money as them.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW
This seemed to be the biggest theme at the conference in terms of games content (outside of broader themes about concerns over the representation of women in the industry and managing the costs of next-gen).
This shift was reflected in the conference itself. Once upon a time sessions would have been on ‘is free-to-play evil?'. These days it has a track all of its own, and the naysayers are in the minority.
"There is lapsing audience that these games are appealing to who are dabbling in new types of experiences in lieu of innovation on console."
With the debate all but over, the F2P games are making a move on core gamers. They are borrowing the best ideas from ‘traditional' games concepts, and marrying short-form play cycles with bigger and more expansive game worlds, deeper content or more complicated game mechanics.
There's a run of games on the market or on the way that prove this.
In terms of new and not-out-yet stuff, there are three things I see as important: The Drowning from Swedish studio Scattered (owned by Japanese mobile games giant DeNA), which is aiming to make a FPS for an audience that is lapsing from consoles to tablets; Meteor's Hawken is now in beta launch, is still growing and expanding, all by targeting sci-fi and mech game fans; and the move on the awkwardly titled ‘mid-core' audience, a huge part of Zynga's 2013 battleplan.
But you can also see it in the biggest games being played in the world at this very moment.
In fact, so vast is F2P there's a three-way tie to define which in fact is the biggest game of the moment (and none of which have ever really had a major part of any retailer display or been written about by the specialist press).
Is it League of Legends, which someone remarked to me could be the most popular game on the planet based on time players spend per session?
Is it Candy Crush Saga, which might be the most popular game based on total number of users each day on mobile and Facebook?
Or is it Puzzle & Dragons, the most sizeable game in terms of revenue generated each month (it made $100m in February alone according to analysts)?
The firms behind all three popped up in conversations at the show, too. Riot Games (the masterminds behind League of Legends) had the most attended stand at the recruitment fair. King (responsible for Candy Crush) unveiled a new brand identity via old-school billboard marketing around the Moscone. And GungHo (creator of Puzzle & Dragons) came to GDC to meet the media just as Japanese giant SoftBank announced plans to acquire it.
And look at the images of these games above. We print pictures of League of Legends, The Drowning, Hawken, Candy Crush and Puzzle & Dragons. But are arguably indistinguishable, or reminscent of, StarCraft, Half-Life, Halo, Bejewelled or Pokemon. Consumers won't really be able to tell the difference.
We all know the market forces that have allowed all the above games to take hold at the moment.
The top games all take advantage of or are run across open, or at least more accessible platforms like PC, Facebook, mobile. And because they ask for no upfront cost there is less friction for interested players. And the technology powering them may not rival PS4 but is good enough to feel like what went before.
None of the free-to-play hits are on incumbent formats or (for now) from established players. While the F2P model is not new these days, and neither is its pursuit of increased sophistication and polish, the acceptance of it was new to GDC.
The question is what kind of impact does this have on the industry in the long-term. F2P advocates will tell you that free is the future.
But ultimately F2P's move to embrace triple-A is about what the games market has always been about: customers.
There is lapsing audience that these games are appealing to who are dabbling in new types of experiences in lieu of innovation on console. This lengthy hardware generation was once vaulted as being good for publishers, giving them a long-term base to work on. It's had the opposite effect, handing gamers over to new and rival businesses as their attentions drift.
Broadly speaking there are 12 decent games platforms to deploy games on these days: PC; browser and Facebook; phones like iOS and Android; Xbox 360 and next Xbox; PS3, PS4 and Vita; 3DS and Wii U; and new stuff like Ouya. When I went to GDC last week I was expecting discussions and arguments about which is best.
But the truth is that no one cares about that debate, either. It isn't about working out which platform will win, it's about spreading bets across them. Let the people running those platforms duke it out – the publishers, retailers and content creators just work on the most popular.
As new business models offer content that looks more and more like the content the old business models offered, the debate will move on to something more exciting: what are the points of difference in what you offer as a service provider, digital store or developer?
This is an adapted section from a longer GDC review that you can find online at MCV's sister site, www.develop-online.net. Click here to read it