Free-to-play has been a massive success on mobile and in the East for years, and it’s now increasingly becoming the go-to business model for many online games on PC.
At the time of writing, six titles in the top 20 most played games on Steam are free-to-play. One of those games is Trion Worlds’ voxel MMO Trove, which clearly takes inspiration from one of the world’s biggest ever games, Minecraft.
The studio is famed for its MMOs, which include Defiance and Rift. Trove started out as a passion project for two Rift developers, and three years later it’s now one of the most played games on Steam with a core game development team of just 12 staff.
Speaking to Develop at Gamescom, Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman said that just a couple weeks after launch, Trove hit its first million players. And it’s still growing.
He also said another of its MMOs, Defiance, which made the move from subscription to free-to-play last year, is experiencing a renaissance thanks to the shift that has breathed new life into the game.
It’s testament to the power of free-to-play on PC.
“One of the things we have noticed is the more barriers you put up, the harder time people have to play with their friends,” explains Hartsman. “People, back when MMOs and other online games were new, would come online and make gaming friends in the games that they were playing.
“These days, everybody plays online games, they play online games with their friends. And the fewer barriers you have to get people into the game, the more likely they are to stick in social groups.”
For Defiance, it’s also experienced significant success on console. It now sees more organic new users than any of its games – other than Trove. And that’s mainly because of the console versions.
“The console players love the idea of just let me push play and get in the game,” says Hartsman.
This is despite the fact that, despite an apparent and public ambition to make game updates easier for developers on PS4 and Xbox One, it can still take weeks for studios to push them through on PS3 and Xbox 360. It’s an approach not particularly conducive to free-to-play.
“Defiance is our most interesting case for changing a game up midstream because it’s on both PlayStation and Xbox,” says Hartsman. “We don’t have the freedom of running full speed like we can with a dedicated PC game. With a PC game we can make changes and iterations and updates everyday that we need to. With the console folks, they would like to be there, but they are not there yet.
“So for instance, when it takes six weeks to do a client patch, we don’t get many swings of the ball.”
Hartsman says offering subscription has become a hugely challenging sales proposition to large numbers of people, and not just because of rival MMOs. Offline games, online titles and smartphone releases are all competing for time, and subscriptions can become a barrier.
“If you look at the sheer number of games between now and the 2001 to 2004 time period, there’s a hundred times more games than there were back then,” he says.
With the move to free-to-play for Defiance and starting on the model with Trove, would Hartsman go subscription-only again? While the studio uses a hybrid model for some of its games, he isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think I would,” he states.
“I don’t have a religion about business models. What I really care about is matching the design of the game to an audience for the game. If somebody said hey, here is a game and we know for a fact that the model that makes sense is a subscription. Then I'm all on board here. I’m really just about, what is the right model that will get enough players to make the game make financial sense, so it will live a happy and long life.
“And it’s just become more challenging to do that with subscription.”