Console free to play: Why Pro Evolution Soccer could be about to open the F2P floodgates on PS4 and Xbox One.


It’s finally happening. After much tentative pawing at the water, like a baby Labrador confronted with its favourite toy floating aimlessly in a paddling pool, a major console developer has announced they’re releasing a free to play title on console.

Konami’s F2P version of PS4 title Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) creates a rivalry between it and the company’s own full fat paid game. Offering a stripped down version of the well reviewed kick about sim, but with all the features of its in game purchase driven MyClub mode, PES free to play offers the essence of the paid game but with none of the up front “whoops, there goes £50 of my money” buying friction for consumers to contend with.

In doing so, it aims to establish a precedent in the console market that was commonplace in the mobile space in 2011-2012. Price dropping full value games and adapting them for a free audience became the norm for promoting games. As businesses realised that getting an audience of millions of players and monetising them after they had gotten the game could lead to greater riches than an upfront charge, distribution and monetisation mechanics changed quick sharp.

Games that were free to begin with gained the attention of consumers, who saw the top of the free charts as the best way to get games. Businesses adapted to a model which hunted “whales”, by actively hunting out high spending consumers and encouraging people who wouldn’t pay to share or watch adverts. And cost per install marketing, where advertisers only stumped up if the network running the advert could prove someone had actually gotten the game, helped companies who found those users to monopolise the top chart spots.

Though the mobile industry has moved on from that model, particularly after the top of the free charts were locked out by Facebook, Google and other major players, the winners and losers established during that shift to free to play remain relatively set today. The likes of King, Supercell and, though later to the party, EA who made the move early to free to play have thrived in the space ever since; the likes of Rovio and Gameloft meanwhile, whose success had came with paid titles and who resisted the move to free, struggled in comparison.

The first to move to free on mobile, therefore, gained an invaluable competitive advantage within the space. It is probably right to suggest therefore that Konami is, as 2015 draws to a close, hoping to be the company that powers and benefits from a free to play revolution on console so far.

Not that there hasn’t been any movement in that direction already, of course. Many companies have made important nods to the free model in their console games so far. Plenty of developers have added micro transactions into their triple A console games, including Bungie in Destiny and Rockstar in GTA 5’s Online mode, as well as DLC and Season Pass packs that extend the value of the game.

But they have been a half way house that supplements an existing paid game model. Most in game purchase have tended to be cosmetic add ons or restricted to a single mode, such as multiplayer, to dampen their effect. DLC, meanwhile, has often proved a flashpoint between developers and fans, as consumers ask why a full price release has extra day one content or story additions outside the main content.

Furthermore, the current state of the console market has not necessarily encouraged developers that free to play could be viable.. The most obvious reason would be concern about the install base and the viability of free games as a consequence. Sales of the PS4 only recently passed 30 million worldwide, meaning that even if 100% of PS4 owners played your game every month you’d still have 17 times fewer monthly players than Candy Crush Saga has by itself. As a result, any console company making a free to play game would have to hope that big spenders on the platform would spend even more than mobile whales; a considerable gamble for any company to take.

And when the current half way house approach between paid and free still works, why take a risk on free when money is clearly on the table? Destiny is, for me, the best example of this. It’s long game content plan, the impressively detailed in game analytics, the compulsive core loop and the way story content was stripped from the game in year one suggests it could have been a prime candidate to be free to play.

But with hundreds of millions of dollars on offer from first week sales, Activision benefitted in the short term from this decision. The minor controversies about the cost of additional content in the game has been more than offset by that initial success, meaning that there is little to no impetus to take a punt on being the first to go free to play.

Konami’s revenues, however, haven’t been solid. Following the release of Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV), all console development (aside from PES) ceased at the company to focus on mobile. And though MGSV and PES both performed well, a statement to investors in October 2015 highlighted the strong performance of the company’s mobile games and pachinko businesses as key to the company’s “gradual recovery”.

In this context then, it is unsurprising that Konami has been the first to break ranks with free to play on console. Bringing this element of the business in line with what it is doing elsewhere, Konami has had what none of the other major console developers have to encourage them to take a risk on free to play: the need to do something different to carry on.

Though it is one of the latest releases in the year then, free to play PES may just be one of the most important. If it fails, console will likely stay as it has done for a number of years. A handful of irregular releases, such as Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3, will stand out from the cycle of annual Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and Destiny games. Consumers will continue to complain as console developers try to sell more content to premium consumers in an effort to increase the life time value of the customer. And indie developers will still find space to make hits by attaching themselves to the console manufacturers (i.e. Sony) in return for support.

But if it succeeds, then it’ll likely change the way we both pay and play content across devices in the coming years like never before. The first people to move would be the likes of EA, who I’m sure will delightfully unbundle FIFA Ultimate Team as a separate free game at the first opportunity to bring it in line with FIFA Mobile which, tellingly, has dropped its annual title to act as a constant service.

It could, though, do more than that. It could open up space for free games to make it big by going viral, in the same way Rocket League did by going free on launch as part of the PS Plus programme. It could free up developers to turn the likes of Call of Duty into annual services, allowing them to focus resources onto new games. And it could conceivably stink the console market out with a load of old rubbish that concerns itself more with nudge theory and ad placement than with better quality games (as well as potentially threatening the existence of many superb premium titles).

There are too many factors at play to even semi-confidently predict what will happen with the free to play version of PES now that it’s out. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years time it proves to be a watershed moment in the way people play and pay for games in the console space.

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