Non-AAA multiplayer games need to be free to play (opinion)
I was prompted to write this article with the news that after just four short months, Disintegration, a new sci-fi IP from newer developer V1 Interactive, populated with ex-halo creators, was shutting down its multiplayer after just a few short months. I was originally intrigued by this game from that fact of its developer talent. It's robotic sci-fi premise looked amazing, and it was even on my original 2020 most anticipated list. It had a very interesting release, as we went from announcement to release in under a year, with absolutely no marketing or word in between. I found that strategy questionable that this game I remember being announced is all of a sudden was coming on the following weeks. I was disappointed to see this was going to be a sub-60 digital only game, and that worried. For that reason, and lack luster reviews, I held off.
There are two traditional monetization models that work for multiplayer focused games. If you have the marketing budget, brand recognition, and a talented enough trailer designer, the traditional 60$ AAA “full release” still works well for many studios. The decade has also seen the rise of the mega popular free to play model. It is a model designed to maximize player base as quickly as possible with no cost of entry, and monetize through various post-play means such as micro transactions, cosmetics, lootboxes, or battle passes. Neither strategy is perfect or without examples of failure, but they are well tried and often work well.
In between AAA and Indie is a tier of games that fall somewhere in between. They do have smaller publishers, budgets in between AAA and Indie, and lesser known or newer developers. They have some marketing budget but very little. Sometimes these games become hits that turn into AAA. They are often priced more than indie but not quite at AAA. These “B” games, mid tier games are priced usually somewhere between $30-$50. Disintegration is a perfect example of these middle tier games.
This middle section of games on the various storefronts are the ones that have struggled the most to adapt to the modern era because their pricing structure is becoming obsolete. They also often have a stigma, the "Sub-60" stigma on new games is out of observation in that more often than not a game releasing in this space is often poor. The 5-20$ range is saturated by indie games, many which are amazing. 60+ is the price of choice for Triple A. The 30-50 range for new games is the weird space that just doesn't resonate with gamers. In fact, I frequently mention a sub-60 launch price as being a red flag for games not being good. This middle price taboo is even known by developers, for instance, a while back Epic was running a sale on new games that they were actually paying for. They were discounting new unreleased games and footing the bill for the discount, and developers were actually unhappy about this because of the perception of discounted new games. As we approach next-gen, this practice of retailer discount of launch prices has been more accepted thanks to efforts of Amazon and Walmart to regularly discount new games.
The 30-50$ sub-60 range of middle games is a tier where single player games can survive, they can have cult followings. Multiplayer games in this range are where the games are really starting to struggle. Multiplayer games in this range struggle because their future is dependent on adoption, and therefore are known gambles for players. If you buy a single player game in this space and really enjoy it, but it underperforms, you as a player can still enjoy the game indefinitely. Multiplayer games can be shut down or become unplayable no-man's-lands.
AAA multiplayer games rarely shut down multiplayer even if sales are poor, and free to play games have the advantage of being free. The third category has all the negatives of being paid and lesser known. This all reminds me of a game called Lawbreakers. It was another game that failed and shut down because it made all the worst decisions. It was a game that should have been either a full 60$ physical and Multiplatform AAA release, or a free to play game. Instead it went PS4 digital only, and it was 50$. Multiplayer games needs to attract player bases to survive just as much as make money, and partitioning your game to digital only, and adding an upfront costs, only doubles down on limiting the people who are willing to try. In my opinion, the paid, digital only, multiplayer game model is asking the player to take all the risk. You have to pay up front to play it, and if not enough people are willing to take the same risk, eventually you will lose access to the game too. It's a double edge sword that hurts developers and they don't realize the middle ground isn't helping them. Lawbreakers failed not because it was a bad game, but because of this issue. Another example, is a recent game, Rocket Arena. Rocket Arena was another game that I was excited about. Based on it being an EA published game, I assumed it was going to be a free to play Fortnite competitor, but it turned out to be a 40$ ea originals game. Crazy thing was I think EA realized this phenomenon first hand because the game was discounted to 10$ within days of launch. Even the widely popular Rocket Leauge is going free to play.
I can think of so many examples where games struggle in this space both in sales and in perception, and multiplayer is a ticking time bomb. There's alternatives to free to play with micro transactions or 60$ too. Just look at Fall Guys. Fall Guys is a game that could have been free with an aggressive cosmetic but they partnered with Sony to be free with plus on PS4. It was the most popular PS Plus game ever. Just look at the popularity of Xbox Game Pass. Barrier to entry matters to games, and even more so when it comes to multiplayer.
The next game with a big or total multiplayer focus to come along, I hope they look at the history of releases and either go full throttle with AAA 60 or find someway to go free. Disintegration, Lawbreakers, Rocket Arena, are just a few games that struggled in the paid middle tier digital multiplayer space.