2011 round-up: free-to-play
The year began with Zynga's CityVille being named the biggest Facebook game of all time, breaking the record set by another Zynga game, FarmVille, by amassing 88.4 million monthly active users in the space of a month. Just ten days later, that would hit 100 million. Despite the introduction of Facebook Credits – a compulsory virtual currency from which the social network takes a 30 per cent cut – affecting Zynga's revenue, and slew of acquisitions hitting profits, speculation was rife that the company would take to the stock market valued at up to $20 billion. In early July, Zynga announced its intent to file an initial public offering, seeking to raise a billion dollars from investors. The IPO finally went through in December, with Zynga valued at £10 billion despite a turbulent few months behind the scenes.
Zynga's success naturally fuelled interest in free-to-play social gaming from elsewhere, with one report claiming the sector would be worth $5 billion by 2015. In February, EA promised greater focus on Facebook, buoyed by data showing the social network boasted 290 million gamers playing an average of three and a half hours per month. It would later launch The Sims Social and amass 30 million monthly active users in the space of a month. Capcom set up a social studio, Beeline Interactive, and so seriously is it taking the shift that a company-wide initiative is being spearheaded by Street Fighter IV producer Yoshinori Ono. Buzz developer Relentless switched entirely to digital development, boss Andrew Eades telling us free-to-play was "exactly the way to go."
It wasn't just Facebook: games hit Google+ in August, with EA, PopCap and Zynga on board. Japanese mobile social network Mobage arrived in the west in July, with the Super Creators programme seeing high-profile developers including Keiji Inafune, Suda51 and Yuji Naka developing games for the service. Namco Bandai partnered with DeNA Co; Gree announced a new, global mobile social network. In June, freemium overtook paid apps on the Apple App Store, accounting for 65 per cent of revenue during the month.
After a relatively quite start to the year, with just Ghost Recon and Arma 2 switching to free-to-play, the floodgates opened in June when Valve introduced F2P games to its Steam platform. The modest initial lineup – five games including Champions Online and Spiral Knights – would be given a huge boost when, later that month, Valve made its hugely popular multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2 free-to-play.
With Valve showing the way, both with one of its own games and allowing freemium titles on a distribution platform which one report claimed controlled 70 per cent of the PC gaming market, what followed was, perhaps, not too surprising. The likes of City Of Heroes, Lego Universe, Tribes: Ascend, Heroes Of Newerth, Star Trek Online and Aion would all go free-to-play before the end of the year. League Of Legends developer Riot Games boasted of 1.4 million daily players; German browser game developer Bigpoint has 220 million registered users. With paid-for MMOGs on the decline – World Of Warcraft has shed two million users in the last 12 months – free-to-play is fast becoming the rule, rather than the exception, on PC.
Nintendo spent much of 2011 dismissing mobile and social games, and in June company president Satoru Iwata emphatically ruled out free-to-play games on Nintendo platforms. "Nintendo is a company which is trying to maintain the overall value of videogames," he said. "When we look at the entire system of freemium … there's only a limited number of people who are willing to pay and many others who are not paying for game titles at all. Nintendo is not interested."
Tags: Apple App Store, Free-to-play, Microtransactions, MMOG, Mobile, News round-up, PC, PSN, PSN Store, Social, Steam, XBLA, Xbox 360