The western free to play market has changed drastically in the last few years. This category of games was once seen as an oddity of the Far East, one that would not make a viable business model in this hemisphers. This idea has now changed. The past year or so saw a flood of new titles entering the market here. But will this trend last?
We will continue to see the free to play sector maturing here in the west. This is good as the market forces will allow the cream of the crop to rise, and the rest to fall. I hope we can look forward to a higher standard of games
The influx of free to play titles in 2008 has led to a state of market saturation. The initial success of a few key publishers has proven that the business model is only feasible, but rather profitable. In light of this new perspective on the space, a rush of companies is now trying to enter this lucrative sector. If you examine any list of titles currently available online, you can see a drastic difference in the number of them now as opposed to last year at this time.
Usually, an increase in product variation means that consumers win out. However, with the free to play segment, this rush to enter the market is bad for both the companies currently in it and consumers alike. Some of the newcomers trying to get started quickly are exhibiting risky behavior to get their respective pieces of the pie. Games developed in eastern countries are licensed without consideration of whether or not they will be good fits for the western audience. Such publishers can also be offering service without fully understanding the market, and further convoluting the selection of titles available.
This is not only bad for the market; it is bad for consumers as well. The situation is not helped by a low level of differentiation among free to play games. With too many of them available, and with quite a few being very similar, it makes it harder for users to find the ones that are right for them.
That isn’t all; there are various other problems associated with the current state of the western free to play market. As it has become saturated, is has become harder to operate and publish new ones. It is also more difficult license them now. There is more competition for the same limited ad space. And worst of all, the total selection is growing much faster than the user base.
Because the present size of the target audience for free to play games is limited, not all of them can be successful. It was easier in the early days of the category, when the total quantity offered was more limited. There was a higher tolerance for lower quality ones. This is one of the reasons why the free sector sometimes has a bad reputation; many releases are not comparable to their subscription-based counterparts.
Now that the market is saturated with many similar games, it will soon be time for a shake up. There are not enough users to support the still increasing number available. This will lead to several things. The first is that it’s now much harder to bring new ones here and to launch them successfully. With so many similar ones out there for people to choose from, publishers must strive to find titles that can distinguish themselves from all the rest.
With so many titles in the market and not enough users, there will need to be a consolidation. Not all of them can survive. With so many to choose from, users’ tolerance for mediocre ones is rapidly diminishing. Only those that can differentiate themselves from the pack will be successful. Older ones with large established player bases will continue to thrive, as community is king in the massively multiplayer genre.
We will continue to see the free to play sector maturing here in the west. This is good as the market forces will allow the cream of the crop to rise, and the rest to fall. I hope we can look forward to a higher standard of games, which can bring increased respect to the category.
By Michael Powers