Sony's commitment to free-to-play may be a masterstroke

Sony's commitment to free-to-play may be a masterstroke

By DeltaDNA's Chris Wright

July 16th 2014 at 3:44PM

Chris Wright, CTO at analytics firm DeltaDNA, explains why embracing freemium games could propel PlayStation ahead of Xbox

When Sony announced its commitment to make PlayStation the “best destination for free-to-play games” at E3 last month, it was a bold move which could prove to be the tipping point in its long-standing battle with rival Microsoft.

Sony went on to underline that commitment by announcing plans to release another 25 free-to-play titles within the next 12 months, which is a huge increase and one that will put Sony streets ahead of Microsoft in the free-to-play space.

The big question is whether Microsoft will follow Sony’s lead?

There’s certainly an assertion from an increasing number of publishers and developers that the future of the games industry lies with free-to-play. It’s already become the dominant model on mobile and PC, but it’s yet to take off in the same way on console for a number of reasons.

Whereas the very idea of F2P might be anathema to many hardcore gamers, Sony’s announcement at E3 is the strongest indication yet that the model could have a major role to play in shaping the industry’s future. 

While the origins of free-to-play lies in casual gaming, we’re beginning to see the focus shift into the gaming mainstream, as the forthcoming launch of major triple-A titles like War Thunder, Kingdom Under Fire II, Planetside 2 and Big Fest is testament.

Microsoft knows its core audience are hardcore gamers and it knows how they’d feel about it releasing anything other than a hardcore triple-A free-to-play game.  As a result, Microsoft has never really talked about free-to-play until recently, as it gears up to launch Warfame.  

But Microsoft’s ‘toe in the water’ approach has enabled Sony to once again steal a march on its rival.  Sony now has the freedom to experiment and innovate in free-to-play to push that advantage to a level which may prove unassailable.

Free-to-play might be anathema to many hardcore gamers, but Sony’s E3 announcement is the strongest indication yet that the model could have a major role to play in shaping the industry’s future.

Why should Microsoft care? Well, it was Apple’s decision to embrace free-to-play that helped establish iOS as the dominant mobile platform for games. Sony’s announcement is just phase one in its strategy to widen the market of PS4 beyond the core gamers willing to pay full price upfront for a game, to a potential new audience which could make the PS2 install base look like a drop in the ocean.

If Sony does this right then it should prove that console gaming is much bigger than the hardcore audience we have seen on the previous generations.

Unless Microsoft shows that it has looked at the market, smelt the coffee and is determined to give the game-playing public (and not just the hardcore fan boys) what they want in a format they want it, then it is going to become the 'also ran' in this console generation.

The truth is that there’s very little to differentiate the latest Sony and Microsoft’s consoles in terms of tech spec and most major third party games are now available cross platform, so unless you are a hardened Halo fan there’s not really a compelling reason to stay loyal to Microsoft. 

This is also likely to be the last console generation where we have incompatible formats, so whoever wins this battle will decide the format going forward, but its not just about who sells the most games consoles.

Microsoft is going after the space underneath our TV, with a strategy designed to make Xbox an integral part of our lives and provide utility beyond just gaming.

However, Sony is looking beyond the console and plans to make Playstation accessible to anyone with a console, TV, PC, mobile or tablet, through its forthcoming streaming service Playstation Now.

By increasing the development of triple-A free-to-play games and removing many of the barriers which may have prevented non-hardcore gamers from playing its games, Sony’s free-to-play gamble could prove to be the winning hand.