Seemingly thanks to Facebook and Zynga, the PC gaming scene here in the States has been reinvigorated due to the popular free-to-play model. Typically the base game is free, and players have the option of purchasing in-game goods like virtual currency, items, or additional "premium" areas offered to subscribers by using real-world cash. Many popular MMOGs have taken this route including EverQuest and EverQuest 2, Star Trek Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online and more.
But does this model actually work? "It has been a very healthy development for both games if for no other reason than the influx of new players," said Star Trek Online executive producer Dan Stahl in a recent interview. "This is one of the encouraging aspects of free-to-play because it shows that there are people who want to play the game that simply couldn’t afford it at the existing price point. In today’s economy, free-to-play makes sense to consumers looking for options on how to spend their time and money."
As it stands now, Blizzard's approach to the model has been in the way of "demos" offered through Diablo 3, StarCraft 2 and World of Warcraft. The company thus has stood by the typical full game sales model, pushing customers into shelling out $50 or more for their games. But Blizzard has always driven itself to make that investment worthwhile for the end-user, packing in features that will extend the replayability for seemingly years – the recently-released Diablo 3 is a perfect example.
Still, as Stahl states, there's that class of consumer with doesn't take the plunge due to cost, and Blizzard does recognize this. But up until now, free-to-play really hasn't been in the cards, and Blizzard has openly rejected the idea of World of Warcraft heading in that direction. But what about StarCraft 2? That may be a different story altogether.
During a panel about eSports at the Valencia eSports Congress, StarCraft 2 lead designer Dustin Browder hinted that Blizzrd's popular sci-fi RTS may take on a free-to-play model at least in the multiplayer department. The current Starter Edition merely offers the first four single-player missions, the first two challenges, access to the terran race in Custom Games and Single-Player vs. AI, and access to four custom maps.
Browder stated that Blizzard is "looking at free to play as an option for the multiplayer." Currently StarCraft 2 stands alone as a fully-priced product amongst eSports titles like League of Legends and DOTA 2 – even Counter-Strike: Global Offensive comes with a reduced price. Open up Blizzard's RTS to free-to-play gamers, and not only will you have potential customers, but more players in the pro eSports scene.
"We don’t know how we would monetize it," he admitted. "While it might be good fun for me to play against someone with only half the units available to them, that’s not going to be an enjoyable experience for them."
DigitalTrends points out that Diablo 3 sold 3.5 million copies the first day it was on sale in May 2012, and an additional 1.2 World of Warcraft subscribers downloaded the game as well – that's reportedly more than Diablo 2 told during its first full year on store shelves. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm sold 3.3 million copies in 24 hours, but StarCraft 2 only sold 1.5 million copies in its first 48 hours – an additional 1.5 million gamers purchased the RTS over the next three months (2010).
Point is, StarCraft 2 sales weren't at the levels of Cataclysm and Diablo 3, and two more StarCraft 2 titles are on the way. By making the multiplayer aspect free-to-play, this model could propel its profitability to Diablo 3/Cataclysm levels by allowing customers to perhaps purchase the single-player campaign, traditional maps, units and whatnot.