In theory, you won’t need to spend a penny on software when you pick up your shiny new PlayStation 4 on launch day. While there will be boxed blockbusters vying for your attention, all flaunting familiar price stickers – unless the executives at EA get their way – the console will also be complemented by a handful of free-to-play releases, spanning superhero soiree DC Universe Online and neo-ninja excursion Warframe. But while this is a relatively new concept for console gaming, does the model actually represent the future for Sony’s next generation system?

The free-to-play format – or freemium as it’s more commonly referred to among more cynical consumers – has been an outrageous success on smartphones, tablets, and computers. League of Legends is often used as a case study for the model’s popularity, averaging approximately 12 million players globally per day. Meanwhile, summer sensation Candy Crush Saga currently has a stranglehold on online storefronts such as iTunes and Google Play. And yet, despite the initiative’s triumphs, it currently feels like an unexplored frontier in the classic gaming space.

That’s not to say that the model hasn’t been present, bubbling beneath the traditional practices that we’ve all come to understand. Sony Online Entertainment kickstarted the revolution on the PlayStation 3, deploying its casual online adventure Free Realms as a complimentary download. DC Universe Online followed suit, attracting a console audience larger than its PC counterpart. Since then, DUST 514, the ambitious first-person shooter experiment from Eve Online developer CCP Games, and Tekken Revolution, a stripped-back edition of Namco’s classic fighting series, have joined the party. But the drive still feels somewhat half-hearted.

Part of the problem is that the PS3’s creaky infrastructure is just not equipped to cope with the model in the way that more modern interfaces can. Despite the catalogue of errors and oversights made by the platform holder when the current generation console launched, it could not have foreseen the popularity of free-to-play when it initially deployed the system in 2006. Subsequently, such hang-ups are less conspicuous on the PlayStation Vita, where the format has proved much more popular in games such as Treasures of Montezuma Blitz, Travel Bug, and Jetpack Joyride. But with the PS4 likely to be designed with the necessary technical hooks in place, will the system pave the way for the model’s overdue success in the console space?

There’s certainly been no shortage of announcements in the area. In addition to the aforementioned launch titles, the likes of Blacklight: Retribution and PlanetSide 2 are also set to deploy on the system without a fee. In fact, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida recently said that the platform holder itself is working on a free-to-play game for the PS4. Whether the likeable executive was actually referring to SOE’s ambitious first-person shooter remains unclear, but the company is betting on the model with Vita title Destiny of Spirits, so it’s clear that it sees the potential in the format moving forwards.

But while the content appears to be in place, the big question is whether consumers will actually take to it. The format has a bad reputation among hardcore players for being exploitative and a token of questionable quality. Furthermore, the expectations attached to console games are much higher than those on mobile phones; Candy Crush Saga’s simplistic mechanics may excel in a tablet environment, but it’s unlikely to be as successful on home systems, where players demand deeper gameplay and better graphics. And yet, titles such as DC Universe Online have proven that, with the right game, it’s not impossible to achieve success in the space.

But a single triumph is not enough to deem the format the future, and it seems unlikely that we’ll be playing a free-to-play version the next Mass Effect anytime soon. And yet, it’s interesting that the microtransaction model – which funds many freemium games – is starting to find its way into traditional console titles. BioWare’s space opera cleverly incorporated a trading card-esque system into its surprisingly popular co-op mode, while Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception siphoned off its competitive multiplayer component as a free download. As additional revenue streams, these are savvy moves – even if they are still a long way away from the freemium dream.

But perhaps the solution for console games sits somewhere in between. DriveClub, the next generation racer from Evolution Studios, will be available as a full Blu-ray release for PS4 at launch. However, subscribers to Sony’s premium PlayStation Plus service will also be able to download a complimentary copy of the game, which will include all of the core mechanics, minus much of its content. You’ll have options to upgrade the package as you play – picking up additional vehicles and circuits for a fee – or you’ll be able to stump up for the full experience in one sweep. It sounds more like a swanky demo than a true free-to-play game, but it could yet work.

And it’s easy to envisage this model being adopted by some of the biggest brands. Imagine a free version of Call of Duty: Ghosts, where the single player campaign can be procured for extra, and guns, perks, and additional loadout slots can be purchased à la carte. It may sound borderline offensive on paper, but it could prove a more cost-effective option for the more astute player. After all, a large chunk of Activision’s annual playerbase fails to even touch the solo component of its colossal first-person franchise, so why should they be forced to pay for it? Surely greater choice is a good thing – as long as it’s handled in the right way.

Irrespective of guise, the one thing that’s clear about the coming generation is that it will represent something of a playground for experimental ideas. With the infrastructure finally in place, we’d be surprised if the PS4 wasn’t awash with different interpretations of the free-to-play model within the first few years of its life. And while it’s hard to predict what will stick, we suspect that much like the advent of digital downloads and DLC, the way that we consume content is about to change. In some ways, that may seem scary – but it’s also exceedingly exciting.


What are your thoughts on the free-to-play model? Would you prefer to purchase titles in an à la carte manner, or do you like knowing that everything’s available out of the box? Let us know in the comments section below.

Do you think that free-to-play represents the future for PS4? (35 votes)

Yes, the traditional boxed product is an outdated concept

  0%

I’m not really sure at the moment

29%

No, the model’s not really scalable to all types of games

71%

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