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Is free-to-play the way to go?

Video games have been a livid subject ever since Physicist William Higinbotham created a simple tennis game in 1958, widely regarded as the first video game ever. Since then, we’ve come a long way with a load of classics along the way.

Modern games often have beautiful, realistic graphics, complex mechanisms, social features and even in-game economies that impact the price of individual items based on the trade volume. That said, it all comes at a price.

Playing a game, depending on the actual game itself can be a rather expensive thing. You have to invest in a PC or game console good enough to be able to handle the resource-hungry modern games that we get today, and then there’s the price of the actual game itself with big titles often being over $50.

You can see how racking up a big game library can add to that cost over time. However, free-to-play games have been around forever as well, and they’re nearly not as bad as the ones you have to pay to play. In fact, a lot of games that were previously paid go free to play to further boost their player base or in some cases, give a fading game another lifeline.

The numbers in this report are estimates from different game stat tracking sources. Unless otherwise stated, the numbers are also only for PC players.

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Paid vs free games

Let’s talk about two of the most popular games of all time — DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO). DOTA 2 has been free to play ever since the game was released in 2013. On the contrary, CSGO went free to play in December 2018, six years after its 2012 launch.

Both games have been immensely popular since their release, mostly due to their competitive nature and low barrier of entry. You don’t need a flashy computer to run either of these games, and the price for CSGO used to be $14.99, often lower thanks to frequent Steam sales. Another similarity between the two games is that they’re both made by Valve, and they’re both available on Valve’s Steam PC gaming platform.

Now CSGO might seem like the more popular title between the two, but even after going free-to-play in 2018, CSGO wasn’t able to overtake DOTA 2 in terms of the average active player count until October 2019, almost a year after going free-to-play.

At the time of writing, CSGO has had 32,265,011 active players in the last 30 days.DOTA 2 has had 3,765,014 active players in the same time frame. Another rather old but still popular free-to-play game, League of Legends released all the way back in 2009 has had 8,769,467 players in the last 30 days. 

CSGO (Green) vs DOTA 2 (Blue) player bases between 2012 and 2022. | Source: SteamCharts

The hype and anticipation toward a new game’s release are one of the biggest factors that translate into better sales figures for a particular game. In CSGO’s case, for example, Valve had already made some extremely successful titles including CS1.6, CS Source and CS Condition Zero.

Other popular examples include the annual FIFA (and other sports games) series from EA, the Call of Duty, Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed franchises among other names. Most if not all of the games that come out under these names are paid.

Another rather important factor is the game’s actual quality itself. This accounts for things like the storyline, the in-game mechanics, how good the trading system, if any is, how good the multiplayer servers are so on and so forth.

A rather well example of this is the FIFA franchise. Thanks to football enjoying a large fan following all around the world and the work that EA puts into the series, FIFA has had pretty solid sales pretty much all throughout its 17-year-old franchise. In fact, last year’s FIFA 21 had around 43,000 players at its peak. This year’s instalment, FIFA 22 has peaked at around 100,000 so far, and there are still around three months from the time of writing when the next FIFA game drops. Also, add to this the fact that FIFA is one of the more expensive games at the time of launch.

The FIFA franchise continues to do well in the market.

Another franchise known for quality is the Assassin’s Creed series. Despite their top-tier price tag (around $50-60 on launch), three of the most popular series in the game from the Ezio saga (Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) had about 3000, 2000 and 2500 peak active players respectively since their Steam launches.

However, free-to-play games including the aforementioned DOTA 2 and other prominent examples like Valorant and Fortnite continue to top the charts in terms of the most gamers playing.

What does going free-to-play do for a game’s popularity?

Removing the price tag from a game can be a great encouragement for players to jump in and start playing. Numerous games have done it in the past, including already massive titles like GTA V which temporarily went free to play for a week in May 2020.

During that week, the game’s popularity skyrocketed as everyone who wasn’t able to get their hands on the game before flocked to the Epic Games Store (crashing the platform) putting Epic Games Store’s player count within touching distance of that of Steam’s. While we don’t have the exact player count from Epic, for context, Steam’s active player count at the time was about 260,000.

Two other popular games, Rocket League and Fall Guys migrated from Steam to the Epic Games Store and went free-to-play on launch at the latter.

Fall Guys is an interesting case here. The game launched with massive hype during the pandemic and sold over two million copies in a week, overtaking even GTA V’s player count at one point. Overall, the game sold over seven million copies in its first month (all platforms combined) and was one of the most downloaded games on the PlayStation Store.

GTA V broke the Epic Games Store when it went free on launch.

However, the game’s popularity dwindled after the initial hype fizzled out. Before exiting the Steam store last month, the game had around 59,000 active players.

Going free-to-play though has made a massive impact on this number. According to the developers themselves, the game racked up 20 million players in the first 48 hours of going free.

That said, how long will Fall Guys be able to maintain this player base is anyone’s guess. The major reason why the game failed previously despite the hype and massive sales figures was simply that there wasn’t as much to do in the game as players expected and the levels became repetitive after some time. The developers tried to remedy this by adding more content but that didn’t seem to do the trick.

Fall Guys seems to have copied what Rocket League did. The game left the Steam store a year after its developer studio Psyonix was acquired by Epic Games. It went free-to-play in September 2020.

Rocket League’s average active player count was approximately 78 million at the end of August 30, 2020. This subsequently rose to about 81 million 82 million and 87 million in September, October and November respectively before the game saw its first drop in December. That’s a total of 8 million active players gained on average in the first three months of the game going free-to-play.

This reveals two things. First, going free-to-play definitely adds a huge player count to a game, the more popular the game, the more the player count is going to grow. However, there’s no evidence to support whether going free-to-play is a guaranteed lifeline to an otherwise dead game.

Second, Epic Games is doing whatever it takes to come up as a serious contender to Steam. The former already has two massively popular titles — Fortnite and Valorant in its grasp and as more games migrate to Epic in an attempt to save their dwindling player bases, Steam’s monopoly over the PC gaming market might finally be under threat.

Is going free-to-play really the saving grace for dying games?

The answer to this largely depends on the actual game itself. At least in the case of Fall Guys, the scheme seems to be working so far, but we’ll have to wait and see how Fall Guys retains this boost in its player base.

On the contrary, going back to CSGO reveals that if said game is already popular, going free-t0-play might just do the trick if you’re seeing your player base reducing.

When the game went free in December 2018, its average monthly active player count was around 390,000. Fast forward to today, CSGO is standing strong at approximately 570,000 with 768,348 players in the game at the time of writing. Safe to say, CSGO successfully addressed fears that the game might be going inert with this strategy.

However, going free-to-play isn’t exactly a foolproof solution, it has its own flaws. The most notable and dangerous one is the influx of hackers that it brings into the game. Before going free to play, CSGO accounts had value to them. If you got caught hacking, you’d get a permanent VAC ban that left your account useless when it came to playing on official matchmaking servers and in tournaments.

How to restore your Trust Factor in CSGO? | Candid.Technology
VAC actively combats the CSGO hacker issue.

The price tag also acted as a barrier of entry for hackers. CSGO’s anti-cheat systems are rather effective at catching and blocking hackers, sometimes even mid-game. Buying a $14 game every time after getting hacked would be a problem. However, now that the game is free, all the hacker needs to do is create a new account and continue pestering people.

Valve may have addressed the issue in CSGO, but hacking remains a notable issue in gaming, and free-to-play games bear the brunt as there’s basically no barrier of entry for hackers. Getting banned means nothing if all you have to do to get around it is create a new account.

There are other factors that also count towards a game’s popularity, other than just the price tag. Whether the game is suited for eSports, how powerful of a PC or console you need to run it and how seriously it demands players take it all play an important part in determining whether or not the player base sticks around.

Regardless, going free-to-play will add a good bump to your player base figures, where the game goes from there is entirely in the developer’s hands.

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