Free-to-play equivalent of Skyrim could happen in ‘next few years’

Single player games could be the next to go the free-to-play route.  In fact, some game industry leaders are predicting we could see free-to-play games offer an experience similar to that of massive RPG The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

To date, free-to-play games have been limited to a narrow field of genres spanning mostly multiplayer and online areas of gaming like MMORPGs, mobile games, and browser-based games such as those found on Facebook.  That could all change in the future, however, as the goal of free-to-play games could transition into offering a similar experience as those found almost exclusively in full-price retail games for console and PC.

"I believe that single-player will be the next to be cracked in terms of freemium monetization," said Ngmoco Sweden boss Ben Cousins, reported by GamesIndustry International. "And I'm talking about traditional, story-based, scripted, linear and non-linear single-player that we see on consoles."

"I am totally 100 percent confident – I will bet large amounts of money – that we will have, in the next few years, a free-to-play equivalent of Skyrim," he continued. "A game like Skyrim, where you accrue skills and equipment over time, that you can play for hundreds of hours, is actually one of the easiest games to develop for a free-to-play model. That would be a big hit."

Speaking at the Free-2-Play Summit in London, Cousins noted three versions of the free-to-play business model, appropriately labeled: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.

Version 1.0, or the original model, offers micro-transaction items that cover cosmetic, time-saving, and customizations areas.  With this model, the average lifetime value of a gamer is $5, Cousins said.

2.0 is the current model we're in and is most practiced by companies like Zynga.  In this model, micro-transactions remove deliberate design "unpleasantness", such as waiting for a building to be erected.  If you've ever played a Facebook game, you've likely encountered this model.  However, with this free-to-play model, average lifetime spending jumps up to $20.

Version 3.0 is the future, according to Cousins.  It is the "monetization super-highway".  In this model, micro-transactions would include gameplay features and functions that cause positive reactions like "excitement, delight, and risk taking," wrote GameIndustry International.

Cousins estimates that the average user lifetime spending would increase to $60, or the price of a new, full retail game.  Today, the "best case scenario" for a console game is 20 million sales at $60 million with a development budget and marketing budget of $100 million each.  Cousins insists that the increase in lifetime spending coupled with the increase in the number of players, and we could see lifetime development and marketing budgets hit $1 billion each.

Cousins said that popular free to play games like League of Legends, which has boomed recently, will be seen as "relatively small" compared to most successful products under version 3.0.  Console manufacturers are listening too.  Sony's PS3-exclusive MMOFPS Dust 514 will be free to play, a first for console games.  Following suit, Microsoft is exploring the free-to-play market with a secret zombie MMO, Class 3.

"In the future I believe free-to-play will be the way that nearly everyone plays games, it will be nearly every genre, and it will be nearly every platform," he concluded.