Head of EA Games, Frank Gibeau has been talking to GamesIndustry.biz about the success that EA have had with free-to-play games, saying that they can be as profitable as their core console titles.
Free-to-play games are now a firms part of the publisher's future plans. In addition to their major games like Battlefield 3 and Mass Effect 3, EA are set to "launch some new services like Star Wars that are unique, and in addition to that do a bunch of free-to-play businesses, that frankly when they get to scale, have huge audiences, are very profitable, they're not cannibalising the main games and they actually reach markets that we're not currently serving."
EA has a small stable of free-to-play games, including Battlefield Heroes and Need for Speed World. "If you get a couple of those to scale they're as profitable as a console game," says Gibeau. "The free-to-play group inside of EA Games is growing extremely fast - we've got 17 million users, 4-5 services stood up right now."
One of the great advantages of free-to-play games is that they're popular in parts of the world where piracy makes it hard to make money from traditional boxed retail sales. "With Need for Speed World, Russia and Brazil are number one and two - the Ukraine is in there," says Gibeau, "I can't sell packaged goods in those territories. But I'm reaching an audience with Need for Speed content. It's an engine that's not as advanced as Frostbite 2 but it's certainly got great production values and great game designs, and it's free-to-play with micro transactions."
Gibeau's comments coincide with Blizzard's announcement that World of Warcraft will be free to play up to level 20. Recently Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play, and Steam has started hosting free MMOs, too. It's the culmination of a trend that has seen a number of ailing MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online and Champions Online revived by a shift to a free format in the last couple of years. The rise of social games funded by microtransactions, like Farmville hav also proved that free to play can be incredibly profitable, and big success stories like League of Legends and World of Tanks will have caught the eye of major publishers looking to make more money from the PC market.
Free gaming has never been bigger, and it's likely to grow more as large publishers like EA take interest. "It's a very exciting time from our perspective because it's not all about consoles," says Gibeau, "it's about smartphones, tablets, free-to-play, browser, social." It looks like we can expect to see more free to play games like Battlefield Play4Free and Battlefield Heroes in future.