Killzone 3 Free-To-Play?s Most Important Lesson


On February 28th, Killzone 3‘s multiplayer mode went free-to-play on Sony Entertainment Network. I’m shocked it took a publisher this long to offer only the multiplayer mode of a console triple-A shooter as a standalone product. DICE’s Battlefield 1943 was a game changer for downloadable titles as a whole, but also demonstrated the potential for multiplayer-only shooters on consoles. Blacklight Tango Down and more recently Gotham City Impostors have tried to capitalize on the promise of 1943, but the polish of a game like Killzone 3 ought to make a difference and allow Sony to replicate DICE’s success.

The lesson I hope publishers learn, if standalone Killzone 3 multiplayer is successful, is that decoupling single-player shooter campaigns from multiplayer modes and selling them both separately a la carte could be a viable model. Or perhaps publishers will simply learn that if they’re sitting on a shooter whose multiplayer mode is the stronger half of the package that dropping the price might not be a bad idea in order to entice more players into building a community that will give the game legs.

The first person shooter genre in particular gets frustrating because developers tend to iterate mechanically on only one or two things. Brink had the AI Squad Commander and parkour movement, Bulletstorm had the whip/kick and Skill Point mechanics, Crysis 2 had its nanosuit, The Darkness II has occult powers and Syndicate has chip breaching. Otherwise they’re all pretty much cut from the same cloth outside of visual aesthetics and world design, both of which rank much lower than mechanics on many gamers’ lists of what’s important.

If mechanics like these are what differentiate shooter games when we get right down to it, that’s an argument for questioning the antiquated notion that single-player is what draws in an audience and multiplayer is what keeps them around. Multiplayer is a much better entry point than a campaign especially in a crowded FPS market, and we can look to social games for the rationale behind that position.

The success of games in general, from a historical perspective, has always been predicated on the inherently gregarious nature of human beings. The social game genre was inevitable once the right online tools were popularized. When Facebook was born, Zynga was a twinkle in its eye. Social games are profitable because they operate on the basis of human proclivity for social connection before they rely upon mechanics, which makes rapid prototyping and iteration possible. Mechanics can always be tweaked later if the social connections take root first, and we’re communally a sucker for social connections.

It seems like such an obvious step to replicate this formula in the shooter market considering first person shooters had already demonstrated the proclivity of video games specfically for creating communities long before Facebook was born. Shooter Clans on PC were some of the earliest online social networks in videogaming, preceded by the face-to-face social networks of LAN parties. And unlike social games which come under fire for weak mechanics, first person shooter mechanics are a proven pedigree.

The end result is that FPS junkies are an easy target for bringing in large groups to new games simultaneously, much in the same way a social game operates. You can still find full 12 on 12 games of Battlefield 1943 every night closing on three years since it was released.

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Now imagine if shooters continued with the Zynga formula and offered optional purchases to long-term players, but rather than dealing with small items for chump change, the purchases were larger blocks of content that shooter fans are already acclimated to like campaigns and map packs.

Imagine if Battlefield 1943 also had an optional campaign as a separate purchase. How much money could DICE still be making that way? I hope if Killzone 3 multiplayer takes off that Sony considers selling the campaign as well so this theory gets a fair test. A la carte single-player/multiplayer purchases could be one of the best ways to address the frequent complaints about games “not being worth sixty dollars.”

The Darkness II and Syndicate have been out for a few weeks and I’m looking forward to playing both of them, but The Darkness II reportedly has a six-hour campaign and Syndicate’s single-player mode sounds like a cyberpunk adventure much less cool than what Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave me just a few months ago.

The Darkness II’s vendettas and Syndicate’s co-op modes sound fantastic, but I’m not willing to effectively pay sixty dollars just for the multiplayer modes. I’ll wait until the summer doldrums when the price of each drops to thirty dollars and I have a chance in hell of getting some of my friends to follow suit after I lead the way. If I knew they could just buy the multiplayer modes on the other hand, I’d probably have bought both games already. If the mechanics were as good as they felt in the demos I’d feel pretty confident that I could convince my friends to pick up the multiplayer modes shortly after I started trumpeting how much fun both games were.

The Mass Effect 3 demo also feels like a powerful argument for bifurcation of single-player and multiplayer mode purchases. I figured Mass Effect 3 multiplayer was going to be nothing more than a tack-on to justify attaching an Online Pass to the game, but Mass Effect 3 multiplayer is fantastic. The Mass Effect mechanics lend themselves to what amounts to Horde mode perhaps even better than Gears of War mechanics do. I know plenty of shooter fans who are not into role playing games and will therefore turn their backs on Mass Effect 3, but who might purchase only the multiplayer mode if they had the option.

The debate over used games underlies the fact that current pricing models in console gaming just aren’t working anymore, and the fact that Online Passes are used to lock multiplayer modes behind purchases and thereby dissuade players from selling their games is a powerful argument that the multiplayer modes are where the real long-term value of these games can be found in the first place. Sony’s experiment with Killzone 3 could provide a second and more definitive proof of that argument, and open the door to new and more constructive discussions about how the consumer assigns value to games, and what developers and publishers need to do in order to attract profits.

It does seem a little ridiculous that we’d need Online Passes and a successful experiment like Killzone 3 free-to-play multiplayer to make what seems like such an obvious point: Either make sure that the entirety of your game is worth the money, or only sell the consumer what actually is.

First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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