Ubisoft Retreats from Free-to-Play Business Model

Major publisher set to shut down four free-to-play games by the end of the year.

Leif Johnson

Leif Johnson

Image: Ubisoft.

It wasn't that long ago that pundits championed the "free-to-play" business model as the future of gaming, and publishers who stuck to old methods of revenue generation like full sales or subscriptions were often dismissed as outdated. Why not let players start playing games for free, optimists asserted, and let funding comes from items bought in-game like boosts or cosmetics? And that optimism wasn't unwarranted. Free-to-play games like Candy Crush Saga, Hearthstone, and World of Tanks built fabulous fortunes with it and continue to do so.

But these days it's difficult to confidently label free-to-play the best choice. One of the biggest signs of change appeared just yesterday, when massive game publisher Ubisoft announced it'd be closing four of its free-to-play games by the end of the year.

The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, a dungeon crawler in which players can design their own dungeons for other players, ends its adventures on October 25. A few days later on Halloween, the browser-based Tom Clancy's EndWar Online and the highly rated Might & Magic: Duel of Championswill go dark, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms will see its last matches on December 1. Already Ubisoft has stopped allowing any new cash purchases, and forums, social media accounts, and all else will end when the games go.

Ubisoft originally started focusing on free-to-play models because it helped curb piracy, or, as CEO Yves Guillemot said in a 2014 interview with GamesIndustry.biz, to get revenue from "places where our products were played but not bought."

"On PC it's only around five to seven per cent of the players who pay for F2P, but normally on PC it's only about five to seven per cent who pay anyway, the rest is pirated," Guillemot said at the time. "It's around a 93-95 per cent piracy rate, so it ends up at about the same percentage. The revenue we get from the people who play is more long term, so we can continue to bring content."

But lately other publishers are shutting down some free-to-play games as well. Just last week, Halo Online was shuttered in Russia before it even launched. Last year, EA shut down its Need for Speed World, FIFA World, Battlefield Play4Free, and Battlefield Heroes games. Square Enix shut down its free-to-play team-based arena game Nosgoth in May. RaiderZ, a Korean MMORPG focused on monster hunting, shut down last year. And so forth.

The concept isn't completely dead, of course, but most publishers are instead toying with ways to incorporate elements of what worked best about the model into other, more traditional payment methods. Some of these are controversial.

Consider the case of the wonderful Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which sells as a full game for $60, but also comes with the option to buy a $30 season pass to further the story and which includes items that can only be used for one playthrough. And if that's not enough, the game itself has microtransactions (which weren't fully patched in when Emanuel and I reviewed it) that let you buy in-game credits for as much as $10. And this when credits are almost as abundant as rain in Ireland.

Ubisoft itself is embracing that model. Its Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege sells for $50, but it also comes with a $30 season pass that grants limited exclusive access to some elements and comes with bonuses and weapon skins. The core game also includes microtransactions for weapon skins.

And unlike the free-to-play model, this model allows Ubisoft to have the best of both worlds. It gets the $60 base price tag and that known influx of cash lets them make a quality game, as well as some microtransactions thrown in for an extra, optional boost in revenue. Even better (from its point of view), the latter elements allow it to bring in cash even when after the base price eventually goes down.

It's not the prettiest solution, and perhaps it'll be replaced with something more agreeable in the future. But for now, it seems like a far safer alternative to free-to-play.