Command and Conquer: EA leading the way for free-to-play?

The talk about a freemium future isn’t exactly new, with more and more high-profile studios showing their love for the hugely popular business model, one which everyone wants to take a piece of the pie from. Now, Electronic Arts just confirmed that they see free-to-play not only as an alternative to the usual retail model, but probably as the segment with the most potential for the publisher.

The announcement that Command & Conquer was about to turn into a free-to-play and online platform was dropped as a bomb. Many players were outraged that Command & Conquer: Generals 2, a game they had high hopes for, would now be released for free, likely to be ruined by the inescapable illness of the cash shop. At least that’s the overall assumption, but we’ll only know for sure in 2013, when BioWare Victory launches this MMORTS. And more C&C games will follow suit in other universes (Red Alert, Tiberium), undoubtedly free-to-play. In a positive note, End of Nations should get some much welcome competition.

So far it’s hard to see what damage this business model change made to Generals 2 (besides some confusion concerning the name of the game – is it still Generals 2 or simply Command & Conquer?). However, there is already one clear casualty in this virtual war: the single player campaign mode. As is common practice in the F2P segment, games are all about competitive or cooperative modes, dishing the solo modes that retail games still (luckily) feature. Although EA said that the solo mode may be added later in case of high demand, it’s clear that the money is on the multiplayer.

This announcement appeared a little after Electronic Arts revealed to the world its F2P plans for the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG. It took less than a year for the studio to understand that SWTOR wouldn’t be self-sufficient with the subscription model and the addition of a free-to-play model is something of a swan song of the subscription-based MMO.

But Command & Conquer and SWTOR aren’t the only signs that EA has its sights set on F2P. The everlasting and extremely successful FIFA franchise may be next in line, and not in the way we’ve experienced in the failed FIFA Online western release, a sad but not so uncommon case of a game shut down during the open beta phase. The success of FIFA Online in the Asian market is so colossal that EA is surely thinking about how to translate the current FIFA releases to an even more lucrative model. Or even take another shot at a free-to-play FIFA Online that isn’t just a cheap use of the name. How hard can it be to make a FIFA where transfers are actually made using real money – a different use for micro-transactions and one that is completely reasonable?

EA already has a steady flow of income from their Play4Free range, which includes the successful Battlefield Heroes and Need For Speed World games, among others, so it’s a very solid bet. We would even go so far as saying that these games usually take much less resources and budget to develop comparatively to a triple-A game, so the appeal of F2P is understandable.

So what can we expect in the future from Electronic Arts? Looking at the rich catalog, it’s easy to spot some franchises that could live as free-to-play. Besides C&C or FIFA, NBA could also make the jump, especially seeing that its popularity is fading and there’s a huge crowd still waiting for more basketball games to challenge the current leader of the pack, the NBA 2K series. The Sims has endless potential for F2P spin-offs and who wouldn’t love to see a comeback of franchises such as Dungeon Keeper and Populous, series that could be a perfect fit for multiplayer?

Whatever the future may bring to Electronic Arts and other studios such as Ubisoft (which announced 3 free-to-play games during Gamescom 2012), THQ or Crytek, it’s clear that there’s a lot of brainstorming over the free-to-play market and how to make it work, either as an alternative to retail or by completely replacing it. It just takes one studio, one, to find the perfect solution and everyone will certainly follow suit.

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