Are free-to-play games the new hot chick on the block?

Widely regarded as little more than rubbish just a few years ago – and still considered as such by some less informed minds –, free-to-play games are in a stage where evolution is around the corner and mentalities are changing.

Most uninformed players immediately associate free to play with crappy, identical looking browser-based games where the player has to wait a seemingly infinite amount of time to build a level 4 barracks, or pay real money for it and entirely break the gameplay balance. While we sometimes wonder if there’s a game maker that spits out these games with custom visual templates (what will it be, a medieval city-building game, or are we going for the sci-fi setting? Don’t forget the extremely popular fantasy setting, with innovative features such as dragons, wizards and elves), the current reality has far more incentives on display.

First we had the popular trend of adding a free-to-play model to previously subscription-based MMO games, such as The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. This predisposition is still very much alive nowadays, with Aion: Ascension, Age of Conan: Unchained and APB: Reloaded getting a second breath of life and seeing the number of registrations skyrocket in just a few days.

But the most exciting age is yet to come and approaching fast – big-name studios are joining in on the fun, taking a dip at the market and seeing just what they can earn from it (did you think they were doing it for your amusement only?). While we already have Electronic Arts with some cool games such as Battlefield Heroes, Need For Speed World or Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, other studios are just now beginning their endeavor. And it’s looking good.

There’s hardly a studio with a stronger reputation than Valve, which decided to relaunch Team Fortress 2 for free during June 2011 and the decision to publish Dota 2 (possibly the first real League of Legends challenger) is one that was received with a big round of applause.

Perhaps shockingly for most, Crytek just revealed that they plan to ditch the boxed products once and for all and dedicate wholeheartedly to free-to-play games. It sounds like a radical move, one that could prove rewarding or, on the other hand, destroy a studio, but the makers of Far Cry and Crysis are now experimenting with free multiplayer online shooter in Russia and the first reports are very encouraging. At the same time Crytek reassured players, stating that each game will be of ‘console quality’, backed by a budget of $10m to $30m. Enjoy your Crysis 3 and Homefront 2, because those may be the last boxed products you get from the German studio.

Ubisoft is also checking things out with Ghost Recon Online, their first F2P game. The French studio actually admitted that they are testing the waters with this game and then will think about what the free-to-play market holds for their future. It’s a good franchise to begin with.

We can’t hide our curiosity concerning Epic Game’s foray into the genre. In fact, it’s the Chinese arm of Epic Games (Yingpei Games) who’s developing a – shock and awe – Gears of War-like cover-based third-person shooter named Mercenary Ops. To be honest, it’s looking pretty good.

Eutechnyx is used to developing racing games and they’re putting the final touches on Auto Club Revolution, a simulation that has nearly zero competition in the genre. Even racing specialists Codemasters are taking some time off from their retail series DiRT and F1 and are developing F1 Online: The Game. Mixing mouse-controlled top-down racing with an in-depth management section, it could prove an enticing prospect for those who are looking for a fun game with old-school mechanics but supported by modern technology.

Just one more example to make our point: the developers of The Darkness and Syndicate, Starbreeze Studios, announced their next game and it’s going to be… you’ve guessed it, free-to-play. Called Cold Mercury, that is the only detail known about the game so far but we would bet our virtual items that it is going to feature guns – lots of them.

The free-to-play future is bright indeed. Even the naysayers will have a hard time denying the fact that this new wave of popular studios will only contribute to eradicate the shoddy free-to-play games and raise the quality bar to a standard that we’re even yet to imagine. With such a talented roster fighting for the top spots, millionaire advertising budgets won’t just cut it – you have to ‘sell’ your game to players, win their hearts by sheer quality and word of mouth. After all, even a game with millions of registered players won’t be profitable if they all leave in a month or so, right?

Editor’s note: of all the aforesaid games and others that weren’t mentioned, which ones do you think have more chance of being successful and why?

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