This last week, Ubisoft put out an announcement via an investors call gave an indication that they would put more emphasis on the free to play arena. Quote Frederick Duguet (Unbisoft’s Chief Finanical Officer) ‘we think it is now the time to come with high-quality free-to-play games across all our biggest franchises, across all platforms.” The call also suggested that the traditional model of a reliance on 3-4 yearly AAA games may not be the long term future for Ubisoft – and Ubisoft’s move to ‘Free to Play’ may be leaving gamers like us behind.
To be clear, Ubisoft has since clarified in a new statement to various outlets that ‘We are excited to be investing more in free-to-play experiences, however we want to clarify that this does not mean reducing our AAA offering.’ Or, to better translate, don’t worry everyone, we will still keep making games you like.
The traditional game industry
Now, that may be true and we very much doubt this marks any intention to abandon the traditional AAA release space that Ubisoft is a prominent part of. However, this should server as a reminder to most gaming enthusiasts that from a revenue perspective, the money is not in what we consider to be the ‘traditional’ game industry.
Let’s go back to say, 15-20 years in the industry. Most major publishers were, at the time, wholly reliant on physical game releases. Typically there would be multiple titles released each year and the financial success of a publisher would be based on the popularity and sales of those releases. This is not the case in 2021.
Let’s take some basic stats for 2019. In that year, $120 billion dollars was generated in digital revenue across the gaming industry. Of this a whopping 80% was from F2P titles. Now this includes mobile – a large chunk at 74%.
What do we mean by gaming?
What does this mean? Well it means we need to redefine our view of the games industry. As gaming enthusiasts, we think of the gaming industry as typically purchasing a title outright. We think AAA, AA and indies – bought physically or digitally on PC or a games console. In reality, when it comes to player base and revenue, it turns out we are in a minority.
Ultimately, Ubisoft and other publishers only care about revenue. There is a lot of money in AAA gaming space – major titles still bring in the dosh. But they need releases, they need a lot of marketing and are one and done. F2P and mobile games are often the opposite – they are a regular revenue earner with a lifespan that goes across multiple financial years.
As Ubisoft were keen to point out you will still be getting your Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Tom Clancy games. You just probably won’t get them as regularly or many other traditional titles from the publisher.
Only so many developers…
The issue for us video game fans is that there are only so much output a publisher can manage. We recently put out an article about Activision Blizzard pivoting the studio behind Crash Bandicoot 4 to work on Call Of Duty: Warzone. Warzone, as you no doubt know, is a huge F2P money maker. Now, you are still going to get your yearly COD game but it seems highly unlikely you are going to get another Crash game any time soon. Crash is a popular title but will have drawn in nowhere near the recurrent revenue of Warzone.
So you have this real shift – the traditional video game industry that we report on is going to pivot more and more towards mobile and F2P experiences that can generate recurrent revenue. It is hard to argue against someone like Ubisoft with recognisable IP’s, investing more of their resources in F2P. It might very well pay off.
Of course, we had to use the word ‘might’ there. Because here is our main concern with this type of approach. The majority of that huge income from mobile and F2P games comes from a handful of titles. Can the market support so many other games? In the traditional video games market, regular players may well pick up multiple titles through the year, knowing that these will be completed and move on.
Ubisoft’s move to ‘Free To Play’ – the gift that keeps on giving?
This is why F2P and mobile games, with regular monetization are so appealing. They are the gift that keeps on giving IF they are successful. We have seen historically, when the industry flooded the market with MMO’s, MOBA’s and military online shooters, that most don’t succeed. This is because a successful game, such as Fortnite, spends a lot of time hooking you into it. You play it regularly, you invest in the game. You can play the same game for as long as you want. That doesn’t leave much time to game on anything else.
How many live service games have died a death because ultimately, they didn’t find an audience that stuck with it in sufficient numbers? Even without this risk, you have to ask yourself what the impact on the game landscape will be? Will we see less of the games that many of us want to allow for development time on those that are mor profitable? Would games publishers even care if they alienate those like us if their revenue remains high? Or will we just adapt and accept that this is the nature of the industry now?
Ubisoft’s move to ‘Free to Play’ suggest that they are chasing the largest market share. The question is whether this market share includes gamers such as ourselves?
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Rudy Manchego has been gaming since the days of the BBC Micro Computer and spreads himself thin with a love of retro, indie and mainstream gaming. He’s one half of the Jambags Comedy Gaming podcast and likes nothing better than kicking back with a nice pot of lapsang souchong, a good game and a background podcast on the intricacies of Spanish cheese making.