Steam Offers Free-to-Play Titles

Steam has become an important launch point for all modern PC games but it's concentrated on titles that were sold as discrete products. As of this week, that's changed--the company has announced that it's adding support for multiple free-to-play games.

F2P games offer free access to much of the game, but use microtransactions to fund the purchase of extras. Said extras can variously take the form of new areas to explore, weapon upgrades, power-ups / unique abilities, and in-game currency. The exact options depend on the title in question, but the system is designed to offer an immersive, enjoyable experience without charge while reserving certain features for gamers willing to pay for them.

The first F2P titles to be available on Steam are: Spiral Knights, Forsaken Worlds, Champions Online, Free For All, Global Agenda: Free Agent, and Alliance of Valiant Arms. All of the games should be available by Sunday. Not all F2P games use microtransactions as a revenue streams--there are also titles that offer a subscription tier with additional access to content or various other features.

The introduction of Free to Play games is another example of the constant evolution of Steam," said Jason Holtman, director of business development at Valve. "Free to Play games offer new game genres and game experiences for customers, while offering developers and publishers new revenue opportunities and the ability to reach customers in areas of the world where the traditional packaged goods model is less popular than F2P."

Lord of the Rings Online is one game offering a combined free play + subscription policy.

F2P games are partly aimed at addressing the proliferation of modern MMO's. Ten years ago, the heavy hitters were Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron's Call. Today, there's World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Rift, Everquest 2, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XI, City of Heroes, Dungeon's and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Star Trek Online, Hello Kitty Online, Aion, and DC Universe Online.

WoW, of course, is the 80-ton gorilla in the room and the giant pink wooly mammoth cowering in the corner. When paid subscriptions are the norm, it limits the number of games a player is willing to try--particularly if they have a huge   
amount of time invested in other titles. F2P titles get around that obstacle by offering a complete, pervasive game experience. Given that all the games mentioned above may not match WoW's 12 million subscriber base combined, F2P may have become more popular in recent years in response to Blizzard's murlocstrocity.  

With Team Fortress 2 and Portal 2, Valve has demonstrated that the F2P model can be applied to games outside of the MMO RPG genre. we may see a number of genres and titles moving to this method of billing. Multiple analysts have been claiming that mobile gaming will savage traditional game prices. Frankly, we disagree--touchpads and small screens offer an entirely different experience than a console or a PC. The best mobile games are ones that can be enjoyably played in as little as 5-10 minutes. It's not a 'better' experience, per se, but it's definitely a different one.

Despite this, developers may see microtransaction-driven games as a hedge bet they can lean on if sales on more traditional systems start to slump. We expect Steam will expand its F2P offers depending on the popularity of its launch titles.