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Free-to-Play Skyrim: The future of buffet-style gaming

You get a lot of bang for your buck in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Plop down $60 and you get a game that technically goes on forever. It’s a shaky machine that’s needs quite a bit of maintenance to run properly, but that and the cash are small prices to pay for a game that never ends. In the future though, you won’t even need to pay the $60 up front according to Ngmoco’s Ben Cousins. Come 2014, you’ll be playing a free-to-play game every bit as deep and compelling as Skyrim.

Speaking at the Free-2-Play Summit in London on Wednesday, the head of Ngmoco’s Stockholm, Sweden studio laid out the evolution of free-to-play gaming in terms part Web business speak and part Hesiodic ages. As detailed in a Games Industry.biz report, Cousins laid it out as such: The free-to-play Version 1.0 age was embodied by early microtransaction games like Korean racer Kart Rider, where the average yield from players was $5, mostly spent on cosmetic gear for their avatars. Version 2.0 is today’s Zynga age, where unappealing but addictive labor slogs like FarmVille are built so players will pay cash to advance in the game, on average about $20 per player.

Version 3.0, which Cousins expects will begin in two years, will see the type of huge blockbuster games, both the kind played alone and with others, go free-to-play with no limit on what the average player will spend. They can buy full new play features, things to broaden the game and make it more exciting, rather than small purchases to ease the process of playing. Think of it like melding the current world of downloadable content for big console games like Assassin’s Creed with the item buying of Jetpack Joyride and you get an idea of what he’s describing. This will lead to monsters like a free-to-play Skyrim-like game. “[We] will have, in the next few years, a free-to-play Skyrim. A game like Skyrim, where you accrue skills and equipment over time, that you can play for hundreds of hours, is actually one of the easiest games to develop for a free-to-play model,” says Cousins.

If anyone reading doubts that this future is on the way, they’re partially correct: It’s already here. Mass Effect 3 is an evolutionary steppingstone to what Cousins is describing. While that game still costs $60 to play, its supplemented with the sorts of “exciting” purchasable add-ons Cousins predicts will lure players into paying as they play. The game’s story downloadable content, Eden Prime, isn’t an additional story told apart from the main game like most DLC. It’s a new chapter that fundamentally alters the actual core story of the retail game. You are paying more for something that changes one game into a wholly different one. Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer component meanwhile is purely free-to-play Version 2.0, with purchasable, expendable items like ammunition and health packs that make the mode easier to handle.

By 2015, if Cousins is right, you won’t pay the $60 at all. You’ll buy the story as you go, like you’re walking through some horrifying buffet in Vegas, with all the delight of a prepared and carefully considered meal taken straight out of your hands. On the one hand, games will likely become more affordable for people that can’t spend on the mad luxury of a $60 entertainment. On the other hand, the age of a definitive, authored version of a game will disappear.

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