Free access to video games has long played a part in certain aspects of the market, but recent changes have developed this area far beyond any of its early roots. From what was once confined to smaller demos and indie freeware, we now have entire AAA games operating in what is ostensibly a costless environment.
Taking a look back at how some early examples of how free gaming used to operate, we want to compare these to today’s setting to see what has changed and what remains the same. How is it that this new environment is one of the most profitable, and how can these relate to other systems in contemporary media?
The Death of the Demo
In the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, the most popular type of free gaming came in the form of the demo. While the early internet was a viable method of transferring these games for a few users, most got by through the use of what was called shareware.
Shareware files, usually placed on floppy disks, gave users unlimited access to what was usually the first portion or episode of a game. Probably the most famous examples of this came from developer Id Software for their games Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Doom was especially successful in this regard, with reports stating it could have been installed on upwards of 20 million machines.
Today, demos are a rarity in the gaming landscape, usurped by the arrival of beta game access. The idea of a demo hasn’t been abandoned entirely though, as other forms of entertainment such as online casinos still embrace the practice. Here, free online casino games like Buffalo and Triple Diamond still give players unlimited access to a certain amount of the game, with the full experience available for those who choose to spend.
In a contemporary sense, open or closed betas now often play the part of pre-release demos. There is a fundamental difference here, however, in that access to these betas is commonly limited and difficult to acquire. Even worse in the eyes of many players, recent games like Marvels Avengers essentially hold beta access for ransom as a pre-order bonus. In this way, to experience the demo, you have to first buy the game, which many have bemoaned as an anti-consumer practice.
Free to Play
The next big step in free gaming, which now dominates large portions of the online marketplace, is that of free-to-play or F2P experiences. In a multiplayer sense, these are a relatively modern phenomenon, with League of Legends in 2009 being the first to show the world what was possible on the grandest scale. Just four years later in 2013, LoL was generating over $600 million a year, with it now bringing in over a billion annually for developer Riot Games.
By acting in a way that allowed free access to practically everything, and charging only for extraneous additions, this market is somewhat analogous to something like YouTube in video media. Free for what the vast majority of users want, the addition of paid extras can give those who wish to engage a little more to experience.
The biggest change we see today is the most recent one, having been born from the concept of digital storefront competition. Valve’s Steam, long being the default PC gaming system, now boasts around 90 million active users. As what was essentially a monopoly, the company has been slow to evolve and repair basic problems, owing to a lack of competitive pressure.
In the last few years, other storefronts like the Epic Games Store and Origin have made great strides in challenging Valve’s supremacy. A big part of this is through offering entirely free AAA games to those who play on their services. With releases like Battlefield 4, Mass Effect, and GTA 5, these new marketplaces have been enormous boons to those on a budget. Whether or not these specials would continue if the companies manage to challenge Steams user numbers, however, remains to be seen.
Whatever your stance on the modern gaming industry, there’s no denying that the current opportunities for free engagement are better than ever. With the only price, in many cases, being the complexities involved with juggling multiple user accounts, players on a budget no longer have to miss out. As for whether free AAA game systems can negatively affect an overall gameplay experience or gaming’s infrastructure, that’s a conversation for another day.