Ben Cousins, formerly of Lionhead, Sony, and EA/DICE, among others, is currently head of a mobile game development team for ngmoco, based out of Sweden. Several weeks ago, at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, he made a provocative and persuasive presentation to the effect that dedicated game consoles were on their way out.
More recently, delivering the keynote at a free-to-play game summit in London, and continuing in an interview with GamesIndustry, Cousins explained why he believes that free-to-play and freemium gaming is inevitable for the future.
Free-to-play, Cousins said, isn't going to remain simply the purview of social, mobile, and casual games. In his most provocative statement, he said that large-scale, big-budget games like Skyrim were extraordinarily likely to be developed in a freemium way in the future. "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. That would be a big hit," he said in the keynote speech.
Speaking with GamesIndustry, Cousins pointed to Valve and Team Fortress 2 as free-to-play trendsetters, and indicated that where one publisher goes, others often feel bound to follow:
I'm a massive fan of Valve's games, and when Valve went free-to-play with Team Fortress, for me that was like, 'Okay, that's the vindication.' Valve doesn't do something unless it feels it can be tremendously successful. That was a big deal for me. It wasn't social games taking off or anything like that - if you're engaging a more casual audience, if it's free it's going to be more popular. But Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play, it didn't upset anyone, and now Valve is making loads of money from it. I mean, everyone follows Valve.
Since TF2 made the move, free-to-play payment structures have rapidly gained ascendance in large-scale MMOs both old and new. But will players and developers really make the leap for single-player games?
Cousins believes the transition to be a matter of "when," not "if," but insists that core gamers don't need to fear for the futures of their favorite franchises and genres:
I was a core gamer playing on the arcades and I moved my core gaming onto console and PC, but I was still the same consumer. ... Core consumers will continue to spend about the same amount and play for about the same number of hours - they'll just move from platform to platform. This is the important thing that core gamers need to understand when I say something like, 'mobile is going to kill consoles' - I just mean the companies and the platforms.
Large-scale, core, AAA games have "amazingly engaged, passionate" fans, Cousins concludes, and someone, somewhere will always be serving those games to meet those gamers' needs. The actual, physical Xbox may someday die but the game experiences it serves up, he agrees, are here to stay. Freemium may be the wave of the future, but we don't have to worry about a Zynga-style SkyrimVille just yet.
"Next generation of freemium games will be indistinguishable from AAA" [GamesIndustry International]