Analysis, Gaming

What AAA-Devs Can Learn From Indies and F2P

The playing field of the gaming industry is changing.

In a market dominated by reboots and sequels, more and more gamers are turning to indie and free-to-play games (commonly abbreviated as F2P) — and as a result the industry is making a paradigm shift. Key companies like Activision and EA are finding F2P and indies as major competitors to their streams of AAA releases, and in order to stay on top, they’ll need to embrace these sectors.

But why move to indies when AAA is still reigning the charts ? What are the benefits of diversifying to incorporate indie-like titles and free-to-play franchises?

Call of Duty is Activision's cash crop, but how much longer can it maintain churning out sequels?

Call of Duty is Activision’s cash crop, but how much longer can it churn out AAA sequel hits?

AAA games are huge investments in terms of revenue and manpower. Big-name companies like Activision have massive research and development departments that analyze current trends in the market and compile sales figures of popular games. As more time goes by, publishers become wary of investing time and money into projects that ultimately “bomb”. Crytek’s recent radical transition serves as an apt warning of the dangers of putting too much stock into a single game.

Publishers understandably only want to invest in sure-fire hits which is why the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games saturate the market. These franchises have been key breadwinners for the companies, but this tactic is a double-edged sword: how long before gamers get sick of sequel-after-sequel tactics and re-hashed gameplay mechanics?

The Framework for Change

Indies and free-to-play offer a vast amount of potential in terms of change while having the advantage of being comparatively lower-cost. If handled correctly, publishers can tap into this new stream of entertainment and create diversified games while sitting on the cushion of AAA releases at the same time.

The real challenge for these companies is creating fresh new franchises. In a sense this is the spirit of indies, and traditionally the whole concept of indies is that they’re not constrained by the overseeing hands of publishers. Indies are free to do what they want and tell the story they want, in the style they want.

This freedom is undoubtedly the core of creativity, and AAA publishers could learn many things from the indie process.

Journey was received as one of the best indies of all time for its amazing visual flair.

Journey was received as one of the best indies of all time for its amazing visual flair.

Key indie hits like Fez, Super Meat Boy and Braid have taken old-school gaming sentiments and incorporated something original and new.  Some games like Journey, Sony’s PS3 exclusive indie, make waves because they introduce gamers to incredible visual adventures that resonate with profound experiences.

Gone Home, Full Bright’s moving indie about personal exploration, was celebrated because of its captivating narrative and cultural overtones that engrossed gamers in a virtual world. This indie gem is a prime example of the myriad ways a game can shine without having to deliver over-the-top graphics and action-packed sequences.

But indies aren’t  just deep emotional narratives and nostalgic bit-style visual splendor: the scope is far greater, and some indies are epic in scale and deliver near-never-ending gameplay.

Minecraft is a superlative example of an indie that keeps on giving, and to date it’s become one of the best-selling games in the history of the industry. Larian’s newly released Divinity: Original Sin delivers a huge ARPG adventure set in a massive medieval fantasy world that you could explore for dozens of hours.

Indies are bold, they are powerful and deliver riveting and enjoyable experiences to gamers–and the represent a new spirit, a new movement in gaming. It may seem radical to advise AAA publishers to tap this magic, but their future lies in these momentum-gaining markets.

Minecraft is one of the most accessible games on the market, with ports on nearly every console that reach a wide audience of gamers.

Minecraft is one of the most accessible games on the market, with ports on nearly every console that reach a wide audience of gamers.

Another huge benefit to indies is their accessibility.

Many indies are available across all platforms, from console and PC to mobiles and handhelds and are lower-cost on the market. This web of accessibility that brings content across many different mediums and digital stores is no-doubt attractive to publishers like Activision, who release their products across nearly every system. The cost factor, in turn, is attractive to gamers and they are more likely to take a chance on a $10 game rather than a $64 dud.

Big-name companies like Sony and Microsoft have realized that indies are not only a lucrative branch of gaming, but a sector that thrives and fosters the creative game-development process. Both gaming giants have embraced new horizons of gaming centered around the accessibility of indie games, bringing a swath of console-based ports to their respective consoles.

Child of   Light

Ubisoft’s foray into the indie-like world culminated in Child of Light, an acclaimed original take on turn-based RPG’s and platformers.

To date Sony has cherry-picked some of the best known indies — from Don’t Starve to Rogue Legacy — to release on the PS4, introducing a swarm of entertaining titles to a brand new audience. Both Microsoft and Sony know the merits of indies and are using them to even out their catalog of AAA hits, making for some healthy competition.

Ubisoft, the label behind the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise, has started branching out into the indie realm. With the highly original platformer/turn-based RPG Child of Light, the company has proven that it’s possible for big-name industry giants to craft a successful indie-esque gem. Ubisoft has furthered its venture into indie-like titles with Valiant Hearts, yet another dynamic and original story accompanied with an amazing visual style.

No Man’s Sky, an upcoming procedurally generated space-exploration sim from Hello Games, is an example of how big an impact indies have over our present industry. Since its reveal at VGX 2013, No Man’s Sky has captured the hearts and minds of millions of gamers across the world and remains one of the most anticipated games in development today.

No Man’s Sky has made waves across every outlet, every publication, and is a truly magnificent specimen of the spirit of indies — and remains a huge signal to AAA companies on the kinds of games we want to play.

League of Legends remains one of the most popular MOBAs on the market, generating massive acclaim and interest.

League of Legends remains one of the most popular MOBAs on the market, and is a major foundation of eSports.

Free-To-Play: MOBA’s and Gaming as a Sport

Free-to-Play is an obvious solution for publishers. Free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBA) like DotA2 and League of Legends have transformed the landscape of eSports, giving rise to a huge new profitable niche within the industry, and have laid the foundations for the entire genre itself.

Twitch-casters and YouTubers perpetuate the hype for many of these MOBA’s with in-game playthroughs and sporting matches, making gamers feel like they’re part of a sporting event–and given the heightened level of competition, MOBA’s are sports in their own right.

Esports is another profitable avenue to be explored. Millions of gamers tune-in and jump in the chaos to combat other players across the world, rooting for their favorite teams along the way. Under the eSports banner, everything from MOBA’s to Call of Duty matches have been deigned as official sporting events.

The international DOTA 2 championships alone generated a prize pool of over $10 million to be divided up between the finalists. Pro gamers are also sponsored by key tech companies in a way that mirrors the best-paid athletes of our era.

Bethesda Softworks (of Skyrim fame) has attempted to get in on the F2P market with its very MOBA-like game BattleCry, which focuses on melee-style third-person combat instead of dynamic RTS-style mechanics. While it may not win over the crowd when DotA2 and LoL are on the market, the owners of Elder Scrolls are doing their best to make an effort and test the waters.


Tera is a leading MMORPG that has gone free-to-play, foregoing the subscription structure in favor of microtransactions.

The Rigors of Pay-To-Win

Free-to-play MMORPG’s which give players free access to expansive virtual worlds, also incorporate micro-transactions as a means to fund development. MMO’s give players a long, winding experience while delivering new content via patches and updates–and more updates on the lucrative micro-transaction market.

Micro-transactions involve gamers shelling out cash for digital items, and often, for in-game currency to exchange for gear. In a gamer’s point of view this practice “free” (and many times pushes gamers away), and the community frowns upon these “pay to win” models.

But free-to-play doesn’t always have to translate to “pay-to-win”.

Path of Exile, a free-to-play indie MMORPG, only lets users buy cosmetic upgrades and abolishes the structure outright. Rather than unlocked powerful weapons and gear, the micro-transactions for PoE instead deliver flair that offers players the chance to distinguish themselves from the online crowd.

Candy Crush

The micro-transactions in casual titles remain massive sources of revenue, with mobile “freemium” apps like Candy Crush Saga raking in over $600 million in the first fiscal quarter of 2014.

While the freemium market is generally looked down upon by most gamers, it can be a genuine goldmine of income for major companies considering just about everyone plays games on their phones.

Balancing the micro-transactions for freemium apps and F2P games is quite delicate, and gaming companies have to tread carefully or risk alienating their core gamers. The pay-to-win model can be profitable, sure, but it’s important not to press gamers too hard.

The very nature of indie games inherently celebrates freedom in an industry over-saturated with “FPS clones”, and revels in stripping the bonds of big publishers. Put too much weight on any micro-funded game with exorbitant pay models and it’ll collapse in on itself.

No Man's Sky has gained incredible momentum, standing up against AAA games with its anticipation and acclaim.

No Man’s Sky has gained incredible momentum, standing up against AAA games with its anticipation and acclaim.

Learning From Indies and F2P

Analyzing these trends it remains clear that publishers can embrace these new trends in the gaming sphere while turning a profit at the same time. Many of the companies already have the revenue to generate the huge development costs that indie devs face, and lower-budget lower-cost projects would in turn lower the risk of losing big investments from a commercial “bomb”.

With lower risks, the pressure is pulled off and gives key development times the time and resources they need to make something different, something special for gamers.

Micro-transactions are enticing to companies, but at the same time they have to weigh the stigmas that will be attached to the games themselves. It’ll take some balancing and experimentation to find the right mix of free-to-play and indie–and even more time to capture that distinct indie magic–but industry titans will need to start adapting in order to stay on top.

The key isn’t to keep churning out sequels and ports and reboots, but to take the time (and effort) to look around for new creative ideas. Gamers want something new, something different to catch their attention, and these companies have the power to make it happen. The answer isn’t to derive what’s successful, to make clones of big-selling indie names, but to take that risk to create something wholly unique, to let those games inspire new ideas.

Activision and EA could learn from indies and free-to-play games in this respect, and while we shouldn’t hope that they’ll invade the indie sector, we should hope that they will pay attention to what gamers want instead of spinning out yet another Call of Duty or Battlefield sequel.