The benefits to free games
So I own Dead Space now. Not because I had planned on owning Dead Space, mind you, although I’d always looked at it with a bit of curiosity, that sort of blushing giggle that you use when dealing with a game that you might like quite a bit but haven’t explored yet. No, I own it because Electronic Arts decided to just give it away for free on Origin.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out that this is the company voted as the worst in America, which has also been honored as an excellent workplace for LGBT individuals. But that’s not the point here.
What is the point? Well, now I have a game that a lot of men and women worked hard to produce without paying any money, something that seems like it should be anathema to an industry which as a whole is always playing catch-up for costs. Budgets get bigger, player demands get bigger, and how is any of that going to be made easier by using “free” as a price point? Yet free is increasingly an accepted entry point, and not just for multiplayer games. And there are some real benefits to it.
Free now, pay later
You want to know the biggest weakness of a lot of titles sitting on shelves? They’ve got numbers on the end of them. Sure, I know that Final Fantasy XV will not require knowledge of the previous fourteen games in the series, even if I’m picking my way through all of those at the moment. But there’s no way to convey that information on the front of the package. When you place a number after a title you are implicitly saying that there is an order and this is the latest installment. It’s why so many comic books have restarted at #1 in recent years.
Yes, most games give you a crash course on what came before, but there’s an overriding impulse to start at the beginning. Sometimes that’s actively harmful, even – if you start at the first Saints Row you’re not getting the sense of madcap satire that make Saints Row the Third and Saints Row IV such joys to play. Even if you can see the core of the series from the start, though, the prospect of hunting down the first two or three or four titles and buying them isn’t terribly attractive. When you’re shopping for a new game, do you want to spend three times as much money picking up the series on the off chance you’ll like the whole thing?
Giving away the older installments winds up ensuring that people who otherwise would not have played the game now get to. The initial investment is nothing. And it’s a smart move insofar as those older titles are not really generating buckets of income any longer. They’ve long since regained their investment costs. Why not make them free to all in the hopes of getting new fans of the series?
Parts of Doctor Who are gone forever. Why? Well, the BBC had them stored on tapes, and those tapes could be reused. It was decided at some point that no one would want to show these episodes again, so they were taped over. A hunt is on for these lost episodes, but no one really believes that they’ll be found.
Video games have a similar problem. If you want to know why Final Fantasy Type-0 still isn’t available outside of Japan, it comes down to Square dragging its feet and then no longer having the team that could pick apart the code. It’s a known fact that the source code to Kingdom Hearts was lost and had to be entirely recreated for the HD remake. Want to play Panzer Dragoon Saga? Good luck; the source code was lost, the game was only published for the Sega Saturn, and you’d be lucky to find one person in a thousand who’s actually played the game. A that was met with universal acclaim and has been raved about for years after its release, I’ll note.
Giving away games is sometimes a smart move simply to ensure that the game still exists in the future. From a critical perspective, this is incredibly valuable; it’s hard to have critical discourse about games when you’re missing huge chunks of the games themselves. Some studios make a point of giving away source code at a certain point, but since many studios go belly-up unexpectedly and violently, it’s not a reliable means of archival. It’s a shame that so many classic games simply aren’t out there in an official capacity, and making those games available and free would at least let people see them.
It doesn’t hurt your image
That whole “worst company in America” thing was not noted idly. Largely as a result of gamers being upset about things, Electronic Arts has won the award two years in a row. Why? Because they published a game with an ending that people didn’t like due to lack of imagination, and then they… continued being successful, apparently. If I sound bitter about the idea that an entertainment company would win over banks and insurance firms that openly steal from people and society as a whole, that’s because I’m intensely bitter about it.
But even that isn’t the point right now. Once the perception is made, it’s sticky. And what’s the best way to kneecap the idea of greed? Give stuff away.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the loss of digital sales of Dead Space is not really going to hurt the bottom line over at Electronic Arts. But it does give people motivation to download Origin and grab the game for free, and it makes people that much more likely to say “well, maybe they’re not so bad after all.” A useful thing when you’ve got a couple of major releases due out this year, even more so if you want to consider whether or not to sink more funding into another installment of the series and want to gauge overall interest…
So it’s a win for everyone. Except the people who bought the game back in the day and now see people getting it for free, but that’s what you get for being an early adopter.