Monetizing StarCraft: Is Free-to-Play what StarCraft needs?
It’s no secret that Starcraft has faded in importance in an eSports world dominated by massively popular free-to-play MOBA’s and FPS games fueled by microtransactions and post release content. The Starcraft community has been quick to criticize what is viewed as a relatively high financial barrier to entry as a reason for the small user base, and a lack of post purchase monetization as the reason for the perceived stagnation of the game as whole. Starcraft’s arguably archaic business model exists in stark contrast to that of other eSports, and is certainly worthy of examination. Could making Starcraft a F2P game cause an explosion in multiplayer?
What Would a F2P Starcraft Look Like?
If Starcraft was a F2P game there would be a couple options that Blizzard could use in order to ensure a high likelihood of player’s spending money. Unlike MOBAs where a vast amount of content can be hidden behind a paywall without creating a pay-to-win game, the way RTS games are balanced means that at a bare minimum all players must have access to one full race. EA attempted to put individual units behind a pay wall in their ill-fated Command & Conquer reboot, and the game failed to make it out of its alpha stage. Blizzard could restrict free players to only using a single race, perhaps rotating which race is free each week. They could also release the multiplayer component of Starcraft entirely free of charge and hope that people interested in the game would be willing to pay for the single player experience. Both of these options would almost certainly hold the single player campaign behind a paywall, which despite being an intuitive decision, would almost certainly be detrimental to the growth of Starcraft as both a game and an eSport.
Starcraft is different than other games
Most popular eSports are easy to pick up and play. A terrible DOTA player will continue to respawn until the game is over, and will almost certainly do something during the game that makes them feel useful. Even a miserable player will probably get a kill and a few asists. Likewise virtually any gamer will have a rough idea of the controls of an FPS game before he or she plays it for the first time. Starcraft is different, because it is a mechanically intense game. MOBAs and FPS games require plenty of practice, game knowledge, precision, and reaction times in order to play, but Starcraft requires a very specific set of mechanical skills that are slowly developed throughout the course of the single player campaign.
RTS Campaigns function as extended tutorials, this level introduces the Terran production mechanics
Starcraft's campaign is wildly popular, and its not hard to see why, it's an action packed adventure with an engaging story, but it serves an important role for those seeking to eventually play Starcraft competitively against other people. The campaign is essentially an elaborate tutorial that teaches player the complicated mechanics and unit interactions that one has to understand in order to play an RTS game. Playing through the campaign gives new players the basic skills that will allow them to play Starcraft with others, even if its at a very low level.
Now imagine players hopping on to the ladder for the first time, without out any single player experience at all. That would almost certainly result in you being smashed even by the lowliest Bronze players, and unlike a game of DOTA where the game will last long enough for a new player to learn something no matter how lopsided the score is, its entirely possible for a Starcraft game to end in less than ten minutes. Making the multiplayer portion of Starcraft entirely free to play, while selling the campaign might seem like a good way to grow Starcraft, but in fact it is a dangerous idea because it seems unlikely that people jumping straight into the ladder would stick around for more than a game or two. Even the very worst players are still likely to crush anyone that has zero RTS experience, and having players crushed time and time again is not a particularly good way to have a high conversion rate from “person trying Starcraft” to “Regular player”.
How can Blizzard monetize Starcraft more effectively?
Someone going straight into the Starcraft ladder without any kind of preparation is unlikely to have a good time, because Starcraft is such a mechanically demanding game, but I think it is clear to all that Starcraft's archaic monetization and pricing scheme is obsolete and detrimental to the game's long term health. So what would a better more effective monetization of Starcraft look like for Blizzard?
Unlike MOBAs, it is difficult to hide gameplay content behind a pay wall while still creating a fun experience in an RTS game, so it seems Blizzard should look to Valve for inspiration. DOTA too is a text book example of how to monetize a game without providing gameplay advantadges to players who choose not to purchase additional content. Blizzard could certainly offer skins and voice packs to players wishing to customize their experience, and spend more money on the game they play. There's also the possibility of allowing select partners to begin charging for their games in the arcade. The way arcade games work would make this very easy, considering that the SCII arcade already has an app store style setup. This would allow Blizzard to further monetize its existing player base, but would not be particularly useful in growing the existing base of players and viewers.
There are steps that I believe Blizzard could take in order to grow the existing player base, but it would be a rather radical departure from their current course. Blizzard coule make the base game (Wings of Liberty) completely free, and bank on selling the expansions. This would the lower barrier of entry for potential Starcraft players, and make it realistically possible that random gamers are able to “discover” Starcraft without being roped in by a friend. Making Wings of Liberty entirely free would allow new players to play through the campaign and have the chance to hone their mechanics on the Wings of Liberty ladder. This decision makes sense even when viewed in the most pessimistic light. Imagine that making Wings of Liberty entirely free failed to create any new competitive players, it is still likely that making Wings of Liberty free would result in Blizzard selling more copies of Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void. Consider the fact that Heart of the Swarm sold 1.1 million copies, yet according to Nios.Kr there is only 268,741 accounts that have played at least one game this season. This is because the vast majority of Starcraft players purchase the game for its campaign, given how popular the Starcraft campaigns are, common sense would indicate that allowing people to play through one of them is certain to create more Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void customers.
There are a couple valid criticisms of this idea however, first there is the idea of fairness. People that paid for Wings of Liberty may feel cheated if the game is given away for free. Blizzard could provide some skins, or virtual goodies in other games, or even provide priority Alpha \ Beta access to players that purchased Wings of Liberty. Even a token gesture would probably be sufficient to amerolate any concerns there may be.
Making Wings of Liberty free would also represent a massive departure from Blizzard doctrine until Hearthstone had been, “Charge full price for the base game, then release expansion packs for around 4/5s of the original game's price.” This model does not work in a world of Free-to-play, DLC, microtransactions, and expandalone games. If Blizzard continues down its current course Legacy of the Void will sell fewer copies then Heart of the Swarm. With its current pricing scheme Blizzard is essentially limiting its potential customer base to current owners of Heart of the Swarm. Given Starcraft's current pricing scene we can extrapolate that after Legacy of the Void is released it will cost $120 to own a "complete" copy of Starcraft. It seems very unlikely that anyone who does not already own Starcraft will be willing to spend the $120 needed to own the whole game.
Blizzard needs a change of course, and needs one now because there is a finite amount of time between now and the release of Legacy of the Void. This time period is critical because a lower barrier of entry coupled with the hype and marketing that comes with a game release could result in genuine growth. For Starcraft there is only one launch left, and thus only one opportunity left to create meaningful growth. The amount of copies Legacy of the Void sells is also likely to be critical to the long term health of the scene. The more players there are to monetize, the more likely Blizzard is to implement microtransactions in game. Microtransactions in turn give Blizzard a vested interest in supporting a thriving scene. The clock is ticking, and it seems unlikely that Blizzard will deviate from their well beaten path, but every once in a while an old dog picks up a new trick, the ball is in your court Blizzard surprise us.
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