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Does ‘Overwatch’ Validate the Trend Towards Full-Price Multiplayer-Only Games?

There’s an extremely good chance, whether you know what exactly it is or not, that you know Overwatch just launched. You may also know that its reviews are terrific, with it currently sitting at 94/100 on Metacritic for PC, and 90/100 on Metacritic for PS4. Oh, and before it launched, the open beta for the game reached 9.7 million users, figures which the majority of game sales don’t even reach. So I think we can all agree with absolute certainty that Overwatch has validated itself.

But there’s one specific trend that we’ve seen in gaming over the years that Overwatch may also validate: the trend towards multiplayer-only shooters selling at full traditional prices. As we’ve come to expect from Blizzard, Overwatch may be a unique experience blending together other ideas, but it wasn’t hugely revolutionary: there has been a massive demand for multiplayer first person shooters for what must be a decade now. Shooters existed before Overwatch, just like MMORPGs existed before World of Warcraft, trading card games existed before Hearthstone and professional gaming existed before StarCraft: Brood War: Blizzard may make it huge and become a leading name, but they won’t be the inventors.

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And in the case of Overwatch, they may make the strongest case for selling multiplayer games-only games at retail price, with no free-to-play option or campaign. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, but up until this point, it was often a large source of criticism.

Take Star Wars Battlefront as a recent example: releasing with incredible graphics and sound, pretty strong gameplay with several modes, but only four maps, and no campaign (which EA admitted was excluded to release the game faster), its lack of content and full price earned it criticism among gamers and critics alike. Any additional content was added in the form of fairly costly expansion packs. That might not keep EA up at night when it sold 13 million copies, but it was a fairly common target of criticism. Titanfall was another such game, with lackluster critical reception and with Microsoft and EA silent on its sales long after launch.

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Another great example is Destiny, which shares a lot in common with Overwatch in many ways. Both of them merged first-person shooter gameplay with another popular multiplayer genre. In Destiny‘s case it took features such as progression, the PvE/PvP types of gameplay, and the role-playing character progression from MMORPGs. In Overwatch‘s case, it took the concept of a large variety of heroes and different player roles from MOBA style games. It wasn’t a financial failure at all, but Destiny launched to mixed-to-positive reviews, and didn’t enjoy the critical success or overwhelmingly positive reaction from the fanbase initially as Overwatch did. A lot of content for Destiny has been released since, but like Battlefront, much of it is in the form of very costly expansions.

So where many games taking this approach have become notorious among the gaming community, with a common criticism that they should either pack more content or use a free-to-play model, Overwatch has performed so well it might be the first of these games in which the broad consensus has been that it’s worth the price. And full price no less, since the multiplayer-only game could have come with a price tag that’s less than retail price (Counter-Strike, anyone?).

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Gamers are defending this model, but should we? Blizzard explained why they opted not to go for the free-to-play model, and it was to make frequent hero switches during gameplay immediately viable and interesting, without costing more. I find that flimsy reasoning, when Dota 2 manages just fine with making every hero available immediately, and earning money on cosmetic purchases. And a free-to-play model may have ended up a good thing financially; it would have sold itself much better to the “I’m not sure if I’ll like this and should spend money on it” crowd, and many players could end up spending more on the game over time than if they just paid money once to buy it.

Also, this game is shooting for esports play. Other than StarCraft II, which is declining, how many full priced games have had a huge esports impact? Unlike physical sports, esports rely heavily on audiences understanding the game and its mechanics, and the best way to acquire that knowledge is through play. The larger the player base, the larger potential esports audience.

But on the flip side, maybe a full priced game would turn out to be the better business model. Esports play is mostly sought after by companies because it serves as a great marketing tool. It can attract new players to the game, and unlike many its MOBA competitors, Overwatch is much more straight forward. It’s easier to understand what’s going on on the screen, and the game modes will be easily familiar, meaning it may be perfect for this role regardless of the price tag. Lots of gamers enjoy the benefit of a price-tag barrier that limits the frequent account spamming by hackers and toxic players. With so much content in Overwatch and such a great reaction, it’s clearly doing something right.

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Lots of publishers will now be able to breathe a sigh of relief: Overwatch has shown that it’s possible to release a multiplayer game with no single-player story mode at full price. On the one hand, like any gaming trend, others will likely try to hop on this bandwagon, and it may only increase the costly DLC and microtransactions that have rubbed the gaming community the wrong way. But on the other, given the reaction to Overwatch, they’ll be held to a very high standard if they want to pull off something similar and achieve similar numbers. Lots of people had doubts whether this model would generate a positive reaction from players. These doubts are gone.


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