Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

A few months ago someone threw up a random online straw poll. It was well before the pre-Blizzcon round of previews Blizzard was doing for Overwatch, and it was in a climate where most discussion centred around the gameplay videos that the developer pushed out to the public. The community’s collective understanding was, in a word, limited.

Plenty of key details were still missing. How many heroes would the game have at launch? How many maps would there be? And, most importantly, would the game be free-to-play? So a straw poll was created. It finished with 105 votes: 72 favouring an traditional pay-to-play model, with 24 of those supporting microtransactions.

It’s largely the same model that Blizzard has used for decades. Outside of World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, all of Blizzard’s games require an upfront payment, with paid expansion or mission packs released after the fact. And they’ve done that again for Overwatch.

But the internet’s verdict now: it’s a disaster.

Watching fans and the press digest Overwatch over the last several months has been fascinating for all sorts of reasons. This is, let’s not forget, a game that was borne from remnants of Project Titan, a project that Blizzard failed to justify after investing umpteen millions of hours and dollars.

Let us put aside the fact that Blizzard, upheld as the Western studio with a license to print money thanks to World of Warcraft, found themselves entering a genre they had never experienced as a result of that project. A project they couldn’t make fun, despite all their best efforts.

Let us not think about the impost of Western gamers having now accepted something that developers and gamers in China, Taiwan and South Korea discovered over a decade ago. Something that Western developers now, through the expansion of many games, successful or otherwise, better understand.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

Let us not think about the fact that Blizzard is exceptionally new to all of this. Heroes of the Storm? Most people started playing that last year. Hearthstone? That’s a card game. The rules of that — surely — don’t apply to a first-person shooter.

But as you read this, if you’re not already screaming at the top of your lungs, or writing an angsty email, you probably understand: the world is not such a reductive place. And neither are video games.

It’s hard not to take a degree of pleasure trawling through the discourse on forums and social media when it comes to Overwatch. Ever since it’s announcement, there’s been a degree of certainty amongst discussions. There’s always a degree of that in any chatter, of course, but it’s amplified when in this instance.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

Blizzard’s reputation might have something to do with that. This is a developer who has been around for decades. They “know” what they’re doing, or at least they “know” how to sell a product. That’s what the internet believes, at least.

Never mind that their two biggest properties are games in genres that were previously completely foreign. Never mind that their bread and butter is declining so rapidly that the number of subscribers will no longer be openly discussed in the joint company’s annual reports.

Never mind that, come 2016, Blizzard’s three biggest properties are going to be in genres that have either had nothing, or are only tangentially related, to anything the company has produced in the two decades beforehand. Think about it: a CCG, an FPS and a MOBA. There’s a link to a RTS in Heroes. There’s a very, very tenuous link to an MMO. There’s bugger all link to Diablo.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

Legion will keep World of Warcraft kicking — but the time has come for that game. Plans are being made to move on. The future has arrived — perhaps the Warcraft movie represents part of that future.

But this is all new territory for Blizzard. As experienced as they are, the notion that they already know what they’re doing is astonishing. It’s almost laughable. History shows that’s far from the truth.

That doesn’t mean they’re clueless or inept, of course. But they are learning on the fly. They’re learning how to survive in the MOBA market; see the radical changes proposed to Heroes of the Storm. They’re learning the benefits of the free-to-play model, as Heroes and Hearthstone has made painfully obvious.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

And now they’re learning what works for an FPS. Some would say that was already public knowledge. But Blizzard doesn’t do FPS like other studios. They don’t do FPS at all. They weren’t trying to do FPS. They were trying to make Project Titan, a gargantuan hybrid MMO. Overwatch was the scraps of Titan that were fun.

Blizzard didn’t plan this in advance. Overwatch wasn’t what they were trying to make.

That’s why it’s so curious watching people dissect the developer’s motivations. Maybe because it’s Blizzard, a developer that has been around for an eternity, that people assume everything is planned out to the final detail. Maybe because it’s Blizzard people assume that the company is deliberately withholding information.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

But nobody is assuming what history tells us is more likely — that Blizzard is still finding its way. They’ve never made a game like this before, and it stands to reason that they didn’t know how to sell it off the bat either.

So they’ve gone back to their basics, selling Overwatch the same way they would a Warcraft, or a StarCraft, or a Diablo. A year ago that would have been largely, if not universally, accepted. But it’s not now. The West realises free-to-play models have merit. Free-to-play is no longer the devil.

Is it appropriate for Overwatch? No. But that doesn’t sit right next to the gamer who looks at Dota 2, who looks at Path of Exile, and asks why they can’t receive everything for free. Why, they ask, aren’t you going with the model that will get most of the people in the door. Why, they ask, aren’t you designing around a model that will allow people to jump it at any time they want.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

These are questions that might have been valid had Blizzard known they were designing Overwatch from the start. But they weren’t. They were making Titan.

But let’s put that aside. Because it’s easier to point at a giant corporation, something the size of Activision-Blizzard, and assume they always know what they’re doing. It’s easier to point at faces on Twitter, faces on streams, names in articles, and assume that everything is planned out from start to finish. It’s easier to assume that everything is known, and information is simply being kept from the gaming public.

When the developers stand on a stage and claim that they’re just focusing on the game and they haven’t really nailed anything down post launch, it’s easier to cry bullshit. Because that’s what the internet does.

Free-To-Play Or Not, Blizzard Can’t Win With Overwatch

But maybe, just maybe, that isn’t always the case. And just maybe, in a world where Overwatch was never supposed to exist, that’s precisely what’s happening now.

Maybe the model a company has used for decades, a model people are still perfectly happy to accept, is right for this game too.

And maybe nobody knows. Maybe the developers are still finding that out.


  • Did anyone else find this article a bit difficult to follow? Structurally and stylistically, not the easiest thing to read IMO.

    • I just skimmed through it. It’s basically arguing that Blizzard never did anything like this before and they have no plan, and are in a bit of a pickle.

      • Which doesn’t make any sense as an argument.

        They never did anything like HotS until they did HotS
        They never did anything like Hearthstone until they did Hearthstone.
        They never did anything like WoW until they did WoW.
        They never did anything like Diablo before they did Diablo.
        They never did anything like Warcraft until they did Warcraft.
        They never did anything like The Lost Vikings until they did The Lost Vikings.

        I’m sensing a pattern here…

        In fact the only real major property they have that you could say was genuinely built off their past experiences in a specific genre was Starcraft.

        • Genre was rts. Yeah I get what you mean. The article seems more like a “Hey guys, blizzard is trying their best. Alright?” Wouldn’t really call it an argument. More of a statement or perhaps an output of feelings and thoughts about the company in question regarding a product they’re working on kinda thing. Does that even make sense?

          • Yeah, I finished reading and thought, “What is the conclusion here, exactly??” So vague.

          • ^ 100% agree , no structure or thought in that article. In fact, I feel it’s almost the opposite! Yes Blizzard has expanded into multiple new genres, but they adapt and improvise based on their previous franchises:
            WoW’s AH was later used in Diablo.
            Hearthstone implemented a quest system which was then utilised for HotS.
            HotS’s Nazeebo abilities were later adapted for Diablo’s Warlock.
            Overwatch is a previous game 😛

            My biggest concern is the pricing. Having an initial fee for entry really shocked me, it’s almost like they’re trying to recoup losses on Titan over establishing a franchise. Did anyone else find it odd how they’re selling the game yet mentioned multiple new characters in development? If this was a F2P model you could release new champions as developed and charge via micro-transactions. Instead Blizzard asks for a one-time fee and we have to hope it gets the support Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo received, although I doubt it.

          • I could be wrong so someone please correct me if i am but I’m pretty sure they said they were going to be releasing all characters for free and would only be charging for aesthetic stuff outside the initial purchase. From memory the reasoning is that they don’t want to fracture the player base when they are encouraging people to change characters during a match to deal with the opposing team and etc.

          • I don’t know about you but I usually want to pay a single price upfront to get the whole game rather than paying in smaller increments to get the games in pieces as I play.

    • I had a real tough time. I couldn’t follow it… it didn’t follow logical steps. Also, the first statistic used to create the first premise was pitiful… 105 votes in a poll…

    • Remove 3/4 of the pictures, and just put the story together rather than 2 sentence paragraphs split with screenshots.

    • Yep, a triple Plunkett could have probably said it all.

      Not that i wish Kotaku had more 3 sentence articles.

    • That’s because the entire thing is just click bait.. There is no conclusion. There is no point even being made. The entire thing exists to sell click ads.

      • This is exactly what i was thinking. It is click bait. Add Blizzard to any Subject/Title line and put a negative spin in there and you are likely to get people interested just because they see a known publisher. We all just got trolled.

  • If it was still the same old blizzard they would’ve scrapped it like they did to starcraft ghost. Tried and tried again untill a masterpiece was made. Now it’s as if they have to release something even if it’s crap. they’re basically recycling. I imagine the old blizzard have many many dead projects/ideas/prototypes sitting there on their old backed up drives. That were made but never fully finished or went into production. If they aren’t happy with it they could’ve just canceled it. Alternatively can I play some starcraft ghost, please? Overwatch kinda looks like what it would be like.

    • If it was still the same old blizzard they would’ve scrapped it like they did to starcraft ghost.

      Sigh…I’m still sad about the multiplayer for that going. Capture the Command Center? Defend it from the enemy team flying people up there to infiltrate it, take control and have it fly to their base instead?

      So. Awesome. D:

    • Taking bets that overwatch is the byproduct of a scrapped project (titan). Rumor mill always was that blizz was looking to make some sort of FPS MMO but it got scrubbed just after the diablo3 fiasco. Of course i have absolutely no proof but to me it makes the most sense – massive project that had countless hours devoted to it was canned – assets\tech modified to make a TF2 clone.

  • or at least they “know” how to sell a product

    ^ this. Blizzard are getting very good at selling stuff, while innovation falls to the wayside. They have a captive audience, and don’t they know it…

    • I think at this point blizzard would have to try really hard not to be able to sell stuff. They’re very well established and known now. Kind of happened with the launch of WoW which used warcraft3 fan base an investment. Really well played back then. Also starcraft and warcraft were almost like one of a kind game back then.

  • I don’t understand this article at all. There was a poll that says some players like one payment over another and now there’s a lot of arguing taking place? Then the article doesn’t actually mention any of the concerns these people have; it only dissects their position as players of Blizzards games and then tells us that Blizzard are apparently trying something new…

    So confused.

    • Not to mention it was a poll only 105 people responded to. I haven’t done any research but I’m pretty sure that there are millions of Blizzard fans so I don’t really see why it’s evidence that people did a backflip once they heard it was pay to play.

  • This article is a mess.

    I’ve re-read it several times and can’t puzzle out the point you’re trying to make.

    Are you saying the game itself is going to be poor? – Due to the lack of experience of Blizzard in the FPS genre, even though you go on to say that their current biggest properties are in genres they were previously, also, inexperienced in…
    Or is it that the payment model is going to result in some kind of backlash. Because. Forum rumblings?

    • Cheers for reading through, anyway.

      People are crucifying Blizzard for going with a business model that they’ve used in the past and that they were entirely happy with months ago.

      People are also crucifying Blizzard for supposedly withholding information even though we have enough information going back to back up Blizzard’s statements that they are still very much discovering what makes an FPS tick — and that includes the best way to sell it and price things going forward.

      Their choice of the payment model HAS resulted in a huge backlash, but the argument of saying “well it should have just been free-to-play because now I have to pay to get in and I won’t bother paying now and why aren’t you just doing what everyone else is doing” ignores how Overwatch is designed.

      A lot of this has probably come about because there is still a large part of the fanbase that hasn’t been able to play it yet, so people sit there watching streams and videos on YouTube and they form their conclusions that way. Maybe that’ll change once more beta invites go out.

      Anyway, hope that helps.

      • Sorry but I still don’t get it.
        People are complaining that it’s not free to play? Meanwhile people are complaining that HoTS is free to play and at the same time too expensive?

        Is this article simply about how much people complain one way or the other?
        Should fallout be free to play? Why? Why not?
        TF2 wasn’t always free to play, Counterstrike still isn’t.
        It’s like you’re picking a few random forum complaints and trying to make it into an article.
        Mean while there’s just as many people that are glad there’s an entry price and no hero unlocks/gating.
        So vocal minority online is controversial? More news at 6?

        Sorry if this sounds harsh or rude. It’s not meant to be. I just still don’t know what the article is about even after you explained it.

        • Any time mate. If you’ve ever got anything else you can always just ping me directly on Twitter too and yell at me there!

  • I was interested in checking out Overwatch on the assumption that it was going to be F2P – just like it’s closest competitors.
    Now I have to purchase the game outright I probably won’t ever play it at all. There are too many other games that offer a similar experience for free, or close to it (micro-transactions).

    • Such as? got some example? TF2 wasn’t always F2P. CS isn’t F2P. None of the other competitive shooters like COD or Battlefield are F2P.

      What exactly are all these “closest competitors”?
      I can’t think of a single one that’s this big or made by such a big/popular company with such a huge player base. TF2 is really the only one, and that has a completely different business model

      • Other games in the same space or about to be in the same space: Dirty Bomb (F2P), Lawbreakers (F2P), the new Unreal Tournament (F2P), Battleborn (P2P), Paragon (no idea yet), DOOM (no idea yet), Xenotic (no idea yet), Quake Live (was F2P, now P2P), TF2 (F2P, different model as you say, should be getting competitive matchmaking soon too), CS:GO (P2P, but very low barrier).

        Stuff like Battlefield isn’t competitive in the same vein; Call of Duty on PC is practically dead, and free-to-play major shooters on consoles is a different matter entirely. Outside of that, the rest of the eSports landscape: Hearthstone (F2P), Heroes of the Storm (F2P), SMITE (F2P), League (F2P), Dota 2 (F2P), Super Smash Bros (P2P), Street Fighter (P2P), and the list goes on.

        Anyway, that’s just the reference point. I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few FPS games, and I’m deliberately not including things like Toxikk or Reflex because they simply don’t have enough clout to compete. But I could use another coffee.

        • See the thing is that they’re also doing cosmetics as well as the $70aud price tag, sure CS:GO also has cosmetics but at least its only ~$20, so they could have easily just gone the current tf2 or dota2 route, released a program for people to make skins/items/etc and still made all the money in the world anyway.
          Hell the could even put it on steam, have it link through to the bnet launcher like origin, etc does & use the workshop

          • Blizzard would have never just gone and abandoned their own launcher/ecosystem for Steam. (And Origin doesn’t either; I think you might be thinking of Uplay there.)

            Part of me wonders if people just want things to be as free as possible, which is why everyone wants the Dota 2 model because then that way they’re not compelled to pay anything at all and paying nothing is better than paying something. But maybe I’m being overly cynical right now.

          • Not free – but not nickled and dimed. There just isn’t enough info out. Are blizzard going to introduce new paid heroes every other month (which is essentially paying for weapon loadouts).

            It’s the unknowns – i think most people just assume that blizzard are charging the 70 as well as going with a f2p model – they’ve already mentioned that hero selection is crucial so if new loadouts are introduced you essentially have to fork over for it or be left behind.

            And with regards to dota2 – it pulls in 18mil a month. Thats 216 mil per year. Not to shabby considering noone is apparently paying for it.

          • For me it’s far less about paying for the game, and more about paying for a game I’m not sure I have the time to commit to. If I pay $70 I’ll feel obliged to play that game to get my moneys worth – which will likely not happen with a kid, job and many other games to play. However if it was F2P then I can drop in, enjoy myself for a few hours and look at purchasing a key for a crate drop for instance. Maybe that crate will enhance my gameplay (cosmetically or mechanically), maybe it won’t. What’s $2.50 compared to $70?
            I bought the Orange Box and TF2 was a kickass, value-laden part of that, but the model Valve have set up now works really well to monitise a F2P game. They have deep community involvement, including payments for work and showcases, and provide regular free content alongside the paid stuff. They constantly incentivise the paid content via drops and limited releases and the money they pull in demonstrates that audiences have changed and are now comfortable with a well regulated, regularly updated monitised model of play.

            There’s no reason Blizzard couldn’t have done the same but I see Overwatch as a game that will have a much smaller, more dedicated community than other F2P games like Team Fortress 2, primarily made up of existing Blizzard customers (WoW, SC2, HoS). CS:GO is probably the closest model in that it has a pay-wall but that has the benefit of now being an ‘Esport’ game, which dramatically broadens the userbase as people join to play the game they watch other people play.

            The F2P model has matured at this point, and people are accepting and, clearly, expecting it. Blizzard are taking a risk here in creating a curated audience for a genre that has a lot of competitors who will not ask anything to get in the gate. Time will tell I guess, but I would’ve like to play Overwatch at some point but I can’t justify that price point.

  • Isn’t Blizzard’s innovation model to shovel out something quick/shit, and then polish the turd until it’s made of solid gold? Starcraft has 20+ patches, same with Warcraft 3. I’d just wait until the product is out and the first 5-10 patches have dropped before passing judgment.

    • Pretty sure they made games and played it themselves which got canceled because they weren’t really that fun. Their model to my understanding was that they make something and everyone plays it and if they have fun, they keep working on it and then release it. That’s what they kept saying anyway.

  • There’s about 5 too many pictures in this article; broke the flow of the argument for me =\

    That said Blizz have always entered uncharted waters with no prior experience. With regards to their financials and not publishing subs anymore it’s actually quite clever. On Bnet launcher WoW is their oldest game, investors are incredibly reactive in a 0 cash rate market. A subscription figure for their oldest game isn’t really a major statistic anymore as it effectively leaves out the revenue growth brought about by HS and HotS. Blizzard have a proven track record; even with their oldest game crashing there’s whispers of remakes of the classics and I’m addicted to HotS and HS both games that respect my time and I can enjoy in short bursts before being pulled back into reality. A characteristic I find more and more critical for my gaming habits as of late.

    Chances are overwatch will suck me in the same way =]

  • Outside of World of Warcraft…all of Blizzard’s games require an upfront payment

    Wow requires upfront purchase of the game and ongoing monthly subscription fees before you can properly play. not a huge issue but its annoying that you are presenting it as a FTP game when it most certainly isn’t.

    • I wasn’t presenting it as a F2P game, I’m saying that WOW has a separate model from what Blizzard has historically used (as well as the other games that weren’t included in that ellipsis) — a model that they’re reusing again.

      Which a lot of people are strangely hugely angry at Blizzard for doing and automatically assuming it’s going to be the death of the game.

      • With that clarification it makes sense but reading through it is a little confusing and it sounds more like you are lumping wow in with 2 FTP games (HS & HOTS) while saying that every other Blizz game requires upfront payment.

        I agree with you you that its strange that so many people are crying foul about it not being free to play. It seems that a lot of people have only experienced the free to play games and that’s what they are expecting moving forwards.

        Personally I am not a fan of free to play and I am ecstatic that everyone will be on a equal playing field on day one.

  • You can’t blame people for expecting F2P, it really seemed like that’s how things were headed.

    Big games like Diablo, Starcraft and the WoW Expansions were continuously P2P, while their most two recent releases, HotS and HearthStone, have not only been F2P, but have had pretty great success with the microtransactions. (It might be worth noting that the base game of SC2 is actually F2P too, though the expansions aren’t.)

    So you do the math: (Last two games being F2P) + (Microtransactions being profitable) + (What is basically Blizzard’s TF2 (the thing here being TF2 is also F2P and profitable) and it seemed like it just had to = Overwatch will be F2P.

    But then it wasn’t, and here we are. Really, all Blizzard could have done to stop this is when they announced it is to have added “OH YEAH AND IT PROBABLY WON’T BE FREE2PLAY SO DON’T GET YOUR HOPES UP OVER THE NEXT YEAR OTHERWISE THINGS ARE GONNA GET AWKWARD”

    • They probably could have done that if they’d know what the model was going to be, but they didn’t, and I think they’re continuing to be cagey because they just don’t know how the next year is going to play out. It’ll be interesting to watch, regardless.

  • A game like this just doesn’t work as paid. I despise F2P games but I know that this game if it is paid up front will still have microtranactions because they will be adding more heroes down the track.

  • it probably was going to be F2P until they released it on PS4/XboxOne where generally everything has an upfront cost.
    i don’t see the issue. i think the game will be huge.

  • I give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. Blizz has always been good at listening to their fans. Everyone remembers how good diablo2 was, but vanilla d2 was a mess IMO, it was an expansions and patches later that it became good. Same case with Diablo 3 with loot 2.0 and removal of the RMAH.
    Same with Starcraft and SC2.
    Their games get better and better with balancing and patches.

    However I do understand they do need to make money off their games. Although I loved that they removed the RMAH in D3, but the consequences is that D3 is really on their backburner. In the last Blizzcon just a few days ago… D3 was hardly mentioned.

    What do yout think Overwatch will end up if it doenst have an ongoing money earning potential ?

    • You need to watch it again. There are massive changes coming up in the game, new zones and areas, new dungeons for class specific sets, redesign on lots of things. There were at least 4 panels for D3, again, i think you need to go back and watch it again.

      • I know about the upcoming content in Patch 2.4, there is a very dedicated team still working on D3. But I find the lack of “attention” on Blizzcon compared to their other games worrying, as I assume it reflects the focus on Blizz top brass on its games.

  • Why are Blizzard selling Overwatch by standard means? Blizzard know their fan base has money. The last microtransaction figures from WoW I saw which was around WoD’s release iirc had WoW as number 2 in microtransaction revenue behind LoL. Basically Blizzard have been getting the best of both worlds which I’m guessing is their expectation with Overwatch.

    It amused me that when Overwatch preorders opened the reported reduced responsiveness. To me it sounds like the preorders have started well; because you know Blizzard players have money.

  • So, what’s the point of this repetitive article? Should Overwatch be free-to-play with microtransactions? Yes, actually, the model works. Period. TF2 is wildly successful with it, most MOBA’s are wildly successful with it, it’s a good model. On top of that, when you have a multiplayer FPS like this, the jump-in, jump-out mentality works loads better than any paid model. So with Overwatch being offered as a full $60 game, it had better be worth sixty f***ing dollars. That’s the issue here. I don’t care that they were trying to make Titan, the fact of the matter is that they didn’t. I don’t care that Overwatch was an accident, why do I have to forgive them and tell them it’s ok? They’re a multinational, multi-million dollar company, not some timid group of ten indy devs that are making baby’s first FPS. They should know how to make an FPS because they’re industry veterans. Let’s also not forget that it’s not Blizzard anymore, it’s Activision Blizzard. If it’s that much of a problem, they can literally call up their other half and be like, “You know how you guys have been creating and publishing insanely successful FPS titles for years? Can you give us some tips?”

    No, I don’t owe Blizzard anything. Nobody in the gaming community does. And if they want to make a full priced game that relies on shallow multiplayer alone, then they’d better be prepared to contend with the currently unfavorable market in which full-price, multiplayer-only games die in six to nine months. Or else they’d better have something to hold themselves above the rest. Period.

  • I guess it’s a good thing Blizzard never saw this article or they might have just cancelled the game.

  • The guy who wrote this article is probably playing Overwatch at this moment.

    “Blizzard cant win”

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