Van Dreunen began by suggesting that the market has shifted away from retail box sales of the last 30 years. In the last five years alone, digital and F2P sales have increased tenfold in the US market; breakout F2P titles yield $100 to $500 million annually. He also pointed out that 2012 is the first year that free-to-play has become the dominant model in the gaming industry. He believes it will continue to grow.
Why the change? Van Dreunen proposed that the number of gamers is pretty much finite and that the genre has already reached its saturation point. "Everyone who is going to play an MMO game, already is," he declared. But he also believes the industry can continue to grow by focusing on the newer demographic that has entered gaming: the mid-core.
Likened to snackers, this new demographic has very different ways of spending money: Its members prefer to sample a bit here and there rather than shell out a large upfront sum or commit to monthly subs. According to van Dreunen, this new type of gamer, who is sandwiched between the casual dabblers and the hardcore players, has discovered through casual experience that he or she really enjoys gaming and now wants to experience something deeper. It is this group that will continue to spend the most on games.
Supporting his position, van Dreunen pointed to the mounting data showing that conversion rates (getting folks to sample games) and average revenue from paying users in social games have increased in the last 2.5 years, indicating that people are becoming more comfortable playing games and more comfortable spending money in them.
For developers looking to innovate and grow, van Dreunen says free-to-play will be the successful model of the future. He emphasized how free-to-play makes it easier for games to get off the ground and build as they go. He also argued that free-to-play will become the industry standard in time: "F2P is a revenue model that is the equivalent of the MP3 in the music industry... it's accessible, it's affordable, and it lets people build their own experiences."
Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!