How could StarCraft go Free-to-Play?
During the Valencia eSports Congress panel, StarCraft 2 Lead Designer Dustin Browder commented that Blizzard was “looking at free-to-play as an option” in the game’s multiplayer mode. Its an idea many will initially scoff at. Even Browder admitted “We don’t know how we would monetize it. While it might be good fun for me to play against someone with only half the units available to them, that’s not going to be an enjoyable experience for them.” This statement is more than true, as anyone who has played a F2P game typically bemoans the “pay-to-win” portion of the game.
But I don’t believe anyone is thinking very clearly about how this game would work in a F2P capacity. StarCraft 2 could potentially be a huge F2P game if we get out of the idea that monetizing pieces of the game itself will do the trick. Many consider StarCraft to be the competitive gaming experience of today and opening that experience up to even more people (and monetizing it for the people already playing) could be bigger than games that have mastered the F2P formula such as Riot’s League of Legends or WarGaming.net’s World of Tanks. Lets take a look at some ways Blizzard could consider moving to this model.
Keep the game in-tact
First of all, let’s just cast aside the idea of limiting parts of the game in StarCraft. Part of the reason that LoL works is that players only have a handful of characters to choose from (and purchase), but once the game has started, that one character has a full range of abilities and gameplay available to them. Limiting any unit in StarCraft to a player would completely ruin the dynamic of the highly-balanced game. So there’s just no chance that we’re going to be limiting one side or the other to certain units. May work on other RTS games (perhaps the upcoming Command & Conquer Generals 2), but as far as StarCraft is concerned removing any piece of the board would completely imbalance the game.
All sorts of skins
So we need to look toward other means, things that are far-removed from the core gameplay. The first thing that comes to mind is of course vanity items. Think those hats that TF2 uses or the skins for League of Legends characters. These hats and skins can become surprisingly prized by many players and will often be a huge impulse-buy. StarCraft could easily go this route by re-skinning all of the major parts of the units. I’m thinking that you could buy individual skins for each unit, like a barbarian skin for marines or dark templar-themed paint for your zealots. Then allow players to buy “theme packs” that reskin the entire team, like a tribal warrior-theme for instance. Re-skinning is a great way to not loose the core dynamic of the game, but give players a way to make themselves stand out easily.
StarCraft II uses one of the best match-making systems in gaming today by using countless small ladders combined with a match-up engine that will pair you with players of a similar skill level. The game also frequently tries to test your place in the ladder by matching you with people far above and far below your level. This is definitely an area Blizzard could experiment with. Buy-ins to special tournament ladders (ideally with prizes) would be one easy way to create hype around playing often, especailly if slots were limited. Another idea here is to give players special “rank-up tickets” that would guarantee getting matched with players of a higher skill level, but reward them with more ladder points for beating opponents. Again, this does not affect the important core game, but gives players a chance to test themselves on the wider meta-game. Whether or not people would use this is questionable, but its not much different than those XP boosters you usually see in F2P games.
Speaking of XP, this is something else that could be implemented. Currently SC2 uses a merit-based system that will designate you with the highest ladder you’ve ever attained. In other words if you’ve only made it to the Gold ladder, you’ll see that on your profile, if you’ve made it to Diamond, you’ll see that there. The problem with the current system is its often hard to tell what level of skill players are based on the ladder they are playing in. It also posts the merits achieved even when they might be years old (such as my own). This is generally an area for improvement, but could easily be monetized if turned into some sort of XP-based system. XP boosters here would work very well.
Offer premium eSports
Lastly, since the pro scene for StarCraft has become so large as of late, this is where a lot of capitalization could take place. Livestreams on Twitch.tv for StarCraft matches are now common, but Blizzard could partner with this group to start offering premium channels and possibly some sort of livestream within the game client. Spectator systems within games have always interested me, but typically they never seem as fluid as a caster doing everything on video. Figuring out a system here might be great and could be good for Pay-per-view type events. Special shows and “seasons passes” could be a great way to bolster the eSport scene and make it way more valuable.
The takeaway I’d like to note here though, is that F2P for StarCraft should basically mean “hands off the gameplay”. The gameplay of StarCraft is central to why its so popular and trying to cut that into pieces and monetize it would basically be a huge disaster. But opening the gameplay up to anybody for free would push its audience to the next level.
Blizzard is currently beta testing its upcoming expansion to StartCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. Currently the expansion does not have an ETA.