Even if Battleborn isn't going free-to-play, it probably should

Battleborn screenshot

Last night, Kotaku posted a report claiming that Gearbox would be transitioning this spring’s other multiplayer shooter Battleborn to a free-to-play model. The report was immediately rejected by Gearbox president Randy Pitchford who outright denied that the studio had any such plans, instead revealing that it was in the planning stages of rolling out a free trial version from which players could purchase the full game. A demo of sorts, likely similar to the one Activision rolled out for Destiny.

But will that be enough for Battleborn? There’s a key difference here, of course: Destiny was already a hugely popular shooter by the time its free trial emerged, but the same can’t really be said for Battleborn. While sales figures for the game have never been revealed, Take Two has said that its performance did not live up to expectations. Creative Director Randy Varnell also cast doubt over the game’s health shortly after launch by saying that the studio was “cautiously optimistic” about its future. And it has an image problem, too, often finding itself as the butt of jokes across message boards and gaming forums. “Is Battleborn the biggest bomb of the generation?” asked one user on NeoGAF.

Battleborn screenshot

Numbers-wise, a quick look at SteamSpy suggests that Battleborn’s total PC player count stood at 19,441 users across the last two weeks. Compare that to Evolve, another fumbling multiplayer shooter from 2K that has since transitioned to free-to-play and, well, the difference is stark. Over ten times as many people – 233,292 – reportedly played Evolve on PC in the last two weeks, with player numbers reportedly increasing by 15,930% immediately after it went free-to-play. There isn’t any information available that reveals how many of those players have been converted into paying customers or how much revenue the game has generated since. But increased server costs aside, having more people playing your game and potentially spending money can’t really be a bad thing, can it?

There’s also the game’s current selling price to consider. Initially available as a full price release, Battleborn has rapidly been reduced in price, to the point where it’s practically being given away (you can pick it up on console now for just over £10). That’s a good way to boost numbers, but probably not a healthy business practise for 2K. And compared to Overwatch, which has largely managed to retain its original asking price, seducing players in with a lower price isn’t a particularly good look.

Battleborn screenshot

There is, however, one more thing 2K should consider before going full free-to-play: PlayStation Plus and Xbox Games with Gold. If I understand the model correctly, 2K and/or Gearbox will receive an upfront payment from the platform holders in return for being featured on either service, while simultaneously putting millions of players in front of a DLC store without the stigma attached with going free to play. The model works, too, and while results will obviously vary, you just need to take a look at games like Rocket League to see quite how successful it can be.

All things considered, though, going free-to-play doesn’t seem such a bad idea for Battleborn. I’m not usually an advocate for free-to-play AAA, and the reception to such a transition would likely depend on what (and how) Gearbox decides to monetise. But if the studio can transition to a freemium model successfully without compromising the core values of the game, it could well be the shot in the arm the struggling shooter needs.

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