SuperData Research has just come out with their annual list that shows what they estimate to be the top earning free-to-play online games on the market. They calculate their totals based on microtransaction sales, an increasingly popular model has resulted in increasingly high revenues over the years.
Though the charts says nothing of profit, only charting revenues, it’s an important look at the F2P scene. What I was most surprised to see was that while I recognized every game on the list, the only one I didn’t was in the number one spot.
You can blame my Western-centric viewpoint for that, I suppose, as I’m not involved enough in the Asian scene to realize just how insanely popular CrossFire is across Korea, China, the Philippines and more. The free-to-play shooter brings in $957M in annual revenue from its microtransactions, beating out presumed number one, League of Legends. Interestingly, both are mostly owned by Chinese online giant Tencent, the secretly massive company that seems have a finger in an infinite number of pies lately. More on them here via Polygon’s investigative report.
I’m more curious about CrossFire itself, and why it’s drawing such huge crowds willing to shell out loads of cash for microtransactions.
The game is hugely popular among the youth of many, many populous Asian countries like China and Korea. The game is fairly close to a clone of Counter-Strike, arguably the best competitive FPS ever made. But update it slightly, make it free-to-play with a cash shop, and it’s apparently a recipe for success.
Though on first glance, CrossFire looks like a bad CS knock-off you might find advertised in a Facebook banner ad using stolen art, it has some natural advantages over its competition, not to mention a dirty trick or two to rake in the cash.
The game is far easier to pick up and play than even its own in-house competition, League of Legends. While that game has 120+ champions, each with their own move sets to learn and master, dozens of items with different effects and millions of possible in-game strategies, CrossFire is a shooter. You shoot things, and modes like Deathmatch, Search and Destroy or Free for All are well known throughout gaming history and take minutes to understand at most.
Crossfire, in all its glory.
Also, Crossfire has a pretty stable client and does not require a terribly amazing internet connection to play. In places like China, that’s a real problem, and sub-par internet might limit a players ability to properly play the other games on this list. But Crossfire has no such demands, and it’s accessible on every level, from gameplay to stability.
But why so many microtransactions?
While League of Legends bends over backwards to ensure that any in-game items purchased with real money are either champions that can be unlocked through regular play or skins that only effect the cosmetic appearance of characters, it appears CrossFire has no such qualms about transactions influencing gameplay. Reportedly, the game veers into pay-to-win territory as you can shell out cash for better guns, armor and various boosts that will increase your prowess in combat. Some premium items can only be purchased with real world money, and it seems if a player spends a decent amount, they’ll have an advantage over friends and strangers alike. Increased power is a far more effective motivator than simple cosmetic changes, hence CrossFire’s massive revenues. It goes against the fundamental tenant of a good free-to-play, microtransaction-based game, don’t let players pay for a direct advantage over others, but for whatever reason their audience doesn’t care, Tencent has struck gold with CrossFire.
Again, there’s nothing on the list about the profit of each of these games, and it’s only based on microtransactions. World of Warcraft, after all, still has 7 million subscribers paying $15 a month, but that’s not factored into a chart like this.
Still, CrossFire’s numbers are undeniably impressive, and worth studying. It seems unfortunate that the reason for the games success is that it’s somewhat of a clone of a timeless classic (Counter-Strike) and uses a pay-to-win model to wring cash out of its players, but perhaps that’s over simplifying things. I’m going to give it a try for myself, and return with more thoughts in due time.