There’s no denying that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has been a success by any definition of the word. It’s been so successful that Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite, decided it would be better to release its battle royale mode for free rather than compete directly for sales. Now, H1Z1, another player in the battle royale genre, is changing its business model to be free-to-play after its player base shrank more than 90% since the release of PUBG and Fortnite.
With the recent rise of the lootbox, this business model may make financial sense. If you spread your player base as wide as possible, you’re likely to catch more whales who will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on loot boxes. This can be more profitable for a company than a one-time initial sale of a game to consumers.
It’s not easy to compete with free things, and while PUBG’s still wildly successful, remaining the king of Steam with by far the highest number of active players, Fortnite has recorded even more concurrent players than its pay-to-play competitor.
According to Steamcharts, PUBG’s average player count decreased by more than 190,000 from January to February, a drop of more than 12%. Whether these players are jumping ship to another battle royale game, or are done with the genre entirely, is difficult to gauge, but it looks like PUBG may have begun to fall from its pedestal.
There is one way it could start to gain players again, however: join its battle royale brethren in the land of free-to-play. Most people who are really interested in the game have likely already purchased it, but if the game went free-to-play those with even the slightest interest will probably download it. With all the publicity PUBG has had, there are likely a lot of people who have a passing interest in the game, but not enough to spend $30.
With in-game crates and keys, PUBG already has a free-to-play monetization strategy set up. Currently, some crates can be opened without the need for an Early Bird Key, which cost $2.50 and allow players to open locked crates such as the Desperado and Fever crates. If PUBG were to go free-to-play, more crates would likely be locked, requiring more people to buy keys in order to get the items inside, but that’s the price you pay for a free-to-play experience.
This business model has been tried and tested by plenty of other games, and Valve seems to like it, with Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 featuring similar microtransaction systems. In fact, when Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play back in 2011, its active player base quadrupled and revenue for the game more than tripled, according to a 2012 GDC talk by Valve programmer Joe Ludwig. PUBG could see a similar rise in player count and revenue if it went free-to-play.
The biggest worry PUBG Corporation would likely have if they decided to go that route would be how to handle players who have already purchased the game. H1Z1 gave its paying players in-game currency, cosmetic items, and a number of crates when it recently went free-to-play. There’s no way to make everyone happy when something they paid for becomes free (well, besides issuing refunds, but that’s a pipe dream), but some free crates and exclusive cosmetic items can go a long way towards generating good will in a community.
There’s clearly no immediate need for PUBG to go free-to-play, but if its player count continues to fall it wouldn’t be too surprising to see PUBG Corporation take that route, especially given the success other games have found transitioning to the free-to-play market.