EA SPORTS has built one of the most successful game series in the world with its Ultimate Team monetization strategy, but with that comes a growing expectancy from fans for FIFA 23 – or another future game – to become free-to-play like Warzone or Apex Legends.
Everybody loves a freebie in life and the industry has certainly experienced a shift away from annual release games. Overwhelmingly, the concept of free games and purchasing cosmetics has taken over.
Call of Duty is a prime example, where the success of its cost-free, microtransaction-heavy battle royale game, Warzone, is updated constantly, to keep people returning to what is now CoD’s flagship online experience. Meanwhile, the annual offline campaigns are dwindling in interest – both from fans, as well as developers.
In the run-up to the launch of FIFA 22, rumors started to circulate that internal conversations had taken place about the series moving to a free-to-play model. As players will know, the title hit the shelves and virtual stores with a standard $50+ RRP, depending on the copy version.
Many believe there is no smoke without fire where free-to-play is concerned. With FIFA 23 slated for an October 2022 release date, could this be the year they pull the trigger? For those supporting the possibility… You should be careful what you wish for.
Why players want FIFA 23 to go free-to-play
People often point out FIFA’s negatives, and rightly so. Review scores for the latest installment were heavily downgraded by multiple media outlets due to the maintained focus on microtransactions, in the form of Ultimate Team packs, promos, and reduced discard values for items.
GamesRadar+ said: “A superb second next-gen season on the digital turf – but subtle Ultimate Team tweaks amplify the ‘pay to win’ criticisms that stalk this series annually,” while IGN wrote: “Microtransactions still loom large.” Both of which recorded a 70/100 rating on MetaCritic.
The incredibly destabilized market has also brought about two levels of extremes: (1) high rated cards that are worthless, as seen with the heavy reduction in ICON values, and (2) exceptional cards that are very difficult to obtain. In previous games, the valuation of mid-range cards was higher, therefore packing a few of them would give a player enough FUT coins to invest in the top stars, if they decided to sell up.
Yet, these two extremes have put even more pressure on EA to churn out SBC or Objectives content to keep people motivated to play. Meanwhile, they are having to spend extra cash on FIFA Points to climb up the ladder, or play a hell of a lot of games. The notion of a stimulus package has been touted by multiple streamers and YouTubers in the past, to correct the market, but nothing has ever materialized.
With those points in mind, I can completely understand why fans want a free-to-play experience. A lot of Ultimate Team players will shell out more on microtransactions than they do on their copy of the game, for example. Ultimate Team alone contributed to some $1.6 billion of revenue, via extra content sales, in 2021 – according to Statista.
On February 1, 2022, EA also confirmed FIFA 22 was the most successful of all time, with net bookings of sports titles up by 10%. Unit sales were also up by double digits, year on year.
Despite that undoubted period of success for the developers, fans have been seeking some change. In two separate polls conducted by Dexerto, there was overwhelming support for 2K and even Microsoft to buy the series in the future, in the midst of a very public dispute between EA and FIFA over naming rights.
Clearly, microtransactions are not a very popular concept already within this community, and there’s growing support for change.
What does a free FIFA 23 look like?
As with any idea of possible grandeur or popularity, taking an opposing view can certainly come back to bite you. Though, there is cause for concern here.
Imagine if the current monetization strategy was to be dialed up further, because that would be an inevitability should EA be required to offset the millions of dollars lost in the absence of annual launch sales. What would that look like?
Very possibly, it would result in more FUT promos – the very thing that’s diluting the quality of Ultimate Team items – and less free content, or of lower quality.
Think back to the Cristiano Ronaldo Player of the Month card released in early October, days after launch. You had to complete 26 (twenty-six) teams for that Squad Building Challenge, which is over 280 players for one “free” challenge. That was by design.
It’s not free, it’s just an illusion that it’s free. To actually complete an SBC of that cost, you’re going to need a significant amount of FUT coins, mainly earned by opening packs and buying FIFA Points with real cash. We know the reason why this happened, to be clear. The developers didn’t want a strong Ronaldo to be cheap at such an early point in the game’s life cycle.
This example demonstrates that the value of “free” untradeable cards is already on a cliff edge, as these challenges now create a grind towards the need for more purchases in order to climb the Ultimate Team ladder. Imagine that gets cranked up another gear.
To encourage you to spend more money, it makes perfect business sense to have a card of Ronaldo’s caliber pretty much impossible to get without investing in Points or getting extremely lucky with Rivals, Draft, or Squad Battles rewards. The grind has already created this constant hunger for new content, which is arguably damaging in the long run. Smaller promos are crammed into the calendar at every opportunity, and more interesting alternatives can’t actually find a slot.
These promos are chiefly interchangeable in terms of how they work – except Team of the Year and Team of the Season. Sadly, the days of in-game events to celebrate tournaments such as the World Cup and EUROs appear to be over. That’s with millions of dollars of game copy sales. With a free system, there’s no doubt that even more levers will be pulled to drive people towards spending cash.
FIFA already has season updates, they’re not great
Moving away from the monetization concerns, let’s just look at the fundamentals of what an ever-updating FIFA title could look like. It already has seasonal content in Ultimate Team, with free packs and Objectives cards available. Compared to other titles of the same ilk, it’s all pretty boring stuff… Unless you’re a tifo fan.
Warzone is an enormously popular battle royale game. It has different seasonal updates, with special cosmetics landing in each major patch, and tweaks to gameplay along the way. For FIFA – if you haven’t noticed already – gameplay is something of a lightning rod. Even some pro players I have interviewed personally admitted they didn’t enjoy playing the game, off the record.
With Warzone, you can hate all of the glitches and the hackers, but people come back because the shooter experience is consistent and usually on-point. That’s why little nerfs and buffs work in an ever-updating model, because the general gameplay is already acceptable for the majority. Though, very rarely have battle royale titles maintained the same level of interest from launch to when the seasons hit double digits.
Apex Legends might be a unique example of a developer doing it right.
Admittedly, if FIFA goes free-to-play, more fans might play the game for longer in the year and break up the more ‘dead’ months on the current release day calendar, with an ever-updating structure.
Conversely, stripping away the optimism surrounding the game launches – where fans hope things move in a new direction, with developments in animations, game modes, and gameplay – is not a great idea. It is what keeps the majority of players going.
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With a free-to-play version, based on current models used by Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Warzone, monetization would play an even bigger role in how these games are developed. The growing thirst for more and more content will dilute what’s already good about Ultimate Team. On top of that, the excitement of the annual launch is lost, replaced by a new season update with new kits and stadiums. Call me old-fashioned, but this series hardly needs any more cut and paste.
We also don’t know how the earnings of each game are distributed across the dev team. For all we know, a free-to-play FIFA 23 would mean less funding for offline modes, and they’ll be left to stagnate as the sole focus becomes FUT. You could argue it is that way, already.
In terms of the proposition: The games might become free in the short term, though it could be the beginning of us all sleepwalking into an even more expensive and addictive FIFA experience. Less spent on offline modes. Even more focus on just Ultimate Team… Nobody wants that. But it would be inevitable.