Analysis | Business Model

Rocket League Asks Can Free Work For Pay-to-Play?

DFC Intelligence: Digital Console Meter – click to enlarge
DFC Intelligence: Digital Console Meter – Click to enlarge.

DEC. 21, 2015 • Taking a page from the online promotion of ebooks, some independent game developers are testing whether giving away the full game free for a limited time can significantly boost the overall market share and sales of their titles. In the case of Rocket League by Psyonix Inc., the answer is affirmative.

Valve Inc. has already shown that deep discounting games during its weekend sales can positively increase awareness and bring in more revenue than without the discounting. The difference in Psyonix’s promotion, in addition to digitally distributing Rocket League for free at launch, was running the promotion between July 7 and August 4 on the PlayStation 4. Rocket League was made available to PlayStation Plus subscribers of the PlayStation Network in the Americas, Europe and Oceania as part of the Instant Game Collection. The price of ownership for non-subscribers and PC players is $19.99, although Steam has offered various discounts on Rocket League since July.

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DFC has found that Rocket League drove record downloads for independently developed games on consoles during the third quarter of 2015, with 4 million downloads on the PS4 during in July alone. At the end of August, Psyonix disclosed that 1 million of its sales to date had come on Steam, confirming the major driver of downloads had been via the PlayStation Network.

Psyonix chose the free PS4 giveaway since the studio did not have a marketing budget large enough to drive sufficient launch awareness for Rocket League. The idea was to get the game into as many households as possible and let enjoyment of the product drive word of mouth. The PS4 platform also provided a secure walled garden where piracy would not be a problem. Rocket League’s outrageously fun melding of combat cars, soccer and pyrotechnics is also a perfect mix for traditional console demographics.

By mid-December, Rocket League registered users had grown to 8 million and total revenue was disclosed to the Wall Street Journal at $50 million. DFC estimates that $43 million of that revenue came from title sales, and $7 million from the same of vanity packs that cost between $2 and $4.  As the chart shows the success of Rocket League meant unit downloads of indie developer games on console soared in Q3.

Rocket League Sales by Country: DFC Intelligence PC Game Meter – Click to enlarge.
Rocket League Sales by Country: DFC Intelligence PC Game Meter – Click to enlarge.

Obviously giving away a title for free is not ideal. However, for the right title and distribution platform, free can be a viable tool to get a premium pay-to-play game off the ground. This is especially true when you can also offer compelling add-on content.  If it is done for a short window it can spur long-term sales by helping jump-start a franchise.  This is really a variation of the shareware model pioneered by companies like id Software in the 1990s. The difference today is that products have much broader reach due to the widespread adoption of digital distribution.

In the ebook arena, this model is also used to buoy lagging sales and we are curious to see whether that happens with video games. No doubt that after Psyonix’s success, more independent studios will be looking carefully on the free download option.

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