May 26th, 11:24pm America/New_York

Should CS:GO be Free to Play?

Jack "Westerman" Westerman on Fri, 12/09/2011 7:26PM

Ten years ago, Counter-Strike was the world’s #1 online action game. It isn't anymore, and it's time that changed.

Counter-Strike Beta 4.0, November 1999
After being released in June 1999 as a mod for Half-Life – one of the most critically acclaimed computer games ever made – Counter-Strike immediately attracted a diehard fan base. Word spread quickly, people played addictively, and within just a few months it had grown to become an international phenomenon. Back then, anybody who owned a couple of PC games had heard of Counter-Strike, and exotic new maps like de_dust promptly became the most-played maps on the internet. Tournaments sprang forth early and often, and huge crowds of competitors, spectators and media personnel would travel for hours to attend events. Online gaming was growing rapidly, eSports was leaping forwards, and Counter-Strike was at the heart of it all. Counter-Strike was the biggest online game in the world.

CS:GO... now playing catch-up.
But not anymore. That was a long time ago, and the FPS landscape has changed dramatically since then. These days, the world’s “#1 online action game” is a shadow of its former self, left behind in the wake of more modern, multimillion-dollar franchises. Sure, both Counter-Strike 1.6 and Source still attract the same hardcore fan base that they always have, still clock up thousands of players every day, and are still regularly featured at tournaments – but they have long faded out of the mainstream consciousness. You’ll never see a new Counter-Strike game advertised on TV or billboards, it’ll never be a cover story on gaming magazines, and even the Global Offensive stand at London’s recent EuroGamer expo was eclipsed by other titles with far bigger budgets. Colossal game series like Battlefield, Call of Duty and Halo get all the attention now, while Counter-Strike sits on the top shelf covered in dust – a relic of the gaming dark ages.

Call of Duty billboards in Times Square.
Clearly, it’s time to shake things up, because Counter-Strike deserves more of that attention. It’s Counter-Strike that should be plastered on the side of buses, glossed on the front page of gaming magazines, and talked about on national television. As game franchises go, CS is one of the oldest and most influential, and it’s high time that the announcement of a new version prompted the same kind of fervour and excitement that Call of Duty games receive every single year. Put simply, the game deserves to be more popular, and we’d all be happier if it were. Valve would make more money, regular players would benefit from a more active and vibrant community, and eSports enthusiasts would see far greater sponsorship and competitive opportunities. It’s a win-win-win scenario.

So, here’s an idea. Why not make Counter-Strike: Global Offensive... free?

Completely free. As in, free to play, zero dollars, cero dinero, or whatever you want to call it. Just give it away! Playing Counter-Strike should be as simple as creating a Steam account, clicking a download button, and jumping into your very first server. Valve has all the tools to do it – they’ve been experimenting with microtransactions, in-game stores and spectator advertising for years now – so why not send Counter-Strike back to its roots and make it Free to Play? It did start out as a free mod, after all.

Numbers speak for themselves.
Just look at Team Fortress 2. After going Free to Play in June this year, TF2 saw a 500% increase in player count, a massive surge in profitability, and a complete rejuvenation in the media. All of a sudden, Team Fortress became the most popular game on Steam – with over 100,000 players online at any given time – and single-handedly quashed any notion that free games were bad games. Alec Meer of Rock Paper Shotgun summarised it best by observing that, “a game released in 2007 is still headline news, still taking risks, still a viral advertising hit, still setting precedents and helping define the landscape for the rest of the industry. How many people are going to want to stump up £30 for something like Brink when they could have TF2 for free?”

By any measure, TF2’s leap to freedom was a carefully coordinated stroke of genius, and one that may be equally beneficial to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. While Team Fortress 2’s player counts have largely fallen back into line since June, there’s no telling how a similar move would impact the inherently more popular gameplay of Counter-Strike. Maybe the number of concurrent players would double, maybe it’d triple; but irrespective of that, Global Offensive would be making far bigger headlines than it otherwise would have. Counter-Strike would be back on the map, shaking off the dust and stepping back into the limelight. For once, it might be more than just a blip on the radar for mainstream Battlefield and Call of Duty players – who might even try it! They’d certainly have nothing to lose in doing so.

Competitive TF2 thrives after going F2P.
Now, going Free to Play undoubtedly raises a number of concerns for long-time CS fans, but most common fears can be shown to be hugely exaggerated. Making the game Free to Play would mean more cheaters. False – you can’t avoid your TF2 VAC ban without significantly changing your hardware. Counter-Strike wouldn’t be a competitive game if it were filled with microtransactions and items. False – you can disable all the Free to Play artefacts in competitive TF2 matches, and people play it to death competitively anyway. Free games are considered lower quality than paid games. False – they haven't been for a long time. There, you see? Every potential downside is either a complete nonissue, or was covered by Valve during their TF2 preparations in June. As Counter-Strike players, we should have absolutely no concerns regarding a move to F2P – it’s all 100% beneficial.

Hats. The future?
The only remaining question is how Valve would make money, and honestly, I don’t have a good answer. Team Fortress 2 is well suited to hats, colourful novelty items, weapon crafting and Steam trading, but Counter-Strike is a more realistic franchise. Selling novelty items would hugely damage the game’s look and feel, and even regular public players are likely to be irked if they are forced to spend real money on an AWP or M4 unlock. Selling map packs or DLC content is also a bad idea in any Source engine game, where modding tools are freely available and servers tend to run a limited cycle of maps anyway. Therefore, the only pragmatic source of revenue seems to be via in-game advertisements (which were introduced to CS 1.6 a few years ago), but even that feels like a terrible and damaging idea.

So, it’s a tricky problem. There are plenty of benefits in making Counter-Strike: Global Offensive a free game, but we can’t expect to give Valve nothing in return. You might complain about an in-game store and microtransactions now, but wouldn’t it all be worth it if CS:GO pulled in 100,000 players on a regular basis? It would mean a more active community, a bigger market share, more headline news, more attention, and crucially, more tournaments. It’s a small evil for a far greater good. Valve have mentioned on several occasions that they have yet to decide on a pricing model for CS:GO – so do we pester them for a Free to Play game, or just shut up and pay the $20 that they’ll likely ask for otherwise? Food for thought!

Image credits: (Web Archive), Valve, Michael De'shazer, PCTips 3000, Multiplay, GiantBomb.
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