Should CS:GO Become Free-to-Play?

With the long-awaited Panorama UI getting tantalizingly close to its full release, it’s been theorized by many that it may be the first of many steps towards the game’s potential rebirth as a free-to-play title. Would that be a beneficial change for the wider community? More than twenty years in, the jury is still out.

A better viewpoint

The Panorama UI – initially slated for a 2017 release – has recently entered its beta state as part of an opt-in branch of the game, finally rendering the old and limited Flash-based menu system obsolete as part of a modification that the developers describe as “most substantial change to the look and feel of CS:GO since the game was released in 2012”. While it doesn’t seem to go as far as the Reborn update did for Dota 2 – it certainly doesn’t port the game to Source 2 – but it is still a much-needed development for the game’s fairly old initial outing.

Apart from the obvious graphical benefits and the increase in performance – say goodbye to that annoying little stutter whenever you press Escape mid-match –, this new change opens up a lot of opportunities with regards to in-game content as well. The “modular” nature of the new main menu could allow for a lot of potential QoL improvements depending on how much Valve is willing to open up that system to the workshop or a selected group of third-party developers (let’s not forget that Global Offensive’s initial release had a lot to do with a certain Hidden Path back in the day).

Counter Strike Terrorists Counter-Terrorists F2P

One has to wonder: considering the similarities between this change and what Reborn brought to Valve’s other flagship esport title – support for custom games and a better spectator interface among other things –, could the developers possibly be getting ready to turn CS:GO into a free-to-play game like they did with TF2 back in the day? Oddly enough, the reason why this is a difficult question to answer isn’t because it’s an unreasonable idea: it simply may not be necessary, a sign of the formula’s incredible success for over two decades now.

The bomb has been planted, the bomb has been defused, counter-terrorists win: the strength of the core gameplay loop in Counter-Strike has been a resounding success for over twenty years– it never required the allure of seasonal resets or quest-like goodies to keep it rolling, and it’s an asset that has been relatively well shepherded by the developers over the many years and iterations we’ve seen since its 1999 release. Then again, there’s also the recent, highly publicized drop in the active playerbase to consider. While it is no secret most games would still kill for this slightly reduced level of activity, the rise of titles like Overwatch and the rapid ascent of the battle royale genre might make an idea like this more enticing in 2018 than it was before.

Who knows how many potential changes are boiling in the witch’s cauldron? An in-development survival mode has been reported last December that could also increase the game’s appeal to an even wider swathe of potential players. The rapid and fairly promising improvement of VACNet could also be a harbinger of things to come: turning the game free-to-play would be a disaster without a very effective and robust anti-cheat mechanism. It does seem like Valve are finally taking the problem more seriously with this new system, and there haven’t been high-profile issues in the highest levels of the competitive scene either, at least as far as mere mortals like us know.

Still, it’s way too early to scratch that particular issue off the proverbial list. It’s also just one of the two oft-cited complaints about the regular gameplay experience: the toxicity issue would likely also need a much greater focus before the game would be ready to be rolled out for a wider audience, at least for the lower-level portion of the playerbase. It’s also worth considering that the slightly uneasy relationship between the game’s matchmaking issues and its third-party subscription-based solutions would be a lot less out of the place if the base game were to become free. Logically, non-ladder competitive mode also seems like a must-have if such a seismic change were to be made.

Why? Why not?

In terms of economics, it’s tough to find an argument against such a move. The people at Valve already have a ton of experience in managing free-to-play titles, and the incredible success of CS:GO’s skin system means that the actual game purchases likely only amount to a fraction of its revenue stream, especially considering its fairly low base price and the regular sales on Steam. In many respects, there is no reason not to make the game available for everyone.

Counter-Strike Screenshot

In fact, the game is already free-to-play since last August in China, provided you are willing to confirm your identity with Perfect World. I have no doubts that people at Valve have been actively poring over the data generated by this move – though these players don’t show up on the normal databases because the players are using the Chinese company’s client, I have no doubt that the developers have their hands on whatever metrics they deemed useful from this. It certainly seems like they are open to the possibility…

Of course, we’re talking about a notoriously unpredictable and not particularly talkative company that has reversed its course many times on a multitude of projects, likely making most speculation futile. Then again, it’s also worth mentioning that the developers are a lot more active on social media nowadays despite the company’s typical approach of only communicating via game updates, even if a decent chunk of their current messages reek of “how do you do, fellow kids?”-syndrome.

Is this a move that Valve has to make in the future? Of course not: they are such a juggernaut both in the esports sphere and the tech scene – according to Gabe Newell, they were the most profitable company per-employee in 2011 and this margin likely hasn’t worsened since then –that they basically don’t have to do anything ground-breaking to stay on top for a very long time. It is, however, a change that they have already made in the past with Team Fortress 2 that led to great success, and now they could replicate it with a game that has a lot higher potential when it comes to attracting players.

You can never really know what’s cooking in the great chocolate factory at Bellevue, but making CS:GO available to everyone seems like something that they will definitely serve up to us at some point: it seems like both a logical explanation for their recent moves and a more than reasonable solution to any perceived or real problems the title may be having right now. Is this the brave new world of Counter-Strike? Gaben only knows.