We’re just under two days away at the time of publishing from the next chapter in the Need For Speed series being revealed to the whole world; a series that’s returned to its roots, been remade, rebooted and re-imagined more times than you’d think possible for a racing game. It’s been an underground street racer, a cops vs racers simulator, a cinematic revenge story, an actual pro racing simulation (remember ProStreet?) and some kind of “when will senpai notice me” racing experience. 2015’s Need For Speed was weird.
The series has even been free-to-play before, which is something I learned while writing this article. Need For Speed: World released on PC back in 2010, designed as a freemium MMO racing game, and while World boasted 20 million users two years after launch, the game didn’t exactly do well critically and World was shuttered in 2015 along with several other EA owned free-to-play titles.
You’d think with a well-documented “failure” already in their franchise’s library, EA would be wise to avoid all forms of free-to-play with Need For Speed. The series has had a bit of an identity crisis with some of its most recent instalments, so rocking the boat would be a huge risk, but honestly, it’s a risk that Need For Speed should take.
Since the launch of Need For Speed: World in 2010, the free-to-play genre has been completely legitimised and it’s now seen as a viable method of distribution, especially for console players. Beforehand, free-to-play games were often centred around more niche, PC-oriented genres like MMOs, deck-building games and MOBAs, while console players were given the likes of Dorito’s Crash Course. Granted, Crash Course was a banger, but still.
The release of Fortnite: Battle Royale in 2017, and the rampant success it achieved in the months and years following, proved that there’s a way to provide satisfying and enjoyable gameplay on PC and consoles while staying free-to-play. Sure, the game is filled to the brim with Battle Passes, cosmetics and all manner of purchasable nonsense, but the core experience is there for all to enjoy.
Since then, Fortnite has paved the way for EA stablemate Apex Legends, another free-to-play battle royale game which boasts gunplay that rivals the likes of Call of Duty, but doesn’t have to break your bank balance to do it. The likes of Brawlhalla, Dauntless, World of Tanks, Paladins and Warframe also prove that free-to-play success doesn’t even have to be limited to battle royale shooters or PC-centric MMOs and MOBAs.
Despite this, there’s no real love shown for the racing game genre when it comes to free-to-play, specifically on consoles. Sure, there’s the likes of Forza Motorsport 6: Apex on PC, but for starters, the series is on Forza Motorsport 7 now. Also, Forza Horizon 4 and the Horizon series in general focuses more on fun than simulation, and the genre deserves its own F2P equivalent. Either way, there’s no high budget, widely available free-to-play racing game, which sounds like some strangely specific criteria when written out like that but you get my point.
By going F2P with NFS, EA can efficiently plug a gap in the market by providing an enjoyable racing game while leveraging the well-known Need For Speed brand to ensure eyes are already on the product, at no cost to the consumer. Well, no cost to play, anyway. Let’s not pretend that there wouldn’t be premium currencies and whatever the racing game equivalent of a battle pass would be called coming out of the game’s ears. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine EA not putting them into the new NFS regardless, so at least it’d have an excuse if it was free-to-play.
One of the details that has been revealed about the new Need For Speed is that it’ll focus on the cops versus racers dynamic that’s been at the core of the franchise for the majority of its history, though whether that means you can play as a cop or a racer a la Hot Pursuit or Rivals, or if you’ll just be escaping the rozzers like you did in Underground or Most Wanted.
For a free-to-play release, an approach similar to Hot Pursuit would make sense. Making the game free would ensure that there would be plenty of cops and racers to compete against each other. As much as Rivals might have been a bit odd, turning the open world into a pursuit playground where other players can try and take you down, or where you try to take them down, was one of its biggest strengths, and would make for a unique free-to-play experience.
With games becoming more and more like live services, offering constant updates and new seasons worth of content, and with Need For Speed likely to follow suit, going free-to-play also makes total sense. The game can grow and evolve with new modes, content and updates, allowing players to dip in and out whenever something gets added that interests them.
Live service racing games seem equally rare to come by right now, with the only real competition coming in the form of the fantastic Forza Horizon 4. The changing seasons every week add new races, challenges and rewards, while the two significant pieces of DLC and free updates have added more modes, areas to explore and rewards to unlock, and there’s no reason to believe a similar model in a free-to-play Need For Speed game wouldn’t work just as well.
The only real drawback to this approach would be the fact that this new Need For Speed is reportedly placing an emphasis on customisation. “A free-to-play racing game focused on cosmetics published by EA” is a sentence bound to ring a lot of alarm bells, but again, Forza Horizon 4 provides the solution here. While driver customisation is unlocked through earnable Wheelspins, all the customisation options are available to you from the get-go for all vehicles.
Honestly, I don’t expect this take to go down too well, as big changes to an established franchise often don’t, but the key here is that Need For Speed’s formula hasn’t been “established” for a long time now. The live-service content formula is already a proven success within the genre, so making NFS free-to-play could be the galvanising change the series needs. Could be. We’ll find out soon enough if EA take that risk.