Are F2P MMOs the new standard?

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Rift is typical fantasy, but really beautiful.

If I learned anything from the recent trip to PAX, it’s that the world of MMORPG’s is ever expanding. Perhaps exploding is a better word? I must have played at least five different games: GW2, Rift, DnD Online, LOTR, Terra…and that’s just the start. The thing that shocked me most, though, was that most of these games come with a subscription fee.

The eastern-style of free-to-play MMO-RPG’s making it’s way over to the other hemisphere has been a hot topic for a while now, but the ball really got rolling when Tom Chilton of Blizzard fame suggested that subscription-based cash-cow World of Warcraft may one day follow suit and EverQuest II announced a watered-down F2P version of itself.

Needless to say, online gamers all over America and then some flipped their collective shit at the “news”, freaking out and wrongly declaring “FREE-WOW WORLD, DREAMS HAVE BEEN REALIZED” malarkey.

Unsurprisingly they ignored the fact that he also declared this wasn’t going to happen “anytime soon”, if at all, which likely means Blizz is waiting for their next big hit to take the place of WoW. Let’s face it, guys: Blizzard will most likely be the ones to make the much-fabled WoW-Killer.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened sooner rather than later. For the first time since WoW started, subscriptions have declined. They continue to do so, and that’s with nothing out there right now that’s even much competition. People are, as many have said said, simply getting bored with it. This is following an overall trend in subscription MMO’s losing players, with the exception of seven-year-old Eve Online who have boasted more players than ever.

Subscription MMO's dying slowly from lack of HOTs.

The reasons is pretty clear: there are tons of free to play MMO’s out there of notable quality, and others that are dropping their subscriptions in favor of micro-transaction supported markets. This is a very Asian concept and is common in flashy Korean and Japanese based online games. It’s worked well in the far-east, but never quite picked up in the west until now. These days there are many options where players can get their hack and slash fix without paying 10-25 dollars a month for it. People are willing to settle for something a little less in terms of content if it means it’s free, and who can blame them with the economy being what it is? But free doesn’t have to mean a shitty game, either.

Guild Wars was one of the first western MMO fantasy games of quality to dedicate themselves to  a free-to-play environment from the start, supported by new content every six months and small upgrades like storage and character slots.  Once they switched gears to their new game,  additional content ceased and they added vanity micro-transactions like make-overs and costumes to continue financial income. Determined to stay true to their original gaming model, ArenaNET has promised that the sequel would be just as free to play as the original and offer nothing less than groundbreaking graphics and gameplay. Ambitious, yes, perhaps a little risky. But brilliant, none-the-less, and very necessary a move to shake the long-stangant idea of what an MMORPG needs to be.

Most people will pay for one game only, rarely two, which puts all subscription games at ends with each other. Theoretically, a game is more likely to have a larger or more dedicated player base if it’s free to play than not, because they’re not competing for a spot on the “please pay for me” ballot. A F2P game is more likely to have people return to it after absences and warrants much less feelings of forced play-time and resentment (“Oh, I have to play to make it worth the money I put down…”). Someone who has their main sub-based MMO likely has their guilty side-dish F2P games as well (GW, TFII, and Starcraft would be mine :D).

One huge fear gamers have about F2P supported by Micro-Sale games is that they feel selling vanity services eventually leads to selling items that give them clear game-play advantages over others. People seem to have this huge vendetta against the idea of “paying for content” because this is immediately what they assume is the case. Every time WoW puts another vanity item in the online store, you get droves of threads crying out blasphemy and wondering when they will cross over to the dark-side of selling gear and levels. But there is a deep irony hidden in these caverns.

Everquest II’s  “extended” model is another, albiet misunderstood, marketing tool that takes advantage of the popularity of F2P mmos. The part many gamers initially found hard to swallow is that it’s basically a glorified eternal trial-version. You’ll eventually cap-out on stuff to do unless you pay, and that part is where the “optional” content comes in and this is what the gaming community is hemmraging about. But the very people who scoffed at the idea of EQII:E’s model are the same ones blowing 25 bucks on ponies and ponytails. And lets consider this: how would one define WoW-style expansions ? Oh yeah. Paying for additional “optional” content, except that it’s not. WoW expansions are literally optional, but far from it in context. We all know this.

So then, what difference is there between buying the expansions every two years for WoW or paying 10 dollars in EQII:E for a new level cap and gear tiers? Absolutely nothing.

If WoW’s recent, though sometimes questionable, dabbling in micro-transactions on top of subscription fees and Guild Wars’ F2P model supported by micro-sales are any indication, we see clearly people -are- willing to pay extra for vanity items. Pets, mounts, costumes, and make-overs. Transfers, bonus missions, storage, and sex-changes. If you offer a good game to base something on, players won’t mind investing a little extra into it, especially if that game is free-to-play to begin with and they feel compelled to support something they enjoy.

There are many games that will doubtlessly continue to charge monthly, especially those based on franchises like Final Fanatsy or Starwars. But we could definiately see a huge shift towards the end of free to play MMO’s supported by optional content and this is something that I think everybody should be excited for, not fearful of.

Now to encourage all you lurkers to comment, I have some questions for the masses: Do you think F2P will eventually eclipse sub-based mmo’s? Why or why-not?

Further reading:

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  • TheBrandonBear

    Hey there Izzie,

    A very well written article right here, and very thought-provoking. Alot of what you’d typically call the free-to-play MMORPGs that are around today run under the companies such as gPotato and other such companies are very much proven to be a successful business model. Without even a box price these games seem to be able to stay afloat and the production of new free MMORPGs continues for the companies, it is showing the bigger companies out there that it is possible to run a game without the subscription based model.

    However in terms of content these games are very much lacking, you mentioned how the Asian market seems to have latched onto this model more and it’s very evident in the grindy playstyle of these games.

    I have to say when WAR announced that it was going to open up the first ten levels and make them free to play rather than subscription based I went.. what? That was great news for me, as a person with not alot of time I often found myself restricted to the lower levels of a game and I didn’t want to continue shelling out 25 dollars(New Zealand) a month to drudge around the mediocrity. LoTRO seems to be taking it another step with its free-to-play model. And it’s all very exciting for the future of MMORPGS.

    Now Guild Wars, Guild Wars I wouldn’t class as a free to play solely for the fact you have a box price. Now the box price is incredibly low right now but when it came out it was around the price of four months subscription to WoW. Of course subscription games like Aion, WoW and initially WAR all had this box price as well, but I’m simply saying you really do pay for the game in the first place. You then have your socially redeeming payments for cosmetic stuff, character slots and campaigns so that you’re not simply a squatter, taking up server space without paying for it.

    Personally I don’t beleive the model is changing anytime soon, not legitly. I think subscription has worked far too well for WoW and since we are still under it’s tyrant like reign we will still fall under it’s bad habits. Maybe GW2 can change that, let’s hope.

    The Brandon Bear.

    • Great points there.

      Gamers have had a hard time defining the different models: F2P in regards to MMOs was generally referring to a game you buy once and play free for the rest of your life. Subscription based = periodic payments, and free games have just be called free. It’s still easy to get confused, though, and lots of people get into heated arguments online when using F2P in regards to box-priced games.

      Back then there weren’t a lot of fully free MMORPG’s, or MMO’s in general, to compare with, though. With so many fully legitimately free games coming out now, and many others adopting either a F2P version or section (like War) the lines are getting blurred. There basically needs to be a re-defining of terms all around to catch up with the changes.

      I definitely see where you’re coming from. Many game companies trying to make the next big fantasy MMORPG try too hard to be like WoW because they see what a success it is. But they lose sight on what “success” can be measured in. A small mom and pop coffee-shop doesn’t have to be Starbucks to be successful. LIkewise, a good MMORPG doesn’t have to have 12 million subscribers.
      But even Tom Chilton said one day it might just make sense to go the route of F2P (rumors that the first 60 levels of wow, aka Vanilla WoW, might be subscription-free in the future have been flying around.)

      I think ArenaNet gets that, which is a good thing. And like you said, if GW2 is a success, and if the other games like War, LotR, EVII:E, etc. find that their newly adapted models work, we could definitely see a big change in the genre overall.

      Great thoughts!

  • PolygonMage

    Hello! I found this a great read, I read through a few of your others too, and they were also of a good quality. *Bookmarks*

    In response to the question: No – well, not any time soon.

    For the simple reason that; if gamers will pay for something, then the company will charge them, take Xbox Live for example, they’re upping the costs of subscription in 2011, because they know that their customers that play Xbox games online will continue to pay the costs.

    Eventually though, (hopefully :I) it might happen with MMOs, especially with Arenanet leading the way with a game that seems good enough to beat WoW, while still being free to play. I doubt WoW itself will ever go F2P though, it’ll probably just die out in a few years and Blizzard will close the servers.. Unless they bring out something big enough to bring players back.

    Well, that’s my ramblings on the matter, Thanks for reading 🙂

    Lenxx (GW2G)
    PolygonMage (Twitter)

    • ‘ey! Nice to see you on here. Thanks!

      You’re right, big bucks for companies is too appealing. The thing is, without some sort of leverage to back up a game, it’s difficult to convince players to pay. WoW has years of existence and millions of subscribers. Final Fantasy has over a decade of franchise and devoted fans. They can be confident that people will pay fees for their games.

      Even those that have some history have a hard time: neither LotR or Starwars Galaxies ever broke 300,000 subscribers at their peak and are on a steady decline (although 300,000 is not a shabby number). Games like Age of Conan, Aion, and Warhammer enjoyed very short-term success that fell quickly. I have a funny feeling if Aion was F2P it’d be more popular than it is.

      New startups with little to no history are likely to find it difficult convincing players to pay for their games. Gamers are expecting more and more from P2P titles and becoming harder to impress. As that happens, F2P games become more attractive, and when they automatically assume F2P = crappy games, they are more easily impressed by a half decent or good one, if that makes any sense.

      It’s this shifting mindset that gives F2P titles the biggest advantage in the coming years, I think. We will have to wait and see, though!

  • BarGamer

    I hope GW2 lives up to even PART of the hype.

    • ditto. it’s the most hyped game out there right now, lots of expectations and anticipation.
      they have a -lot- to live up to.

  • I think it’s coming.

    Maybe we’ll see some changes after a few year from now.

    • I agree. Hopefully sooner rather than later, though!

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  • F2P games are good, but I find P2P games are far more better than those. After your hardwork or whatsoever you’ve earned within the game, you could sell your account or your items if you wish to create another character.

    • Well, usually selling accounts and things for real money is against TOS for games, so that’s kind of an iffy example.

      I don’t disagree, though, that for the most part P2P games have been higher quality overall simply because they have the financial backing to support features and servers that F2P generally can’t.

      However, I don’t think that means this is how it’s got to be forever. GW2 is setting a precedent and high bar for standards in the F2P genre and I really think it’d be a very healthy environment on both ends to have both high quality F2P and P2P games out there.

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