Are F2P MMOs the new standard?

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?