Free to play online games sounds like such a good deal…after all, it’s free, right? “Free to play” MMORPGs aren’t actually free (yes, it is false advertising when they say “100% free”). The publishers and developers make their money primarily by generating revenues from in-game advertising, and micro-purchases of in-game items and other perks. [Yes, I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about MMOs in general]
Games in Asia have long been based on a “pay to play” model where gamers usually buy time cards at a cyber café, gas station, or something similar, which they redeem for time in a game. These are usually hourly or daily options. So, going from “pay to play” to “free to play” seems like a logical next step. One of the reasons that the monthly subscription model hasn’t been as popular in the East is the lack of market penetration of credit cards.
In the West, gamers are used to buying the “box” or retail version, which usually gives them a free month, and then paying a monthly subscription to continue playing. This usually ranges from $9.95 to $19.95. Some games require $29.95 or more per month.
The “free to play” (F2P) model is very short sighted and has a number of problems.
With the monthly recurring subscription, people generally continue to pay, even if they are not playing actively…mostly because they don’t want to lose their characters due to inactivity, and sometimes because they are just too lazy to cancel their subscription (or the monthly fee is low enough that they just don’t care).
F2P unbalances the game in favor of people with more money, as they can simply purchase items and other things that give them an advantage. People with more time and less money (typically the younger half of the gamer demographic) are now unfairly penalized, although they form the core of any game’s community.
Gamers also tend to place more value in their characters when they invest time and money (monthly subs) into development and advancing. In F2P games, this value simply is not there. There is no cost to creating the character and little emotional attachment is invested.
What I think will happen, is that games that go to the F2P model will have an early spike in traffic and users, followed by reasonably decent microtransactions, and then a rapid decline in revenues as people spend less on microtransactions. Server traffic will either maintain at some level or decrease somewhat. The result will be high costs of maintenance and operation, but the declining revenues will soon put the whole game at risk. It isn’t cheap running an MMO.
Another problem here is something I have addressed previously…setting expectations and “training” gamers. Once you let the Free to Play genie out of the bottle, it will be extremely difficult to put back in. If all of the large publishers and bigger MMOs switch to the F2P model, they will do the industry a great disservice and screw things up for a few years. The F2P model works great for a lot of online games (like Gunbound) but is a really really bad idea for MMOs.
My advice is to stick with the monthly subscription model for the West, use the Pay to Play model for the East, and include a microtransaction schema to supplement revenues (without offering things that imbalance gameplay or give someone with money an unfair advantage). Finally, keep advertising out of MMOs! The idea of Coke and Nike ads in a game like Anarchy Online or Star Wars Galaxies is ludicrous. I will have a heart attack if I ever see a Hobbit eating some Pringles, or a Vulcan wearing an IPOD.
Yes, I know I posted a lot today. Sometimes I write a whole lotta stuff at once (which is also why I tend to write real long posts haha). Maybe I’ll lay off the commentary for a few days. Or, maybe Ill post something else really long later tonight to help you go to sleep haha.