The Folly of Free to Play

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.

9 thoughts on “The Folly of Free to Play”

  1. i’m not sure i agree with any of this. particularly points like i’ll care more about my characters if i’m paying for them. hardly. i have as much affection for characters i’ve created in silkroad or guild wars, as any other game.

  2. Fair enough. I am the same way with my characters.

    What do you think about gamers being able to buy items, pre generated characters with x levels, or paying entry fees for events?

  3. I think buying items and whatnot with real cash is a very bad idea, and is a horrible precedent. SOE with their Station Exchange just makes matters even worse (sets a precedent for other companies to follow) but atleast they limit it to specific servers, Mythic right now has my admiration (even though I think it’s a bit of a marketing ploy) for their stand on buying and selling in game items, as they have taken out ads in prominent PC gaming magazines stating their stand on the whole issue and that they will not advertise in any magazine that advertises in game item selling/buying services.

    As you said it divides your player base in to haves and havenots even further than game specific content can do (i’m looking at you WoW and your high end “content) but this is even worse as it divides them not based on anything in game but on what their monetary influx is in the real world.

    I do think you use F2P in the wrong since though as I don’t view games where you would HAVE to buy items as F2P. There’s only 2 games I can think of as F2P and both in different ways. Guild Wars is F2P after the initial purchase and you don’t have the ability to buy items with real cash (well not through the company anyway). Then there is Anarchy Online which you can get the base game for free…if one is willing to put up with ads in the game. Right now the ads are intrusive even though AO is set in a futuristic setting, simply because none of them are set up to be really meshed in to the game setting at all. I would not mind the ads that much if the companies did something to make them contact the world they are in (use in game art or NPC’s on the billboards) yes it would still be a bit silly to see someone selling Fanta in whatever year it is in AO but with it done with in game art one could sort of gloss over it. Thankfully with AO since I am a paying customer i don’t have to see the ads unless I want to.

    As for loyalty to a game character I have paid money in to through subscriptions, it’s not really the money invested that keeps me, but the fact that if one spends a few months or more in a game you tend to make bonds with other players and one doesn’t want to lose that contact (i’m still paying for a lvl 205 Soldier in AO that I haven’t actively played in over 6 months now for this very reason). I would get that same bond in a F2P game if it caught my attn long enough to keep me. As for worrying about your character being deleted i have yet to see an MMORPG actually go through and delete many accounts at all, and if they do it tends to be any low level characters that haven’t been used in forever (I believe AO has done this twice in all the time its been around and never for characters higher than level 5…and only to free up names).

    Alright, sorry for the rambling nature of my post, it’s 2am here atm.

    Oh and man did you evvvvvvvvvvvvvver go on a posting spree today. All were very good reads btw.

  4. Hehe, thanks : ) Good comments by the way. One of the things I want to do is spur discussion, or at least provide some different perspectives on things to get people to think and see what reactions are. Heck I might not even agree with my own commentary at times, but I want to vocalize what a lot of people are thinking (in my opinion) but no one is saying.

    I still want to see a vulcan wearing an IPOD.

  5. Interesting discussion… I guess I am not sure where I stand on RMT in games. I’m a hard core casual player. I play when I can, but I have a job and I have family commitments, so I can’t be playing 24/7 like some of my guild mates. I know that some people buy gold/items/accounts. I’m not sure if that really bothers me or not… I guess the fact that I’m not sure indicates that as of yet, it doesn’t bother me.

    To say however that RMT “divides them not based on anything in game but on what their monetary influx is in the real world.” is kinda weird… right now most of the games out there divide players based not on anything in the game, but on their free time available in the real world. Just look at what Raph Koster was ranting about recently with his games teach the wrong lessons.

    So yeah, maybe in games set up so that free time alone is the determining factor on sucess, RMT upsets the balance. Maybe someone can come up with a better system for rewards where neither time nor RMT will be the determing factor on success. Or maybe RMT can be factored into the game from the start so that either RMT or time can be the determing factor on success.

    Perhaps something along the lines of mobile phone plans? You can pay your $15 and get unlimited hours of playing, or you can pay per hour and purchase extras that you want. People can either farm using real life hours or use real life hours at a job and convert it to success in game. The problem is mostly that from the game companies perspective, people are most likely only going to be willing to buy things once they hit the max level. Otherwise they aren’t going to get much use out of them.

    Anyways, just throwing my thoughts into the hat.

  6. There is a solution (maybe even several) to finding the balance between hardcore and casual gamers. Making games free to play combined with item oriented microtransactions is not one of them.

    Personally, I favor the hybrid model…subscription/pay to play plus microtransactions (done the right way). There should be a free to play aspect as part of the model, but this should be limited. Free to play models should be implemented like some game demos are…you can play all you want, but you have a lot of locked content, or maybe you are restricted to newbie areas, or you cant gain any additional experience while your account is flagged as “free”. So, you can still adventure around with your buddies, but you simply can’t advance unless you pay a fee and contribute to the ongoing hosting/operations/expansion of the game.

  7. Personally, I think the F2P model is fantastic. Not just as a cheapass player, mind you, but also as a theorist.

    If done right, F2P solves the population distribution problem – if the majority of characters are “everyday Joes” and only the hardcore, paying customers are “heroes”, it makes for a more realistic, intriguing world. Having a free account, perhaps making a few microtransactions when it seems appropriate, but mostly clawing your way up to the top of the heap is more satisfying than subscribing right as the game goes live, trying to find the playtime to grind to the top, and then find that half the world is right there next to you.

    An example can be found in Puzzle Pirates (I have not played it much, so correct me if I am wrong). If you do not subscribe to Puzzle Pirates, you cannot become a captain of your own ship, but you can be a crewmember. This means there are plenty of crewmembers available for the captains, and that those crewmembers don’t resent their position because they’re playing the game for free anyway.

    As for Anarchy Online, their model certainly appears less like “let’s make money on ads” and more like “let’s give the old core game away for free and charge money for those who want the recent content”. The ads are tasteful and doesn’t retract from the game experience (like many single-player games do, especially sports and racing games). I think what Funsoft has done is great – they kept the old world running rather than migrating to a new game, which doesn’t alienate the existing player base, and decided to give that older content away in order to attract new players who could then be sold on the new content.

    As for microtransactions, I disagree with them only if they are presented as a means to rapidly advance beyond the abilities of your peers. The text-based “Achaea” falls into this category, where you can essentially purchase as many training points as you can afford. Yes, you have to do some grinding in between, but you can basically quickly advance your character to godlike powers if you have enough cash.
    Rather, I’m in favour of those games that implement microtransactions as a way for you to do non-essential things in the game (customize your character’s appearance or purchase land, for example), or purchasing common, one-shot items that provide temporary bonuses. I am also OK with a charge – one-shot or subscription-based – to progress your character beyond a certain point in the game, sort of like purchasing the Epic Rulebook in D&D – it doesn’t automatically make your character stronger, but if you’re serious enough about the game to progress to that point then paying the fee will let you do that.

    I definitely disagree with the concept that you do not get as attached to your character in a F2P game. Perhaps P2P games are better at guaranteeing an attachment to your character, but I believe that is mostly because you feel that you invested not only time but also money into the character and his/her abilities. F2P games require you to gain a genuine attachment to your character first, because you like the character and the game, and once you have that you are more willing to commit to micropayments or subscriptions. I have felt strong, genuine attachment to characters from MUDs and MUSHs, and I was more distraught when I realized my Kingdom of Loathing character had been idle-nuked than when I cancelled my 18-month of WoW account.

    Yet, thanks for your insights.

  8. I miss the way UO was set up… you could’nt ‘buy’ your way to… well, anything. Yeah, you might have massive amounts of gold in the bank, snagged off ebay…. but until you put in the time to level a skill (or skills), all the money in the world would’nt help you.

    UO was the blueprint for other MMOs to follow… just not understanding why they all deviated from it. AC1 tried to stay in that area… but they stepped a tad too far off skill-based.

    I truely think any game that moves from skill-based to level-based is doomed. That included games that try to hybrid the two.

    I recall in the days of playing UO and AC1… the complete… bewilderment when hearing someone I knew bought gold out of the game. There was just no need.

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