I am breaking the mold yet again tonight and knocking out a topic that I have been kicking around in my head all day. Quite honestly the topic is not my own, it was suggested to me by Syl of MMO Gypsy. There is a really interesting discussion on this weeks Cat Context podcast between Syl and Liore about their feelings regarding free to play games. I started the discussion up on twitter as well, because I tend to align more to Syl’s thought in that free to play is generally a good thing.
The funny thing is… I did not always have this opinion. In fact there was a time I was pretty vehemently anti-free-to-play model. I even believe at one point I wrote a blog post about the fact that I did not believe the industry pundits that all games would be switching over to free-to-play in order to survive. I really disliked the thought of a pure free to play game.. and in part this was due to some bad experiences with early games in the genre.
My first real taste of the free to play genre was with the blatant wow clone Runes of Magic. During one of my bored with WoW phases, I ventured out… downloaded it and tried to get into it. The problem is, the game at its core was this fairly horrific grindfest, that could only be sped up by spending “diamonds” on the in game store. It had some other fairly egregious money sinks in that most of the mounts that were available were “rental” only, giving you it for a fixed number of hours at a time. Some of the only permanent mounts came from… you guessed it the cash shop.
Later on I had gotten into the closed beta for a pretty nifty game called Allods. It was essentially a very unique looking russian/steampunky wow like game. I played the heck out of it in beta and really enjoyed it, and was looking forward to launch. Then towards the end of the test period they introduced their take on the cash shop. I don’t remember a ton of details other than the fact that so many things were pay-walled behind real money transactions. One of the mini-games i refuse to play in an MMO… is inventory maintenance… and the only real way to increase your bag space was through dumping cash into the in game store.
Both of these games served to give me an extremely negative impression of what this whole free to play genre was. Combine with the fact that the servers I was playing on seemed to be entirely populated with kids… aka people unable to buy their own subscriptions to games… I thought subscription gaming was the only way to maintain a thriving community. As new free to play conversions entered the market, I would give them a spin, especially if it was a game I had played before. Every time I would walk away disgusted by the horrible community I found there.
When Everquest 2 first launched its forray into free to play, I really paid no attention to it. Essentially it held nothing for me. Gameplay was essentially corralled off to its own dedicated server, so you could not play with your friends currently subscribed to the game. Additionally the various tiers of access felt extremely punitive, locking away functionality behind numerous paid gates. However after a period of time they decided to open up the free to play options on all servers. This is the point at which I started to notice changes in the game.
Firstly the station cash shop is pretty amazing, stocking all manner of things from nice cosmetic armors, mounts, amazing houses, and various buff potions. With my 500 station cash a month stipend from subscribing, I was able to pick up all sorts of things that improved my enjoyment of the game. Additionally I noticed the server populations start increasing, and these players were not necessarily the “unwashed masses” I had seen in my earlier ventures into free to play games. Some of these folks were really solid community folks, that just lacked the ability to commit to a month subscription.
The game was still extremely limiting for free to play players, but at least you got to play on the established servers with existing players. The guild I was a member of saw a massive influx in recruits and at one point we had 20-30 players on some nights during the peak of this influx. Additionally it felt like we were seeing a faster speed at getting cool features out to the players like the dungeon creator, eqemote, and new content areas like sirens grotto and skyshrine. It felt like there was a new kind of free to play player that I had not seen before, one that just wanted to play the game without commitment and had no qualms about spending money at their own pace.
Eventually recently they have completely dropped all race and class restrictions from free to play players, and we have seen another big jump in people in the game. There are still some functionality locked away, but the game is at its most playable state for a subscription free player. The game feels more healthy in every sense of the word since the free to play conversation happened. The cities are bustling, the zones have players available for grouping, and the brokers are completely loaded with goods.
Changing My Opinion
After watching the transformation the free to play model has had on the Everquest 2 community, and seeing the numbers released at just how much better Star Wars the Old Republic has been doing since it made its jump. I started to turn my opinion around on the payment model as a whole. While there are still some pretty egregious practices going on, I think for the most part these games are doing better under the new pricing schemes. I will always prefer the option to subscribe, but having free access to my characters gives me the ability to boot up a game I have not visited in months on a whim and spend a few days without feeling the need to fire up my account officially.
I feel like as the conversions happen, each game gets a little better at the model. So far Rift seems to be the best conversion I have seen, in that they chose the route to give subscribers bonus “premium” perks… like increase in coin, token and mount speed. Additionally they have taken the cash shop model to heard and provided hundreds of cosmetic armor available from day one. Sure there are lots of questions about whether or not they took things too far… but really I don’t believe any game has come even vaguely close to “play to win”. No cash shop has offered something so amazing that better cannot be attained in game through grinding out whatever passes as end game content.
Ultimately at the end of the day the real question is, do you want your favorite virtual landscapes to stay alive and well… or are you willing to see them suffer just to make sure they stay away from a free to play model. I don’t think it is about success or failure anymore… but more about survival. These games cost a significant amount of money to keep up and running and keep staffed. These are old figures, but it was reported that between 2004 and 2008 Blizzard spent 200 million dollars on upkeep of the World of Warcraft servers. Dividing that out it ends up at over 4 million dollars per month in upkeep and maintenance fees.
Granted most of the games that have gone free to play don’t have the number of servers or staff that Blizzard has, however I am sure it is still a fairly staggering amount. If they can get 5 players that are willing to pay 5 to 10 dollars on cash shop items per month, instead of 1 player that pays their 15 dollar subscription fee, they end up well ahead and have more money to invest in the game. The games that have gone to free to play seem to be doing well with the model, and that income gets invested in making new content. When Vanguard made the switch to free to play, the influx of new money allowed them to invest the first month in half a decade in development. As a result the players got the benefit in the first ever holiday event, and major server patch.
The Last Starfighter
Right now realistically there are two subscription model games left: The World of Warcraft and Eve Online. Eve is kind a bubble in itself without any real competition in that space, however World of Warcraft has been losing subscribers on a regular basis of late. After the successes of the Star Wars the Old Republic conversion, and if Rift ends up being as successful as it is looking just by the server activity and players returning with a vengence… I feel that before the end of the year we will at least hear about plans for a free to play conversion for WoW. We know that Titan is a long ways off, and their development cycle has always been prodigiously slow. They lack the hook of new and fresh content to keep players engaged.
I feel like the big announcement at Blizzcon will be a conversion to some form of a free to play model, or at least a tiered payment model. There is a huge part of me that mourns the subscription era, but I think it has been shown that the hybrid model ends up wildly successful. The folks that want those premium features are still willing to pony up for a month subscription, whereas the folks that are not wiling to have the monthly commitment are still going to buy the occasional doodad or account unlock.
For me the real takeaway is that whatever keeps these companies healthy, and keeps developers and support staff in their seats instead of hunting for jobs is going to be better for the players in the long run. Right now it is seeming like the free to play model is doing that. Rift for example has had to roll out a couple of new servers just to handle the influx of players. Personally I have had at least 8 friends start playing the game again, with more waiting in the wings to see just how successful the first volley is. When we are talking about MMOs that are not blizzard… we really are not talking about a lot of profiteering going on there. Ultimately they are fighting for survival, and if the free to play model gives it to them… I feel we are more likely to be able to keep playing the games we want to play.
This post ended up far more rambly than I intended it to. I can’t say I am really passionate for or against the free to play model, but at this point I feel like i understand why it is occurring so frequently. I love playing MMO games, it is the one thing I always fall back on. I am in theory embracing free to play, because it seems like the most likely way for these companies to continue getting the money they need… to keep supporting the worlds I care about. Ultimately none of these companies make these games out of the goodness of their hearts. They need our money to make sure they can survive and grow, and at the end of the day… how ever that happens I feel is pretty much fair game so long as it isn’t done in an exploitative manner.