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Free-to-play: It's what Western MMO players are coming to expect
Free-to-play: It's what Western MMO players are coming to expect Exclusive
November 14, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Even with the massive shift from subscription-based online business models to free-to-play, it seems that some developers still want to believe they can make subscriptions work. These studios have the tendency to give in, and make the switch to free-to-play.

Nowadays, game developers are finding that -- whether they like it or not -- free-to-play has proliferated enough that players expect MMOs to use the free-to-play business model.

Recently, Gamasutra spoke to Craig Morrison, creative director at Funcom Montreal, the studio behind Age of Conan. That game launched in 2008, but a couple years later adopted a free-to-play model, with a subscription option.

Morrison was thoughtful about the topic of the shift of Western MMOs to free-to-play, but he expressed obvious unease with it. In the end, it seems, he doesn't yet want to give up that subscription business model... even if he can see things changing.

"I think you can definitely see Western games being designed to start at the gates as free-to-play games, because that's what the market will expect. That's what the users will want, from an accessibility point of view," says Morrison.

The current trend is to "go free-to-play" -- subscription games launch, then are modified to free-to-play titles as their subscribers begin to quit in significant numbers. EA and BioWare took the faltering Star Wars: The Old Republic free-to-play less than a year after its launch.

But Morrison sees a potential endgame to this: Now that players have the expectation that games will eventually make the free-to-play shift, they might hold off and simply wait. This, in turn, will accelerate the business model's adoption.

Morrison worries that the struggles of Funcom's subscription-based The Secret World might even stem from this expectation. "Eventually it only stands to reason that people's thought process is 'Oh, well, I'll wait till it's free-to-play,' and that's not something we want as game developers. You don't want players to be going, 'I really want to play that game! ... But I'm going to wait.'"

It's a bit ironic that Morrison has trepidation about the shift, though, as Funcom is one company that helped pioneer the trend.

"We've already moved Age of Conan to free-to-play; Anarchy Online was the first game -- the first Western game -- to go free-to-play, way back in 2005," he notes.

Even premium games that have so far resisted the shift, like Blizzard's indomitable World of Warcraft, have made concessions to the need to bring in new players with unlimited free trials.

Morrison sees the days of the limited seven or 10-day trial "disappearing fast. That will no longer be a model which clicks with the players; they'll more be looking for, 'We expect a free-to-play offering.'" Players now expect "a large amount of content for a considerable amount of time on a free-to-play basis," he says.

Of course, there's an upside to that, he says: "If they see the added value in moving into a hybrid, or a subscription, or buying something through a virtual store, then they will. I don't think players are averse to spending money if they think they're getting added value."

He notes that the games that have converted, rather than been built from the ground up for free-to-play, still try to get players into subscriptions. "They're really not" free-to-play games, he says. "They're using a hybrid model, where the free-to-play is a trial and then what they really want is the users to move on to whatever they've called what used to be a subscription."

"Whether it's premium time or coins -- EverQuest has silver, gold, and platinum memberships; Lord of the Rings has something similar; Age of Conan has tiers. We're really all still subscriptions at the core of that, so they're really hybrid systems."

Still, Morrison clings to the concept of a future for premium subscription MMOs.

"I think we see subscription and free-to-play as tools. And tools can be used well, they can be used badly... It depends on the game. We don't categorically go, 'Subscriptions are dead; there will never be subscriptions anymore,' or, 'Free-to-play is the only way to monetize your games.' I think it depends on the game and it depends on your project."

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Maria Jayne
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For the past 4-5 years mmo developers have all been teaching players they can get it for free, you can't backtrack now. Because there are just too many free options without whatever product you have to offer.

There was a time when free games meant poorer quality, lower budget and generally rubbish. The amount of triple A products that have switched to some form of F2P now washes this stigma away. So much so, that now if you want to make a free to play game, it has to compete with games budgeted as triple A subscription games. That raises the bar significantly.

I always feel like there was a monumental misstep in the mmo industry, instead of getting cheaper, they just went straight to free. Why subscriptions just didn't become 50% or even 25% of what they were per month I'll never understand.

Andy Mussell
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The subscription MMOG is moving more toward a niche market, and I think that's a good thing. It will create more diversity in the offerings (more smaller games with diverse genres, themes, settings, etc.) and hopefully prevent an 800-lb gorilla from ever arising again.

I think we will eventually see that subscription MMOGs won't launch without a f2p entry path, simply because it makes sense for the player: why pay for an online game in advance (even if it gives you a 'free' month) when its competitors let you try out their game's mechanics and community before ponying up a fee. If necessary, I think players interesting in subscribing could tolerate a small ($5-$10) fee to convert a f2p account to a subscription account (e.g. first month costs $20 and $15 thereafter, as with EVE).

James Yee
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Perhaps doing that current WoW/Rift thing of "Unlimited Free-to-20" type thing before launch for everyone? Give everyone that taste and THEN ask for the money?

Michael Joseph
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all things being equal, if one mmo is free and another is not, the free one "wins." But if there is a compelling reason for playing the paid one, then that one will win.

the funny thing is how the idea of standing out and making a compelling experience sounds like PIE IN THE SKY talk these days. there is this resignation of creative spirit and innovation and all the only way for the theme park to make money is to open it's doors and let everyone in for free and then nickle and dime them to death at the concessions or the rigged gallery games...

So why the hell are developers wanting to make MMOs these days? Is "for the money" all that's left to MMO design?

Go out and make a F2P mmo that has artificial game flavorings at your own peril.

James Yee
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I think a lot of MMO game players would agree with you. There's not much innovation at this point. Hell Guild Wars 2 abandonment of the "Holy Trinity" just flipped people out yet 80% of the game is just like every other MMO out there.

We want something new and different no matter the pay format.

Matt Robb
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No one is going to spend the amount of time, effort, and especially cash to create an MMO that can compete directly with World of Warcraft out of the gate for the same price tag. The game has been out for 8 years now and was in development for years before that.

I disagree with how the article seemed to view the hybrid model as a negative case. Some people would prefer to pay a subscription for full access. Others prefer grabbing content a la carte. Having some form of free access to sample the product and/or fill in needed population numbers is fine. This weird push to find the "one business model to rule them all" is just silly to me.

Mike Jenkins
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No one is advancing the genre. EQ remained leader while comparable games were released: Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, etc. It was entrenched for 5 years, and then Blizzard advanced the genre with WoW, leaps and bounds beyond the competition. Here we are 8 years later, and SWTOR plays like it might have been released the same year as WoW. WoW wasn't designed to compete with Everquest, it was designed to blow it out of the water.

On a personal note, I prefer the subscription model, or box only model, to anything with a cash shop. Once anything is introduced into the game's ecosystem, even if it is a "vanity" item, it completely destroys any immersion.

Adam Bishop
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The problem with the subscription model for me is this:

AAA games cost $60. That's a decent chunk of money for a buy-once proposition. But when you're talking about adding a subscription fee on top of that, now you're asking players to commit not just $60, but likely well over $100 (because why would I buy the game if I only planned on playing for the free initial 30 days?) for a game they've never been able to play . That's an absurd proposition to me, the consumer, who is being asked to sign up to give the developer lots of my money, likely over a long period of time, without any real idea how much enjoyment I'm going to get out of the experience. There's no way I'm doing that.

A potentially interesting alternate model that I haven't seen anyone try would be to keep the subscription fees for access to the game, but give the game client away for free. That way my up front cost is only $15 and I have to play for four months before I've hit the standard $60 price point. If after four months I'm still enjoying the game, I'd probably be willing to continue paying to access it. But the combination of up-front pricing AND subscription fees is a non-starter for me.

Lance Thornblad
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Completely agree. That initial cost stops a lot of people and I'm not sure why this strategy wasn't really tried. I wonder if people would accept that model now that their expectations have been set.

Brian Anderson
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This initial cost is what stopped me from trying Star Trek online. I'm not going to pay an upfront amount AND a subscription fee, that is crazy!

(I later tried Star Trek online, and hated it. Why couldn't I fire my phaser in a continuous stream, like in all the TV shows?)

Darcy Nelson
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Interesting idea. It's basically the reverse of the Guild Wars model.

James Yee
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I agree, and I'm not the only one. It's kind of what the "Unlimited Free Trial" modes long established games have done for a while.

Your example gets even worse when you imagine you're playing the game with a wife or loved one!

For example my Wife and I played WoW. So that $120 + the monthly subs. Then it's an extra $80-120 for each expansion ON TOP of our subs. Yeah that got old eventually.

Our latest wast Guild Wars 2. $120 and then... nothing. YAY! :)

Nooh Ha
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"A potentially interesting alternate model that I haven't seen anyone try would be to keep the subscription fees for access to the game, but give the game client away for free."

There are plenty of MMOGs and virtual worlds that do this. However they are pretty much all tiny or browser-based and aimed at kids such as RuneScape, Dofus, Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters etc.. Its a model that works very well for the right demographic.

Cordero W
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Players want quality, not free to play.

Nooh Ha
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Sure, quality is paramount to all players but to suggest that the mass of players also dont want F2P is a bit of a stretch in this day and age of LOL, WoT, CS etc..

Matt Cratty
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I avoid all free to play games.

If that means all of them so be it.

Free to play = we don't have the quality to ask you to buy it OR there's a guy in a suit that read about someone that increased their revenue by doing free to play and they want to get in on it. There are FEW exceptions. One of them is DDO who did it solely to finance the ability to push out big, meaty content packages and the game got BETTER. No other game has gotten better after going free to play. And no real mmo has ever launched free to play and been something worth playing.

I agree that the MASS market garbage mmos need to follow this plan. That's what the masses expect. They don't know any better. A high-quality, TRULY innovative mmo can continue to charge subscription fees.

I'm still waiting for the next one. Its been almost a decade.

James Yee
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What was the last one that was truly innovative? I agree I can't think of one Since EVE Online myself. :(

Honestly I do see the F2P format working just not as an MMO, but as a match-based shooter it works well. I point to Mechwarrior Online which I'm enjoying immensely. Though I'd wish for a single player campaign at some point. *Shrugs*

Stock Watcher66
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I have to disagree here, most players I know HATE the current method of F2P (this is not to say subs are loved also). RNG based baloney, hindered game play and a model where the developer has the chance to create the problem (in game) and then offer the solution (in the cash shop), is, quite frankly, angering A LOT of the player base. To put it bluntly, the MMO industry is doing a terrible job overall with their implementation of F2P in the common nickel-and-diming and gambling tactics introduced through the cash shops and is in danger of alienating a lot of customer based in general. This model is already proving to completely collapse in other related gaming industries - so why is the MMO industry following this path?

The sub model is going the way of the do-do as well because, to put it directly, the games aren't worth the sub fees. Only Trion in the last year has put the effort in that a sub fee is worthy of. The spectacular failure that was SWTOR has little to do with sub fees - 2.4M people bought the box knowing their were sub fees. It had to do with two major things - 1.) EA/BioWare's failure to deliver meaningful content and updates for the fees they were collecting and 2.) The biggest one was that it became obvious to players that EA/BioWare is living in their own alternate reality completely disconnected from their players and the market. They were told many, many times what players wanted. All they had to do was deliver on it, but they instead thought (and still think) they know better than the market. This is a business 101 thing - deliver the value that your customers are willing to pay for.

What I believe this industry should instead move to is a simply B2P with a demo period. Players by the initial box, and buy mini-expansions or full-expansions throughout the course of the year (i.e, they pay directly for the content with connectivity, bug fixes and policing for bots, etc.) given free. Think Diablo I & II format. Now customers would actually be getting some value for their money.