One of Those Articles About Free to Play

Seeing as I’m basically not a proper blogger unless I write a piece about free to play games, it’s about time I got around to giving my views on the model. I know this is a little bit of a cliché these days, so I hope you’ll be patient and bear with me.

The first free to play game I ever played was LOTRO, which I had just gotten into shortly after it transitioned to the free to play model. As it happens, I opted to subscribe, which is something I often do, as I’m totally fine with paying a subscription, as I feel I’m very used to doing so. However, playing LOTRO in particular left me with a lot of impressions of the free to play model, and not a lot of them are very positive.

My main objection, and I believe it’s one that’s clear as day in LOTRO, is that once you become a free to play game, the development course of your game is compromised. When you operate under a subscription model, the incentive for developers is to make a game that’s good enough to keep people subscribed at least, and possibly to attract new players too. With the free to play model, large parts of developer time are spent figuring out new and innovative ways to monetise your game. Even new content cannot be released unless some aspect of monetisation is built into it too.

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I also believe that free to play compromises development in the sense that it removes the incentive to fix problems with your game, when charging people for a temporary fix will do. Take the virtues grind in LOTRO. I find this to be needlessly excessive. Sure, you might hit a couple of virtues in the course of your ordinary questing and leveling process, but I can guarantee that at some point, in order to remain viable in the later game, you’re going to have to go out of your way to kill 100s of mobs. Multiple times too. This just isn’t very fun for me most of the time, but of course, there’s no incentive to reduce this grind when you are selling consumables in the store that make every kill count for double and people are buying them.

Another problem is that there are potentially no depths that MMO developers won’t plummet to in the course of trying to make more money. It’s easy to say when you first change from a subscription model that you’ll never sell gear in the store or some such, but three years down the line when the population begins to dwindle, then you might very well start selling these items. So, any promises or remarks such as these should always be taken with a bucket load of salt. You’ve only got to look at something like ‘hobbit presents’ to see how low devs can go when needs must.

The thing which actually drove me away from LOTRO some years ago now, was the introduction of the barter wallet. Turbine had begun to develop a wallet to store some of the various currencies in the game (of which there were far too many), however they had only developed half of it and most of the currencies didn’t go into the wallet. Turbine stated they planned to add to this later down the road. Yet when they finally did finish the barter wallet, you had to buy it from the store. This really irked me, because I felt as a subscriber I should be entitled to, what is effectively, an update to the functionality of the UI. The notion that I would have to pay extra, not for new content, not for cosmetics, but for an iteration of a half baked design really offended me, and since then I’ve never played the game again.

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You’ll find many people are great exponents of the free to play model, and the most oft sited reason for this is that it allows players a greater degree of freedom. With no barrier to entry, it’s easy to download a game and give it a try, or even to jump between several whenever the mood takes you. Whilst this is very nice for the players, I’d argue that it’s perhaps not the best thing for the MMO genre in general. Transient player bases mean that, at best, you can expect large peaks and troughs in the playerbase of most games, which isn’t the most stable way to run a business, which once again leads to increasing desperation by developers who implement ever cheekier ways to make money.

I also think it’s telling that successful triple A games don’t become free to play. Surely if it’s such a great model for all involved, companies ought to be chomping at the bit to switch? Yet, we see a familiar pattern develop. Games launch with subs, then either switch business models when the population takes a nose dive in the first year or so like Star Wars the Old Republic, or The Secret World. Or, like games like RIFT, devs hold out as long as possible before making the switch in order to save the game from going under. There are some exceptions like Guild Wars 2 and its buy to play model, but this years big releases, Wildstar and The Elder Scrolls Online both opted for the subscription model. And, I’d expect both to switch to free to play when they need a new injection of players. In essence, when the possibility of being a successful subscription game has disappeared

The thing is though, I don’t look at this switch to free to play as inevitable. I just believe we haven’t had enough games that were good enough to keep people subscribed for the long term. Eve manages just fine with the subscription model, there may be many reasons for this but the main one, to my mind, is that it offers an experience which simply cannot be adequately replicated elsewhere in gaming. If more MMOs were willing to go out on a limb and offer more than a different coat of paint and some iterations on pre-existing concepts, then they might actually be able to hold onto players long enough to be successful with a subscription model. I don’t believe any game has ever performed badly solely because of the subscription model, I simply believe that the game wasn’t good enough.

So there we have it, my thoughts on free to play. Do I get my MMO blogger badge now?