Successful MMO Rift will be making the jump to free-to-play, or F2P, on June 12, adding its name to a growing list of AAA titles that have left the competitive pay-to-play model in the past year. Why are so many games turning away from a payment model that has been a staple of the genre? One doesn’t have too look far to find some answers.
Sony Online Entertainment was one of the major producers of top-tier MMOs in the early 2000s. With success stories like Everquest, Everquest II, and Star Wars Galaxies, they were riding high and surely loving the subscription model. But as more and more companies joined the fray, they began to lose those subscriptions in a big way. Turbine’s The Lord of the Rings Online released in 2007. In a fashion we gamers have come to expect, The Lord of the Rings Online was successful out of the gate, winning numerous awards. However, players soon went back to the games they were used to and invested in, and Turbine was faced with a troubling ordeal. This wasn’t the first time an MMO had gone from success to stagnation. The Matrix Online had similar problems and ended up shutting down its servers in 2009. But Turbine didn’t want to go down without a fight. In 2009, they released Dungeons & Dragons as a F2P MMO and its success gave them an idea. They saw a way to keep their game alive and possibly bring people back without making them choose between subscriptions. So in 2010, they decided to make The Lord of the Rings Online a F2P title as well, making it the first MMO to change from a subscription model to a F2P model. It also was a wildly successful move for Turbine who were able to keep their servers up and release four expansions to date.
With the success of The Lord of the Rings Online’s transition to F2P, the genre was faced with an interesting choice. They no longer had to meet a subscription in order to keep their servers running. In 2011, Age of Conan, also causing facing financial trouble, went F2P to similar success. In 2012, Sony Online Entertainment turned off all subscription options, making all the games remaining under their care and all future releases free to play. Where the genre had been a shark tank of games competing for a subscription, it had now become an all-you-can-eat buffet.
This didn’t stop some companies from trying to keep the pay to play model alive, however. From 2010 to 2012, five major MMO titles released with a pay-to-play model subscription; Star Trek Online, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Tera, and The Secret World. As of June 12, all five will have converted to some form of F2P model… leaving only a hand full of games in the genre still in the shark tank to battle it out for that monthly sub. But how good is this for the genre?
Like most things in the gaming industry, this shift has its pros and cons and consumers are extremely vocal about them. More MMOs means more choices and more competition for your business, but it also sometimes means less quality games and more flops. Without the insecurity of needing that paying player-base, many developers are more than willing to push out games that are buggy or unfinished. However, with less demanding expectations, more companies are able to get their name out and make the games they enjoy, even if they can’t afford that AAA status. Sony Online Entertainment recently released a new MMO called Dragon’s Prophet. It doesn’t have the latest graphics or even the best gameplay, but it does introduce new and exciting things for the MMO genre. And because SOE has promised a “free to play your way” experience with all their games, it doesn’t cost you anything to jump in and see these innovations.
Another dangerous possibility is over-saturation. As more and more MMOs hit the market every year without having to compete with one another, they are finding lower and lower community bases. A trend has emerged of MMOs hitting huge numbers in its first month and then falling into a niche (Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great example). This isn’t always a bad thing, however, as more options also means more chance of finding a game that hits more of your sweet spots. Still, it also means that when you find that game you love, you might have to wait longer for updates and new content, because fewer players means less money.
Making money is another concern when it comes to F2P. In order to keep the servers running on these titles, most games have an optional subscription, with perks and added content, or an in-game store that gives you boosts, pets, or costumes in exchange for real money. Some games even have both. While this doesn’t sound like it would supplement the pay-to-play subscription fee, many companies that have switched to this model report making more with the in-game store than they ever did with a subscription. This might be because of the nature of most of these stores, however. The aforemention Star Wars: The Old Republic has what their community dubbed “gamble boxes” that give you a chance to get rare mounts, weapon and armor skins, or pets. This takes advantage of both the addictive personalities that MMOs can attract ,and also those who love the Star Wars franchise and want to get a coveted item. Perfect World, a China-based MMO producer who specializes in F2P games, has a different approach. They don’t make you gamble for that cool new mount, but they’re happy to charge you $40 for it.
While the pro and cons of the growing F2P market are numerous, there are also a few concerns from the players themselves. One such concern is known as pay-to-win, which is the ability to buy levels, gear, and skills that make you better than other players. Originating in the vast overseas F2P market, pay to win has become a serious concern with gamers. This has caused many developers making F2P games very cautious in what they do and don’t add to their in-game markets, while others try to find the best way to skate the line of adding these items without pushing away their player-base. Another major concern is the quality of the community within F2P MMOs. Most of these free games suffer greatly from gold sellers spamming every channel of chat, or trolls attempting to cause as much havoc and disruption for the community as possible. While many developers do what they can to combat this, it continues to be a thorn in their players’ sides when opting for a cheap or free MMO.
Even with some clear problems with the F2P model, many players have come to accept and love them, and whenever a new MMO is announced, the discussion on what model should be used is one of the first to arise between gamers. Some developers are sticking to the pay-to-play model, insisting that their game will be good enough to compete with the well-established titles already in that space, while others are taking advantage of both the ease and profits seen in the F2P space. Love it or hate it, this genre is seeing an evolution in how companies sell their games. And while it might still be going through growing pains it is unlikely that the F2P model is going anywhere.