There are many opinions when it comes to the discussion of F2P games versus subscription-based titles for MMOs available today. When choosing which game is right for you, there are many things you should consider. In this article I will explore these differences and do my best to analyze the pros and cons of each for any normal player.
Subscription based games began with the release of Ultima Online in 1997. While other titles such as The Realm Online and Meridian 59 did come first, UO is believed to be responsible for the popularity of MMORPGs we see today. UO was a subscription-based game, and based on this example many companies began to charge people for their right to play. A person has no choice but to surrender 10 to 15 dollars per month in order to continue playing, with the penalty of losing their character as well as their initial investment if they miss any payments. That’s right, in addition to these monthly fees a player must also pay for their initial client, usually running anywhere from 40 to 50 dollars brand new in the store. If for some reason you don’t like the game or perhaps become too busy to keep on playing regularly, this money often ends up wasted :(.
The Infamous death of Lord British in Ultima Online, showcasing the first ever glitch to be publically documented.
As with most games that exist in a persistent world, eventually updates and expansions will be released in order to keep the game fresh and evolving. With a subscription based title, every player must purchase this expansion for nearly the same price as a new game. If you look at Everquest, that’s 16 expansions! If you purchased the game and each expansion when it was new, then that is nearly 700 dollars just to be able to keep up with the content! That is a huge investment, and with a subscription based game you must pay that price up front without even getting a chance to see what the content or any updates made have to offer.
Aside from the monetary aspect, there are still plenty of differences that we can explore. Differences between game play have to be taken on a game to game basis for the best analysis, for a lot of the free to play games are somewhat similar to even the biggest titles like World of Warcraft. Many feature customizable attributes, talents, crafting skills, and even battlegrounds for PvP. A lot of the innovations touted by these conglomerates are neither new nor unique to the gaming industry. Based on this, you can’t really say subscription based games have better game play then their F2P counterparts. Tabula Rasa, Star Wars Galaxies, and even Age of Conan can attest that subscription based titles are subject to design limitations that may lead to drastic underperformance. These titles had millions of dollars invested in their content, yet it was not enough to outlast even the likes of Runescape, which was made for a mere fraction of that cost. So for those who try to say that subscription-based titles are in fact superior, I would encourage and challenge any player to experience the game before coming to any such judgment. F2P games do not require you to purchase their client, so experiencing what the title has to offer is easy and painless without requiring any type of investment other then the time it takes to download the client. You have nothing to lose, but the potential is astronomical!
Don’t be fooled! A lot of these bigger games are just money traps!
Another difference in game play and innovation that you might notice between these two categories of games can be related to the companies themselves who develop the titles. Subscription-based games are usually developed by bigger companies who have more money invested in marketing and profit. Because there is no room for error in the stakeholders eyes, this also usually translates to no room for innovation. The most popular subscription-based games that exist today did not and cannot take any risks that could lead them to possibly losing subscribers. These developers have to stick with what has worked in the past and continue to rehash this model and release the same type of game over and over again. Every so often this mold is broken and we do see more differences, but often times the executives overseeing the projects do not want any risk. I almost see the state of subscription-based MMO’s as being very similar to the video game crash of 1983. Back then, there were so many consoles and titles in the market that people just became sick of video gaming in general. A glut of games simply got new packaging and re-released for 50 dollars a pop to the unknowing consumer.
This game, along with many similar titles, almost single handedly killed the video game industry.
Development / Marketing:
This is another area where F2PP games can shine. Their developers are not shackled to these big executives who only seek to line their pockets, but are given the freedom that those who created the original titles in the 90s had. Blade Wars has a combo system that no other game I have come across had possessed, but many of the top executives from bigger companies would have never allowed it for any of their subscription based games. Will they be successful? Only time will tell, but the games that boast some of the largest CCU in the market today are F2P (Runescape, Earth Eternal). More would boast higher numbers as well if they just received the exposure that some of these larger companies can generate just through sheer marketing alone. It’s hard to compete when other companies can outspend you by millions of dollars per month, but good games with solid systems can last and continue to grow once word of their title spreads.
Blade Wars and their combo system at work!
Finally, we come to perhaps one of the most unique and drastically different aspects when comparing a Subscription based game with a F2P game. This aspect is of course, its community. While larger companies are content with just releasing a title and treating all players as if they are just numbers, F2P developers take a different approach. Instead of focusing relentlessly on just getting new players, the focus is more on keeping those that they have and making them happy with their experience. These companies are then usually more transparent with their work and their updates to the game. It is commonplace for popular opinion to be able to sway these Devs quickly and get many features implemented that might be too risky or over the top to be considered otherwise.
The GMs and producers also have a closer tie to the community and their role in F2P games. While not every company has the same policy when it comes to this, most of the companies I had experience with allowed the GMs a lot of leeway for not only player interactions, but events and prize giveaways as well. Many in game events like Game Master monster spawns also can populate these titles, making the players feel closer to the people responsible for running their game. They are not disembodied overlords, but real life people who are concerned for the players well-being and gaming experience. In short, you are more than just another player, but a valuable member of the community. A lot of times player problems could be solved on the spot with a GMs help, so more personalized support can be counted on from these smaller companies.
Subscription titles view everyone for their 15 dollars as opposed to their standing within a personalized community. If you want to receive any kind of help, it will usually come in the form of canned responses designed to try and just get rid of you and your issue one way or another. I have seen how many of the bigger companies treat their players and frankly, it is quite alarming how poorly it is handled. The simplest issues usually would require a few minutes work to solve, but policy and quota dictate the service received.
In conclusion, the choice you make between a Subscription based game vs a F2P title does come down to a personal choice and also to the enjoyment of the game in general. While both have their + and –‘s, a F2P game will give you the freedom to experience their content before ever being forced with an option to dedicate any cash towards the experience. The community will be somewhat smaller and more tight- knit, and the developers and Game Masters will all be more readily available for personalized and expedient service. F2P games are also bound to have more innovative and unique combat and talent systems and take more risks then their larger corporate counterparts.
As you can probably tell by the preceding article, my taste lies more in the realm of the F2P than with that of the subscription-based titles. Subscription games always sound better than they actually are due to the hype machine and the marketing dollars that can be dedicated from these larger companies. Age of Conan had some huge marketing behind its release, but due to their desire to just make a few bucks before the World of Warcraft expansion was released, they launched a good 6+ months early with an unfinished product. The content was not there, the classes were unbalanced and even the skill trees themselves were bugged and malfunctioning. A player couldn’t even use certain basic skills because they were not even implemented yet. Money would have been better spent on development of the game rather than just trying to rope in the players.
Make sure to be careful what you spend your money on when sizing up the next MMO. F2P gives you the flexibility to find your game without making you waste part of your paycheck. Closed Beta for Blade Wars is just around the corner, if you are looking for a unique experience that doesn’t have to cost you a dime! Make sure to check it out :).
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Twitter - http://twitter.com/BladeWars_US
and even Communty Manager Jaynestown's Twitter :) - http://twitter.com/JoshForester
Thank you all again for your support, and make sure to tune in next time for more from the Blade Wars Developers Blog!
-Josh Forester (Jaynestown)
--Community Manager, Changyou.com