A number of readers were no doubt elated when they loaded up MMORPG's page the other day, finding that Lord of the Rings was transitioning from a subscription based revenue model to free to play. At first, so was I, at least until the reality of free to play gaming set in. Frankly, I've been debating its merits for quite some time, but LotR has finally helped me come to a definitive conclusion on the matter...
...Free to Play is where gaming goes to die.
For years we've been fed the line that f2p is the future of gaming. It is supposed to be the payment model that allows you- the consumer -ultimate control over your gaming expenditures; and that much is true, I guess. But is it the future? Do we honestly want it to be the future? Simply put, it's time to pull the plug on this particular line of bullshit. To help clarify this, I'll pose a very simple question to you:
What company in their right minds would forgo guaranteed month to month cash flow in the form of subscriptions, versus the uncertainty of a consumer that controls their revenue base by showing up at their cash store to pay via incremental transactions?
Or to be blunt, Free to Play is the last stop for games that can't cut it as a subscription in some way, or have failed to generate enough up front revenue and interest to sustain long term operation from the outset. Does that make them bad games? Not necessarily, but something went wrong somewhere, and they are now forced to rely on your good will for continued funding. While nearly every company is ultimately at the mercy of the consumer, F2P marketing is at the absolutely worst end of that profit curve. In short, it's a position that no MMO wants to find themselves in unless they have no choice... Or are simply looking to hide their profit structure behind the word "free," and that's even worse.
It's an easy concept to see, especially when you look at the very banner ads that inhabit MMORPG.com. In fact, Phantasy Earth Zero (producing eyeball spam off to the left even as I type this) is a prime example. What's the difference between that game, and say, Final Fantasy XI Online? That's a rhetorical question, one that anybody who has played FEO can answer definitievely. It's an old MMO developed for an old market, and would stand no chance gathering a subscription base on it own merits; which is the category that a lot of free to play falls under these days. Essentially, it's the bargain bin at Gamestop full of titles that nobody will pay full price for.
At the same end of the spectrum are those companies looking to cheat gamers out of a dollar, inflating the cost of services beyond those of your average subscription in order to make more of a profit, or by putting as little effort as possible into their title so that anything they make after the initial development cost is gravy. We've all seen both, and it happens far more often than not. You either play a game that you can't get anywhere without paying in large amounts to stay competitive, or you get a substandard product, usually released full of localization issues or bugs. A lot of the time, you get your fair share of both, and I can count the number of fair, quality f2p products on one hand, if that.
In a way, I have Lord of the Rings to thank for helping me solidify that philosophy. It should teach anybody watching its transition a crucial lesson in MMO gaming. First, unless you're absolute certain about the company, never, EVER throw in for a lifetime subscription. Those people got boned in transition, because there's a huge difference between "life time sub" and "500 free points/month" that may or may not retain any significant value. Second, Turbine's comparison chart makes it crystal clear that key portions of the game- such as the Trait System -are going to be crippled unless one pays in. Ouch. The term "Pay to Win" has been floated in many discussions on the topic, and it's one I think I'll be adopting as well; and not just for LotR.
At this moment, p2w probably encompasses 95% of the non subscription MMOs out there, hiding behind the misnomer "free to play". While free to play may very well be the future of online gaming, what it has become by and large is not. It has become a haven for the sick, the lame; a home for greed and apathy. MMOs taking on the Free to Play title either couldn't cut under the far more secure subscription revenue model or are looking to fleece you for more money by claiming your ability to "play for free".
Most of these games are free only insofar as you don't attempt any serious advancement, and I think it's time call it what it really is. LotR is becoming MMO shareware. It's Pay to Win by any other name and just another method by which to strip you of your cash. Maybe it can survive under the new micro transaction model and that might be a good thing... but it won't be because it's so much better for your wallet.