The Viability of Free to Play
One of the hot topics these days seems to be the various iterations of the payment models a lot of games are experiementing with in terms of games being free to play with some form of side cash shop. While it has been a topic on this site a lot, it's something that never really caught my attention. Ironically, I've spent the last year playing League of Legends and never really stopped to think about the actual value of the entertainment I was getting.
For those who don't know, League of Legends is a free to play game and features a cash shop that sells various things that don't really make you any stronger in the game. Real money spent in Riot's store will be able to get you things like different skins for the various champions or enable you to outright buy a champion which could already be earned for free with a little playtime. When I first started playing the game I told myself that given the nature of the store, I really had no plans on spending any real cash in the store because frankly I didn't HAVE to in order to compete, and doing so would not increase my chances of winning any matches.
After about a few weeks, I decided to spend 5 bucks at the store to buy a champion I really wanted as an impulse decision, and I felt like a sap at the time for giving them money when frankly I didn't need to. I could have easily earned that champion after a day or so of playing. As the weeks and months went by, I slowly cracked again giving them $10 this time just to get some skins of one of the champs I played the most. Again I felt kind of guilty giving them money when I didn't need to, after all that skin isn't going to help me win any matches.
While all of this was going on, one by one, every so often, one of my Inquisition guys would mention in passing that they were giving Riot a few dollars as well for whatever. As the months passed by, my guild stopped bringing it up, but it was evident that it was still going on because I would keep seeing my friends showing up into matches with new and interesting looking skins for their favorite champs. The lack of admission from my guild really got me thinking that everyone was feeling pretty guilty about spending money on a free game and getting no advantage from it, but it kept happening. And just as my 5$ turned into $10, I soon found myself giving them $20 every so often. People in vent would swear that THIS was the last time they would give them money, and yet the new skins kept showing up.
We would frequently wonder why the hell are we spending money on a free game, and how much have we really spent?! Well a few weeks ago, Riot patched the PvP.net platform the game runs on, and added a tab to the store where you could view your entire purchase history using the in-game currency, and a neat little button that shows just your real life money spent. I didn't want to click it because of the guilt accumulated over the months and year I've been playing, but collectively as a guild we all pressed it and posted our totals on our forums as sort of a coming out of the closet to see just how deeply invested we all were in this "free" game.
The totals went a little something like this...
INQ Member 2: $95
INQ Member 3: $110
INQ Member 4: $135
INQ Member 5: $190
INQ Member 6: $270
Wow. As bad as I felt about spending $80, I had people in my guild who had spent well over triple that! Ironically a recent patch change in the PvP.Net now only shows a history of real money spent going back only 30 days. As the collective wave of guilt started to wash over us, I decided to take a step back and think of this in terms of what this would equate to in terms of a standard pay to play MMO.
15 Months playing League of Legends / $80 spent = $5.33 / month in MMO terms
Now let's assume I had been playing a pay to play MMO for those 15 months...
Initial Purchase of $50 + ($15 monthly fee X 14 Months since first month has no fee) = $260
So at my investment, League of Legends has actually only costed me 1/3 of what an MMO would. The most serious spenders in Inquisition are only slightly higher than standard MMO. Not too shabby I guess. When we read between the lines here, there is one major underlying point to this. While League of Legends is a free to play game, everyone in my guild opted to spend money on it at some point to varying degrees because they felt the game was a great value and they ultimately feel fine supporting Riot because they believe in their product.
The bottom line seems to be that not only is Free to Play a vaiable pricing model, but if it is handled properly it can actually yield just as much if not more money than what pay to play games are pulling in, and the lack of commitment through fees can help lure in tons of potential customers. This rings more true when applied to the MMO genre when you factor in that there hasn't been an MMO released in the last seven years that has held the attention of my guild for more than 3 months, which definitely puts a damper on the amount of cash those companies are getting. Where does this all lead exactly, I'm not too sure. I'm looking over the horizon right now though at games like Guild Wars 2 and now Planetside 2 who may be going down this road and I can understand it especially if the product end up being solid. People seem more than happy to reach into their wallet to support something that provides them with a real entertainment at a great value. Maybe Riot is the exception, but could this be the path forward?