I’ve been playing a lot of The Old Republic lately, most leveling alts. I’m working on one character that I hope will help me get into endgame, a feature of most MMO’s that I avoid like the plague. Recently the 2.1 update dropped and out came the usual furor against BioWare and Electronic Arts. As I sat back and read the articles, opinion pieces, and comment sections I came to a realization; that gamers do not understand the mechanics behind a company choosing to move a game to F2P.
The news came out of Trion headquarters last week that Rift, their most popular MMO, was going F2P. The news wasn’t wholly unexpected given the laying off of 1/3 of their staff late last year after launching the Storm Legion expansion, still many had hoped that it was business as usual, the part-timers being let go after the successful launch of product.
What gamers, and some game writers often fail to understand, is that F2P at its core, is nothing more than life support for a dying MMO. It’s not a golden ticket; rather it’s the last gasp of a dying game. For some it’s the way to continued profitability (SWTOR), for some it’s a way to revitalize a game (Vanguard), for some it’s a different business approach (DCUO), and for some it’s a way to get people back into the game, sometimes for the first time (Tera); but for all these games no matter how many years they last afterwards, F2P is only keeping a dying game alive.
In the beginning of May, word came down that World of Warcraft, the subscription juggernaut, had lost 1.3 million subscribers. Hordes of gamers, both predicted and cast aside, the announcement as the end of Blizzard’s reign at the top. Losing a large amount of subscribers is never a good indication of health for a MMO, but on the same token, no other MMO in the world could lose that many subscriptions and still be making billions of dollars every year.
Gamers often seem to take the well-published numbers of a MMO as proof that the game is doing well. I won’t say that companies fudge data, it’s usually illegal and frankly investors can smell it a mile away. However, the numbers that gaming companies use are usually irrelevant without corresponding data. For example having a million new users is nice, but unless they all are paying $5/month, all you have is more server costs. It’s one of the traps of F2P, there is no guarantee of more revenue, and even an increased user base only guarantees increased costs.
I stand in disbelief at the idea that if every F2P MMO was completely open, then gamers would just dump out their wallets for BioWare, Trion, En Masse, Turbine, Funcom, or NCSoft. I believe in our heart of hearts we are all somewhat like Veruca Salt, one of the five golden ticket winners from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When we as gamers don’t get what we want immediately, we throw nasty tantrums and take things to extreme measures until we finally get our way.
Do I believe that every gamer complaint about the way F2P has been operated in former subscription-based games is without merit? No, but I do believe that gamers need to better understand the dynamics of what makes a company shift its product from subscription to F2P. No matter how well a game appears to be doing after a switch, it should be clear to gamers that any particular MMO in that situation is a cat with no more lives. I won’t stand and say that the MMO genre is dying or on the verge of collapse, but be wary if you think that all is well in the MMO world. Gamers getting what they want always looks nice on the surface, but if companies aren’t making money this way, all that follows is demise.