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World of Warcraft Column: Blizzard - Inching Towards F2P?

By Richard Aihoshi on July 05, 2011

For a number of years now, since well before The Free Zone was born, I've been of the opinion that World of Warcraft would eventually introduce some form of F2P.  As a result, I was definitely intrigued by Blizzard's action last week in introducing its "free starter edition", which allows unlimited play through 20 character levels.  For those who think in power-levelling terms, this isn't much; with help from one's friends, I suspect it can be done in a matter of hours.  On the other hand however, users who prefer occasional short sessions and exploring could take weeks to get there.

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As expected, the haters have been quick to state - some rather boorishly, as if such behavior somehow makes their point of view stronger or more valid - that it's nothing more than a different form of a free trial.  I basically agree.  However, I also believe the question above is far more important, and that in this regard, the jury is still out.

In an open letter to his Activision Blizzard counterpart, GamersFirst CEO Joshua Hong was quick to congratulate the giant publisher, which he called "the last bastion of the subscription-only online gaming business", for taking the "first big step" toward F2P.  To my mind, the latter three words focus on the crux of the matter.  Has WoW made the first move in a direction that will bring further changes to the way the game operates?  Or are we only seeing a one-off marketing shift where nothing further will follow?

My gut tells me to expect the former scenario.  So does my business sense.  The 2011 global F2P market will be worth billions of dollars.  What's more, it's growing at a rapid pace.  Compare this to the entire US game industry, for which research firm Newzoo has just issued a forecast of $21.6 billion this year, representing a small decline.  The MMO sector accounts for roughly 12 percent of this amount.

While the company didn't release a sub-total for F2P, it seems likely to generate at least $1 billion.  A little more would mean it's five percent of the entire market.  Is there another segment of such magnitude where the largest publisher is voluntarily not participating?  And with overall growth forecast, at least in the short term, doesn't a part that is expanding and seems likely to continue for at least the next few years look even more attractive?

Sure, it's possible to put forward a scenario where Activision Blizzard will stay away from F2P in order to avoid possible backlash from disgruntled WoW players.  But how many readers truly believe that game publishers think and act this way as opposed to doing almost anything to improve their bottom lines.  Clearly, the latter view is the one we see expressed far more often.

And let's not forget that WoW already uses a different revenue model for about half its players.  The game is P2P in China, but it's not subscription, at least not as we understand the term here, where it means a fixed, mandatory monthly charge.  Furthermore, not only is F2P the far larger sector there and worth billions of dollars, it doesn't have the same kind of history as here, where flat fees became the established norm while micro-transactions were still largely unknown.  For these and other reasons, it's pretty easy to imagine that people who make such decisions coveting the audience they haven't tapped, and looking for a way to do so that produces a net gain.

There's also a growing body of evidence that hybrid business models are viable.  This suggests the perceived risk is lower than it once was.  When I look at all these factors and more with an eye to discerning whether there's a bigger picture, I lean toward thinking the free starter edition is indeed a first step toward a more substantial F2P component.

Interesting Infobits

DC Universe Online.  I can't help but be intrigued that Sony launched a micro-transaction program for its superhero release by implementing a digital store with a mere three items on the shelf.  Why so few?  In addition, questions obviously arise as to how soon more will be added, and whether this too is only a first step on a changing business model path.

Hellgate Global.  While I have not taken part, this game entered beta on Friday.  It intrigues me because the original release had parts that were great fun.  Unfortunately, certain maps, classes and combinations thereof had serious balance issues.  If the new version can successfully address these, it might turn out to be something of a phoenix.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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