It's easy and thus not unusual for people to talk about free to play and subscription as if they are mutually exclusive alternatives. While I don't know if they actually believe this, it's simply not so.
I've felt for quite some time that the MMO space will see more variations on business models, and this has been happening, although not as a huge, highly visible trend. And as part of the movement, there are examples where the two business models show some degree of convergence or overlap in individual games.
Last week, this site posted an article about the three pricing options for Istaria, which may be more familiar to some under its previous name, Horizons. In addition to a 14-day free trial, publisher Virtrium offers two subscription tiers, at $14.95 and $9.95 per month respectively, and... F2P, which was implemented last year.
The latter alternative isn't item-based, which goes against an assumption that's automatic to some. It's also not level-capped or limited to certain parts of the game world. The main restrictions are that you can only have one character, which must be human, and the inability to own a plot of land.
The fact that Istaria's version of F2P doesn't incorporate any revenue streams intrigued me, so I got hold of Virtrium head Rick Simmons to ask about the thinking behind it. He gave three main reasons for wanting to go with this approach. One is improved access. He feels the free trial works in terms of getting people started, but that it isn't long enough for them to learn what the title has to offer, especially for those who have limited time to spare. "We considered bumping the trial time up," he says, "but that felt like a patch solution, and there would still be people needing longer to make the subscription decision."
"We also thought about some sort of limited play time system," he continues, "but realized that would only make people rush through the content - which is definitely opposite to the experience we want them to have playing Istaria." He feels that the limits imposed are reasonable without impacting overall character progression or play, and also that they don't make people feel like they're being subjected to a bait and switch. As a result, he says, newcomers can set their own respective paces without feeling time pressure, and he doesn't mind however long they play without deciding to subscribe.
Simmons' second reason relates to encouraging former players not just to return, but also to experience the game in its entirety as it is now with all the improvements he and his team have made. He believes a lot of their work has changed Istaria's overall progression, and that anyone coming back to their old high-level characters wouldn't really experience the game since many stories, quests et al are level-dependent. "We're proud that leveling is only one aspect of our play. It isn't the destination, but the journey, that we're encouraging players to experience. By offering our version of a free to play option, we're saying that we know people who try our game will not only want to stay, but also want to experience it at its fullest."
The third important thing he brings up is community, stating that new players make it more dynamic and interesting. He describes Istaria as encouraging but not mandating group play, and says this is done in various ways, from assisting in crafting items to guilds looking for members, contributing to town construction and more. "By opening up the game without requiring a subscription fee each month, we've been able to attract players and bring them into the community. This is good for paying customers as well as non-paying."
On the other side of the coin, Simmons admits that it's likely some revenue is lost since a portion of the F2P players would subscribe if only the normal options were available. On balance, however, he seems convinced this is offset by better retention of those who do pay due to the enlarged and enhanced game community.
Another con is that even after some time, Virtrium is still looking to improve how the expectations of the non-paying users are managed. "It is unfortunate, but we've found that many of the free to play customers who leave and give us feedback mention they expected Istaria to be something it's not. Many want more PvP combat -something it really doesn't have - expect a monster and loot experience similar to other MMOs, and of course, there's the ability to play as a dragon, which requires a subscription."
Frankly, I doubt there's very much Simmons can do about this. While there will always be players who think every game should fit their specific individual preferences, the best thing for Istaria is to focus on and build upon its core elements in order to have the strongest possible appeal for those to whom those strengths are most important. "We're working to improve expectations so people don't spend time downloading a game they have no interest in playing," he says. That's definitely the way to go as opposed to imitating other titles or adding some run of the mill form of PvP.
Summing up, Simmons finds assessing how successful the system has been to be an interesting exercise. He's clear that paid subscriptions have not declined, but says the acquisition rate for new players hasn't risen as much as he'd expected. Admitting he's generalizing, he divides Istaria's F2P players into two groups. One is made up of users who eventually reach a decision point to subscribe or quit. The other is people who will never pay, and never intended to. From an accounting perspective, he understands they have no direct value. However, through a designer's eyes, they add to the world and make it better overall.
So on the whole, he's happy with both the decision to add the F2P option and the way it has been implemented. "I think we've achieved a good balance between providing free to play while preserving the value of paid subscriptions," he says. "Most importantly, we've been able to do something that makes Istaria better and allows people from around the world to enjoy it, while still getting the bills paid."
It seems that mixing the two business models has worked for Istaria. I'm curious if this will help nudge more games toward a similar direction.