When RIFT first launched, the idea of going free-to-play seemed like anathema to its design. Former Executive Producer and current Trion Worlds CEO, Scott Hartsman, made it clear that F2P was not something in the cards in the year of its launch. And yet, with the changing tide of the MMO industry, RIFT made the jump and officially dropped its subscription fee last year. It was a move of much celebration and much derision. With Turbine, the F2P trend-setter of Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings Online, facing another round of layoffs, MMO fans are again asking the question: How sustainable is free-to-play in the long-term? This effects RIFT fans everywhere, so let's break it down.
Where Do We Stand Now?
Whenever we look at something speculative like this, I think it's important to stay rooted in facts: How has free-to-play impacted us so far?
The answer, if we're not being a nitpicky little buggerty-wiggle, is a extremely positive. Virtually everything we formerly paid a subscription fee for is now free, including all of the quests, dungeons, raids, and rifts from the Storm Legion expansion. We have received a new patch roughly every three months adding a whole slew of substantial updates: new raids, new dungeons, new chronicles, a new profession, strongholds, bounty quests, unstable artifacts and events, performance increases, updated leveling with new carnage quests and instant adventures, the reworks of Gloamwood and Iron Pine Peak, faster leveling in Storm Legion, retuned two- and five-man instances for max level characters... the list goes on – and that's not even including the events and holidays!
In short, if you think RIFT is somehow a worse game because it no longer charges a subscription fee, you have your head in the sand. Even critics have to admit, content-wise, Trion is giving their competition a run for their money. (They won't, though, for the great axiom of the internet states that once you state an opinion, you must always hold that opinion, lest you face trial by fire or death by 1,000 newts).
There is, of course, the issue of quality of content. Patch 2.6 introduced some tremendous bugs in the form of ability lag and missing chat logs. Though these have mostly been addressed, it is shocking these problems made it to live servers in the first place. In cases like this where there is already fear and the stigma of past games gone free-to-play, I think we need to look at the whole picture. The state Patch 2.6 launched in is bad but is it “sour the last year of patches” bad? I don't think so, but Trion will need to spitshine their next patch if they want to avoid a lot of unnecessary grumbling.
Overall though, free-to-play has gotten off to an impressive start.
Using Another Example
But that's today, not three and a half years from now like LotRO is from it's F2P beginning. And, let's face it, Turbine isn't doing so hot. Where there's smoke, there's fire and this month's layoffs seem a lot like signals from the hill to me. When they first made the change, both with DDO and LotRO, we were greeted with cheers of “huge revenue!” and “increased subscriptions!” but the last year has drowned those cries out with the jeers of shirtless dwarves and hobby horses. Shouting from the rooftops about your free-to-play success has become so routine as to be expected. Down the line things get a lot more silent.
The fact of the matter is, free-to-play outside of the Eastern markets is still pretty nebulous. It seems like every MMO studio is trying something just a little bit different from the next, and then taking what works and adopting it. So it's no surprise that a couple years after the fact, RIFT has a much more open F2P model than LotRO does. Players, in general, seem a lot happier eating Telaran buffet than Middle Earth mouthfuls. Without any hard numbers and no studio forthcoming enough to share, it's hard to say anything for sure, but that's the feeling.
So, let's not ascribe the same fate to Trion just yet. What we can do is learn from Turbine as we consider the following:
1) RIFT is making its name on giving a lot away for free
While many other games have limited quests and entire zones behind a pay wall, RIFT sets itself apart by letting players enjoy the game for free. In the last five months, I have spent less than $10 on RIFT. On the other hand, I feel much better about buying small items because I know that this is the exact same same game I happily paid every month for. This profound difference shifts RIFT from a game of limitations into a game of options.
2) They still need to earn a profit
Instead of relying on regular subscription income for those regular meaty updates, Trion will need to rely on cash shop purchases. And to keep of the pace players have come to expect (demand?), they may have an even higher sales goal than other games of the type.
3) Strong beginnings can, but don't always, mean a strong future
Right now, Trion seems to be doing well by selling cosmetics, boosters, and upgrades. So long as the playerbase remains large enough to fund those options, they probably won't need to change their monetization model. But it also means that Trion has to work all the harder to keep new players coming in and buying those items, and, after a point, growth in even the best of MMOs tends to slow down.
This is where expansions and regular, exciting DLC come into play. It's also where many other MMOs fall short, assumedly due to a lack of funds to make that content. Thankfully, RIFT has never been a slouch in producing updates and with the next expansion on the way, we may witness a renaissance of renewed interest.