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The Free Zone: 10 Misconceptions, Two Opinions, Part 1

Column By Richard Aihoshi on August 02, 2010

A few weeks ago, I received a note from Beau Hindman, my free to play columnist counterpart at Massively.com and obviously a fellow observer of the category. In the course of introducing himself, he dropped the idea that we might try to work on something together. This seemed like it could be interesting and fun, both for ourselves and our respective readers. After a bit of discussion, we decided to compare and contrast our feelings about a number of the misconceptions we can't seem to escape. The first part of our discussion is below; Beau will bring you the rest on Wednesday.

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All F2P games require spending a lot of money to reach high levels

This is a fairly common example of the kind of over-generalization some anti-F2Ps engage in to support their personal agendas. It's a form of reductio ad absurdum. The truth is that individual games vary quite substantially in the degree to which advancement is facilitated by spending money.

But equating this to a requirement across all MMOGs is highly inaccurate, especially when it's also specified that the amount has to be "a lot". I'd venture to say there are very few - perhaps even none - where every single high-level character belongs to a paying player. And one exception is all it takes to disprove this supposed rule.

Also, even if some F2P releases are considerably more difficult for anyone who doesn't spend, what's the problem? It's not like anyone is forced into them. If they don't attract and hold large enough user bases, they'll fail, and the situation will solve itself. If some do survive, it means their players, whether paying or not, are satisfied.


Beau: I think this comes from gamers who think that almost obsessively playing one game should be the norm. In some cases, it would be necessary to spend some money but most of the time it is a case of wanting to speed up the process instead of being forced to spend. I have taken some time to interview players in different games, and generally have always found the same answer; it's a case of efficiency. This is not to say that there are no examples in which a player must spend money, but instead to verify that very specific goals that require that kind of spending are the result of impatience or "keeping up with the Joneses".

F2P games make no money, or make very little

I don't have much feel for how this misconception arose. While it's probably true that a fair number make little or nothing, the same can be said of subscription titles. Given how many more F2Ps there are, it seems only natural to expect more marginal ones and failures.

In addition, although figures for individual games are seldom readily available, it's clear some F2Ps do bring in large amounts of money. For instance, China's largest publisher, Tencent, reported a 2009 total of $800 million for its portfolio. Since that nation's Internet penetration there is still low and the infrastructure is being built out rapidly, it seems likely the 2010 figure will be well over $1 billion. I'd guess more than one will top $100 million... and that's just from one company.


Beau: I'm not sure where this comes from, either. As with most things, the proof of the pudding is generally in the eating. I think the fact that F2Ps are so common, talked about and varied is proof enough to show that people are not only playing them, but also spending money in them. Just check out Nexon's earnings sometime. I would like to point to the many big-ticket sub games that have gone under for proof that it can happen to anyone.

The quests in F2P games consist mainly of "kill 10 rats" quests, except it's more like "kill 100 rats"

I have a few issues with this. One is simply that regardless of business model, most quests are based on killing some number of whatevers. They can be dressed up and presented in somewhat different ways; e.g. obtain X of a certain type of loot that, not coincidentally, only certain enemies drop. But at the core, there's little or no difference.

Another is that I've never seen anything except very limited anecdotal "evidence" to support this contention. Pointing out a few quests that fit the "kill 100 rats" characterization doesn't even begin to prove this is the norm. The sample size is both far too small and not random. There's also an unstated, unsupported and most likely unsupportable implication that this generalization doesn't apply at all to subscription MMOGs.


Beau: I will admit that many games use this tactic to get the XP flowing, but it is not just an F2P issue, as Richard mentions. Also, F2P games today offer much more variety than even a few years ago. Bear in mind that F2P titles do not just include combat-based games, but social ones, puzzlers... all different types that cater to many different play styles.

Most F2P games are rushed into America, resulting in broken English translations

It's incontestable that we've seen F2Ps in which the translations and localizations left something to be desired. Whether this was ever true of the majority is questionable. As well, while I haven't kept an exact count, I have at least a few hours of experience with over 100 imports over the past several years. What's more, this is a very conservative estimate. It's a subjective yardstick to be sure, but exactly none were unplayable due to language issues.

As to whether this sweeping statement can be accurately applied to the titles that are arriving here now, I have no doubt it cannot. This isn't to say every single one is perfect. That's certainly not so. However, if I put on my language / grammar police cap, I've never seen a flawless one that was developed here either.


Beau: I have seen more than a few broken translations, but even then the number is small. Many of the developers respond to a well-written email that details the problem and, just like English developers, they would like to fix the problem. It used to be quite the joke to say that these imports are filled with this botched text, but like I said, it just doesn't seem as common now. I can only imagine if some of our games were imported over there, and how many issues there would be with our text being translated. I'd bet the issues would be about the same.

Cash shops encourage developers to work only on cash shop content

This line of thinking largely overlooks the reality that MMOGs are about their respective communities. It's very well known that most F2P players don't pay. This does mean it's extremely important to keep the minority who do happy, and also to give them ways to spend more. However, it's a pretty poor strategy to focus on them to such an extent that the free users feel ignored or meaningfully disadvantaged. That would shrink the community, which would make the paying players less likely to stay.

It's actually quite reasonable to make a case for a relatively opposite position. If a game pulls in large numbers of non-paying users who enjoy themselves and also see lots of others doing so, they'll stick around longer. And that raises the probability they'll reach into their pocketbooks. Only a minority of course, but it's pretty straightforward; the more players a game has, the more will pay, which means greater revenue.


Beau: A game just wouldn't work, especially if it is free, if the developers tried to trick or force the players into something. A free game requires nothing to download and log into, so if an issue wrecks your good time, you can simply log out and go find another game. If anything, this is going to make developers work harder in many ways because they have to constantly keep up with other free games that offer more.

I'm sure I can speak for Beau when I say I hope you find our joint effort to be an interesting change of pace. I had fun with it so, my thanks to him for getting us working together. Look for the rest Wednesday afternoon at Free For All at Massively.com.

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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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