Not long ago, many MMO players saw free-to-play gaming as the bane of the industry. They talked about how misguided and segregationist it was, a cash-grab that tempted developers with profits over player interests. Contrary to the picture painted by this column, I was amongst those masses and even went so far as to label MMO tourism as outright harmful. Times have changed but many players have not. Today I’d like like to break from my usual format to talk about how I’ve come embrace the model as a free-to-play convert.
Before we do, let's clear up something. There are two models that fall under the idiom of “F2P”: buy-to-play and free-to-play. They are not one and the same; B2P requires a box price and F2P does not. For the purposes of this article, however, let's keep things simple and say that F2P assumes no subscription fee. Now, let's move onto the first step.
Without free-to-play, many MMOs would die. Take Star Wars: The Old Republic for example. Pre-launch, the developers were open about the subscriber numbers they would need to survive and then failed to hit them. The writing was on the wall: they needed to change or close-up shop. Today, Bioware has the second largest subscription MMO in the West. Free-to-play, at least in the short term, saved them.
LotRO is another example. Does anyone really think LotRO would still be kicking if they hadn't opened up a cash shop? TERA? The Secret World? Champions Online? When game's can't develop under a subscription model, free-to-play gives them a second chance. What's more, if they do well, they can soar into an even bigger uptake than they achieved before.
Free-to-play is here to stay for years to come. Whether it works in the long-term is a different issue entirely, but if you haven't made your peace, you'd better find a niche because the genre will, and is, leaving you in its dust.
Can I live with the model?
Second, and perhaps most importantly, it's time we stop kidding ourselves: F2P games are anything but and they'll encourage you to spend in a number of ways. If you're set on playing for free, be prepared to spend longer or miss out on certain content. LotRO, for example, requires that you buy individual zones or grind for store currency. Champions Online and Everquest 2 put some of their coolest armors in the store. Fallen Earth sells XP and crafting boosters for cash and subscriptions.
This is where we draw our lines in the sand, so it's important to know what we can live with. F2P models usually come in one of three flavors: convenience, annoyance, and piecemeal. Convenience is seen in game's like RIFT and TERA: free players can access everything but paying up lets you make faster progress. Annoyance gets any clearer than SWTOR with their subscriber-only quest rewards. And piecemeal is your zone-buy ala LotRO or DDO and cosmetics/pets like Guild Wars 2.
Can I ignore it?
One of the biggest questions I've asked myself is what I really care about in the first place. I love talking about MMOs, so it's easy for me to put on my critic hat and postulate on what each item or design note means for a game. But setting those discussions to the side, does it impact me if Bob earns 25-percent more XP than I do? No. It doesn't even much matter if someone spent $50 on heroic gear if I can reasonably acquire through playing. Let's not kid ourselves, unless we're playing PvP, other people's purchases are little more ideas.
There are legitimate areas that you can't ignore, however, like when gear sales overcome content. RIFT is coming under fire for this for offering 5-man gear. That this community might dry up is an honest concern. It's also fear driven. The key here is to be honest. Will the items in question kill something or change it? Is the metamorphosis game-breaking or tolerable? In the case of RIFT, the reality is that so long as everything is available in-game, there will be people trying to earn it. (Note: this is assuming it is dungeon gear and not progression raid items).
My favorite trend in all of this is lotteries. Usually these take the form of lockboxes which need real-money keys to open and offer the chance at random loot. Players are drawn to them like scratch-offs tickets and they earn developers a lot of money. They are also the definition of ignorable content, have little impact on gameplay, and don't take design time from the rest of the game. It's win-win. Some people hate them and I find it hard not to see them as busybodies who value concept over reality. Do they picket corner stores and Take-5 machines too? Lockboxes are, in my opinion, wholesale good news for free-to-play gaming.
Are we that committed anyway?
Finally and centrally, we need to admit to ourselves when we've become nomadic. I got to a point where I realized I had one or two long-term games (WoW, RIFT) and half a dozen more I simply checked-in with. I was as vehement with these on-again-off-again titles as I was with my regulars. Then it hit me: If I'm only stopping in once a week, the answer to my previous two questions was an instant yes.
As MMO gamers, I think we have a penchant for investment. It's what the genre is predicated on, right? The rise of free-to-play adds a “but” to that answer. Yes, but now the barrier to entry is lower. Yes, but now people aren't paying for it like a utility bill. Yes, but now players are no longer tied at the hip. Those are industry shaping buts.
Back in the early-to-mid-2000s, the MMO world was a different place. There were fewer of them for one, and all but the worst, most nickle-and-diming offered the subscription buffet. After all I've said, you might be surprised to hear that I don't think F2P is a long-term solution. We're only now seeing the beginnings of the model's elder years in converted games. But it really doesn't matter, does it? Free-to-play has arrived and tomorrow is yet to come. Here's what I've found it doesn't promise that I used to believe: low quality, pay-to-win, constant manipulation, and ignored content development. What it is is a stage of our genre's evolution and a learning period we can actively contribute to. We can hate it and give up on MMOs entirely, find our islands in the sun, or make our peace and change. And when has close-mindedness ever been a good thing?
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. He's on record saying how much he dislikes F2P design and its slippery slopes. This column is his eating hat. Follow him on Twitter @gamebynight and read his blog at Game By Night.
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