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Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: F2P Spreads West

The trend of free-to-play, microtransaction supported MMOs is coming West. Aihoshi looks at the trend in this week's column.

A couple of weeks ago, Turbine made the rather intriguing announcement that it will enter the free to play market this summer with Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, which is referred to as a digital upgrade to its 2006 subscription title. The press release didn't really say anything as to when or why this came about, and I've seen nothing in this regard since. As a result, I can only speculate the seemingly obvious, that the company feels the game has more potential to move forward with a change of business model.

One thing I find interesting is that SOE took the same step quite recently with the launch of Free Realms. However, it was developed from the ground up, which means the decision to do so was made some time ago. I have no way of knowing whether this factored into Turbine's thinking or if the timing was purely coincidental. What's very clear, however, is that F2P is continuing to gain prominence within the western market.

And let's not forget that neither was first major subscription MMOG publisher in this hemisphere to make a move in this direction. Just off the top of my head, Funcom shifted Anarchy Online over a few years ago, and NCsoft released Dungeon Runners in the second quarter of 2007. I can't help but wonder how long it will be before more of the other major players in the industry opt to join them.

EA is a pretty interesting candidate. The movers and shakers there can't be happy about Activision Blizzard's dominant market position. WAR was never a serious candidate to challenge WoW, and almost certainly hasn't performed up to expectations. SWTOR likely has more potential, largely due to the tremendous popularity of its underlying property, but would you actually bet on it taking over the market leadership position?

If we assume that the likelihood of winning the battle for the online space with a heads-on approach is questionable, then what's the alternative? Yes, an indirect one. And what's the most attractive possibility? Sure, going the F2P route won't win the war in terms of subscriber numbers. But that's not what the bean counters count. Revenue and especially profit are what matter to them.

Microsoft also crossed my mind. How long can the software giant ignore the large and rapidly growing revenue stream that is online gaming, including subscription, F2P any other business models? While it's not the market leader, EA at least has a significant presence in the sector. But not Big Brother, which has a history marked by various missteps and false starts. Will Bill and his boys be content to watch from outside, saying they gave it a try and failed? And do they think it was their best shot?

Also, what about Blizzard? It's tempting to regard it as the last publisher that would consider F2P. After all, why tamper with the subscription formula when it's so lucrative? Well, there's at least a possible answer in that half of WoW's subscribers actually aren't, not in the sense of paying a flat monthly fee. I'm talking about the ones in China, who buy bundles of hours, which they can then use when they please.

In addition, the company has seen the power of F2P to drive significant user numbers there. The last comparative figures I recall seeing were prior to Lich King. At that time, WoW had something like 800,000 peak concurrent users. It trailed a game called Zhengtu Online as well as the market leader, Fantasy Westward Journey, which was well ahead with something in the area of 1.5 million. PCU doesn't directly correlate with profitability. However, the more players you have, the greater the potential to monetize them, which isn't limited to virtual item purchases.

In that particular topic area, it seems worth noting that DDO Unlimited isn't completely F2P with the "standard" item mall. Instead, it uses a hybrid revenue scheme where some of the content is deemed premium, and is only available to those who pay to play. The available specifics are rather limited. The official website tells us "Free content is widely available for low-level characters and becomes sparser as a character's level increases." It also says free players will have to pay if they wish to unlock certain classes such as the Monk, or to gain access to the Warforged and Drow races.

As I've mentioned in my recent column on trends I'm tracking, I expect we'll see more games offering payment schemes aside from straight subscription or item sales. Sometimes, I even wonder about both together. Wouldn't that be interesting?

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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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