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Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: F2P or Not F2P

When a game has both micro-transactions and an optional subscription fee, is it still considered free to play? Richard asks that very question this week.

Last week, I finished up by speculating that it might be interesting to see item sales and subscription in the same game. This isn't a concept that has just been brought up for the first time. I can recall seeing it in the graphical MUD area around 15 years ago, and it almost certainly wasn't new then.

Will we actually see both options offered in a single title? If forced to hazard a guess, I'd venture to say we will. At first glance, this may seem like trying to mix oil and water. However, there is certainly a trend toward more diverse revenue models. This is natural and thus to be expected as an industry expands. In fact, it's a way of promoting growth; it helps to reach new consumers by providing alternatives that better fit their preferences. In a way, it's kind of like marketing changes we see all the time in other areas, such as adding a new package size, another color or a different combination of burger toppings.

We're already part of the way there. For instance, Wizard101 has two basic payment choices. One is monthly subscription, although in a still relatively unusual form that includes discounted rates for multiple accounts in a family, and also for six- and 12-month terms. The other is area-based. I haven't played the game for at least a few months now, but during the post-launch period, free players could only enter selected zones. This is still the case, with the option of buying access to the others one at a time using virtual currency; according to KingsIsle's website, the cost in real money ranges from $1 to $3.

As I mentioned last time, the D&D Online won't use the standard free to play revenue model with a cash shop offering cosmetic and vanity items, temporary experience and stat boosters, etc. Turbine has stated that in addition to gear and consumables, it will also sell the ability to unlock premium content such as certain races and classes, and additional character slots. Since the game design is based on adventure modules, the question naturally arises as to whether they'll be made available without charge.

One notable twist is that it will be possible to obtain points to spend in the store through regular play. Naturally, I wonder how easy or difficult this will be. There's undoubtedly no answer that will satisfy everyone. No matter whether it's relatively undemanding or requires a lot of grinding, the moaners and groaners will be in their element since they'll have another thing to complain about.

In any case, approaches such as these lead me to ask if the perceived dichotomy with F2P on one side and subscription on the other will start to erode more rapidly. It's clearly not an either/or situation now anyway, but it's often just easier to ignore full reality in favor of simplification. And what could be more straightforward than limiting oneself to two possibilities. So what if a lot of things in the world are gray rather than black or white?

One problem with that is establishing where to draw the dividing line. Is Wizard101 free to play? I tend to think not since a considerable potion of the content is only accessible to those who opt to pay for it. At the same time, it isn't purely subscription either. Since I'm not immune to categorizing things for the sake of simplicity, I frequently put it in a third group, free to try.

D&D isn't as easy to classify; an obvious key reason for this is that complete details as to accessibility have yet to be revealed. At the moment, it appears there will more quite a bit more than in Wizard101. However, it doesn't fit the "standard" F2P model, which wouldn't require an outlay to play the Warforged race, the Monk class et al.

As we continue to see more variations on business models - and I have no doubt whatsoever that we will - maybe it will help me to generalize less, or at least not to over-simplify for the sake of convenience. Ultimately, it's the games themselves that matter. Whether they're subscription, free to play or something else, the ones that find audience segments whose gaming preferences they fulfill are more likely to survive and succeed.

In the end, the fun factor is what's truly important. As the MMO market has broadens, people have entered it who derive their enjoyment somewhat differently, although not completely so; after all, we're still talking about games with similarities. This influx is a good thing for the industry overall. It's also inevitable. If F2P, F2T and other non-subscription business models help drive more rapid growth - and I think they do - I welcome them.

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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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