Some people claim that free-to-play MMOs are the way of the future. Others insist subscriptions offer the best entertainment and fairest playing field. To me, the whole argument is flawed. Neither F2P nor subscription games cost more than a trip to Subway each month. Real people just want to have fun and will pay for it if they get their money’s worth.
The strongest argument for the relative success of F2P games is that while most subscription games since WoW have been a disappointment, F2P titles seem to have grown in stature and importance. But there’s an interesting little trick there. The hugely successful games lately, while promoted as F2P, actually use just about every business model in the book, subscriptions included. Look at FreeRealms and Wizard 101, for example.
There is a single reason, larger than how people pay, to why the free-to-play games are finding some success while so many subscription games have met tough times.
Fundamentally, F2P games are designed to get playing as quickly and with as few barriers as possible. That’s why they’re either playable in a browser or with a small download. That’s why you don’t need to fill out more forms than it takes to get a mortgage and that’s why they don’t require a liquid cooled Alienware to run them.
Ask yourself this: What do World of Warcraft and virtually every F2P game have in common? And what do Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and others have in common?
Many people say Funcom and Mythic copied WoW, but if they did, they forgot to rip off the single most important thing. Blizzard even published that top secret design document on bottom of the box.
It was the system requirements.
This is what F2P games and WoW share the most. Forget design, forget art style. They can all be run by a wad of chewing gum and a rubber band.
Face facts, MMO developers. By making a huge time sucker that only plays on the PC, you’ve already cut off a huge number of potential gamers. Throw in needing a Delorean to run it and now you’re all competing over the same twelve people.
And I don’t want to hear “but our graphics scale!” That’s not a valid counter argument. No one has ever successfully made a game that scales visually. There are too many moving parts, too much to consider and most gamers don’t actually want to have to deal with patches and pages of menus just to make your game work. Sure, super hardcore gamers love to be able to adjust their draw distance to the nearest inch, but they don’t pay the bills. They just post on the forums.
Make a game, make it beautiful and make it work on its max settings on every reasonable PC thrown off the back of a truck in the last five years.
Seriously, the average person doesn’t care about the latest particle effects. I would much rather a game that ran smoothly and looked coherent. World of Warcraft doesn’t have technically amazing graphics. They don’t break any boundaries and they don’t push any envelopes, but the game runs and looks beautiful. Why? They put more time into coherent art direction than they did technical achievement.
Heck, Blizzard’s next two games are isometric. No one has released an isometric title in years, everything must be 3D, right? Yet, while everyone points out the genius of Blizzard, no one else will do what they’re doing. There is no imperative to push the graphical envelope. People want games that play well, and look nice. The rest of it is just Maya flexing.
Reign in the poly counts and suddenly your game is fighting over a much larger pile of people.
And I don’t care if the game is published by EA or Your Mother’s Basement, Inc. Put that MMO online with a free to download and play trial. If you really insist on making someone pay for the original copy, God bless you, but it damn well better be on Steam too. It’s absolutely insane that people have to go to a store to buy a game that by definition is played online with a decent Internet connection (having a box is fine, but it’s 2009, so there is no excuse for not having both).
Once subscription games make their games as easy to play, install and run as their F2P counterparts, then we’ll be able to gather some real data and find out which business model actually is better. Until then, it’s comparing walnuts and elephants.