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The Free Zone: More Consumer Choice, Please

Column By Richard Aihoshi on April 26, 2010

For reasons I'm at a loss to comprehend, there are readers who apparently labor under the misconception that I regard free to play as a superior business model to subscription.  To the best of my knowledge, I've never said that.  And I do mean never.  Since I hold no such belief, why would I? 

Some people even feel the need to use inaccurate impressions as a straw man by attributing such a position to me in order to disparage it.  There's probably nothing practical I can do about them or whatever agendas they've chosen to follow.  But for the rest of you, in case I somehow haven't said it clearly enough in the past, I do not consider F2P to be inherently better or worse than subscription. 

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I also don't think they're the only viable possibilities publishers can offer.  As the MMOG category continues to expand, we're seeing some more.  The latest example, which led to my choice of topic, happens to be from the subscription realm, SOE's EQ II Passport.  My purpose here isn't to discuss its particular merits and drawbacks, which are largely matters of individual opinion anyway.  However, the announcement did remind me something I've wanted for years, more flexibility and choices in terms of users being able to decide what we pay for.

Consider any popular product.  While there are exceptions, most are not sold on a one size fits all basis.  I may have to ask for double pickle, no onion on my hamburger, or look down on the bottom shelf to find a small jar of peanut butter.  However, I do have choices without having to switch brands.  Why?  Because other people have wants that are similar but not exactly the same.  The same thing basically applies to services; it's just frequently easier to use more concrete examples. 

With subscription MMOGs - don't worry; I'll get to F2P next - what are my options?  Some titles offer multi-month discounts and/or lifetime rates.  Those are more or less comparable to larger jars of peanut butter.  But extending this analogy in the other direction, what's out there in the way of smaller sizes?  The answer is very little.  If I'm willing to pay a higher price per ounce, I can easily buy less peanut butter.  But in most MMOGs, my alternatives are the full monthly fee for unlimited hours, or quitting.   The same can be said of anything that might be seen as parallel to double pickle, no onion. 

As a result, I can't help but wonder, for instance, why games don't offer subscriptions that allow limited numbers of hours per month for less than the full fees?  Or for that matter, what's wrong with pay by the hour or by the day options?  Or a hybrid with a small monthly base plus a usage-based component?  No particularly good reasons that I can think of, which would seem to point toward a dearth of thinking outside the box in order to formulate additional choices aimed at consumers whose purchase criteria don't completely fit the current options. 

The F2P model isn't as restrictive in that assuming I can exercise a modicum of self-discipline in order to control my spending, I can pay as much or as little as I like.  In addition, at least to some extent, I decide what good and benefits I receive for my money.  However, what I don't see as much of as I'd like to in this sector is pre-packaged options at various price points. 

To use another version of the hamburger analogy, when I go to my local outlet, I'm practically bombarded with meal and combo deals that generally cost a little less than buying the components individually.  I'm not suggesting I'd want such a broad range within an MMOG, but in most cases, I would definitely prefer a larger selection than I'm actually offered.  It also strikes me that packages may be particularly user-friendly to non-hardcore players who prefer the greater convenience over buying everything individually in order to min-max.

MMOG Trivia

It was rather fun deciding what to ask last week, so I decided that starting today, I'll try to end most columns with a question or two.  And to begin with a game that was mentioned earlier…

What are the playable races in EQ II?  Bonus question: Which ones are different from EQ? 

Answer

There are 19 playable races in EQ II.  The Dwarf, Fae, Froglok, Halfling, High Elf and Wood Elf are good-aligned.  Neutral options include the Barbarian, Erudite, Gnome, Half Elf, Human and Kerra.  The Arasai, Dark Elf, Iksar, Ogre, Ratonga, Troll and Sarnak are evil.

The Fae, Kerra, Arasai, Ratonga, Troll and Sarnak are not available in EQ, which does offer two others, the Drakkin and Vah Shir, both of which are neutral.

And no, I couldn't remember them all.  :(

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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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