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Justin Webb: F2P: Relax... Breathe

Column By Justin Webb on June 08, 2010

There was lots of F2P news this week. First, Sony announced a kiddie Star Wars game, and then Turbine decided to make LoTRO free to play. In this article, I’m going to hopefully give some insight into this ever-expanding subgenre, and talk about some things that F2P games “do” and some things that they “don’t” do. In the spirit of full disclosure, before I begin, I should mention that I work for studio that specializes in F2P games and microtransactions. And, conversely, that I’ve also worked for a studio that made subscription-based MMOs. I’ve designed on both sides of the fence. Let’s begin…

F2P seems to be a dirty word in our forums; the mere utterance of which evokes violent palpitations amongst many readers. This is understandable. Compared to subscription-based MMOs, not that many people play them. There is an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding out there. And many players think they understand how they work, when really they only partially grok the nuances.

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The last few years can be categorized as the emergence, or rise, of the Eastern F2P MMO. The mass influx of these games isn’t because Eastern developers all sat down one day and devised a diabolic plot designed to extract the most cash out of gormless consumers. It’s because of a couple of other less nefarious factors:

(1) Western subscription-based MMOs can make a lot of money.

When a P2P MMO gets released in the West, the publisher makes a ton of money off of box sales (or the digital-download equivalent). This blast of cash offsets a considerable portion of the development costs. Nowadays, it is not unheard of for a game to shift a million “boxes” in its first couple of weeks. That’s $50 million at release. Then, after that, it’s quite feasible to retain, say, 300,000 subs for the first year. That’s close to another $5 million. So, Eastern developers saw that there was money to be made and decided to take the plunge. However, in Eastern countries, with Chinabeing a prime example, there’s an additional hurdle to overcome:

(2) It’s almost impossible to sell a game at retail in China.

Piracy is rampant there. You simply just can’t release a game and expect to make any money from box sales. You don’t mosey down to a Gamestop store in Shanghaiand plonk down a stack of RMB when you want to buy a game – you copy it from a friend, or a friend of a friend, instead. This means that publishers can’t get that initial $50 million in sales when they release a game. So, this left Eastern developers in a bit of a quandary. They need that $50 million to pay for the game’s development. How else are they going to turn a profit? The answer: make them free to play … and then use microtransactions to (hopefully) cover costs. This is the main reason for the recent glut of F2P games in the East.

With that established, how do they work? To do this, I need to categorize the three main types of MMO players:

  • Type 1: A player with more time than money;
  • Type 2: A player with more money than time;
  • Type 3: A player with lots of money and lots of time.

Type-1 players don’t usually pay anything. They just play. These players are really useful because they fill up the game world and make it feel full and fun. They know that they won’t be spending any money, so they play just to have fun, or until another more-interesting F2P game catches their eye.

Type-2 players are a game’s bread and butter. They want to take part in the game, but feel like everyone else is going too fast and they want to catch up. They are prepared to pay (some) money to speed things up a bit.

Type-3 players are much less common. Imagine if Bruce Wayne wasn’t Batman but really loved playing MMOs – that’s type 3. These players are extremely valuable (and will spend a lot of money), and, like my Dad likes to say, “they’re as rare as rocking-horse sh*t”.

Now that we know who is playing, we run into the biggest fallacy regarding F2P -- that of the Über item. I’m sure you’ve heard/read this: “I’m never going to play a F2P game because other players can just buy awesome Über gear… I worked for my gear”. You see this type of comment on forums a lot. What is interesting though is that it’s simply not true.

I can’t think of a single F2P MMO (although I’m sure there are some) that allows players to buy awesome gear with real money. And I can think of dozens that don’t. These elusive Über items are exactly that – extremely elusive. Elusive to the point of virtually not existing.

Let that sink in for a while.

F2P games hardly ever sell items that directly increase player power. What F2P games DO sell is the following:

  • Consumable items that speed up gameplay
  • Consumable items that increase the chance of good things happening
  • Consumable items that decrease the chance of bad things happening
  • Cosmetic items
  • Customer-service items
  • Additional content.

It’s not in a game’s best interests to allow cash items to modify player power. This pisses off all the type-1 players. However, selling items that allow type-2 players to feel like they can catch up with the type-1 players is rampant, and is the strategy on which F2P games depend.

Of course, “some” developers do make power uber items. But those games soon end up being consigned to the MMO elephant graveyard – type-1 players won’t put up with it and leave in droves. Now, many F2P developers do fill their cash shops with items that prey on consumers in a greedy way. For example, some games have lucky-dip lotteries where players buy tickets with real cash with a chance of winning a cool item. Some of these games also reward the person who has bought the most tickets that day. It doesn’t take long for these games to be seen as “predatory”, and they too end up in the MMO graveyard.

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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