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The Devil's Advocate: Free Players are Toxic

Column By Michael Bitton on October 06, 2011

Disclaimer: The Devil's Advocate is a place where the MMO-Loving world can go to hear the unpopular opinion. Please note that this article does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff of MMORPG.com, the article’s writer or any of the game companies that may be discussed. The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.

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For many years, Western MMO gamers have generally loathed the concept of free-to-play MMOs, but as the trend towards this business model continues, new issues are cropping up. In order to get the Western MMO gamers to begin to accept the free-to-play model, developers and publishers are slowly weaning them off of subscriptions by offering hybrid free-to-play/subscription models for new and existing games alike, beginning with Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited and more recently with City of Heroes: Freedom.

The new problem, and this tends to be more of an issue for existing MMOs that are converting over, is that some of the MMO gamers who intend to stick with their subscriptions even when their MMOs go hybrid are turning their noses up at the incoming ‘riff-raff’.  I’ve noticed that many who choose to continue to subscribe view the rush of free players as a negative, even toxic, for their game’s community. They say that free players will bring in rampant hacking, increase gold seller activity, and really upend the community with terrible overall behavior.

I strongly disagree with this notion. In most cases, and again, especially with existing MMOs, going free-to-play has proven to completely reinvigorate the game.  Will you get some undesirables joining your community? Of course. Heck, users love to make light of the “Brazilians” in free-to-play MMOs, especially over in the League of Legends community. But the overall effect is positive.

Having spoken to many people working on free games, whether it be on Facebook or in the MMO genre, it’s apparently true that only a fairly small percentage tend to spend any money on a particular game at all, but the users who do spend tend to spend a lot. This additional revenue helps drive new feature development for your most beloved games and so even though most of the new players joining your community won’t be contributing with their wallets, some do, and some of those may contribute quite a bit.

Even those that don’t open up their wallets can affect your favorite game in a positive way. Free players help make a game seem more alive just by being there, and MMO developers are quite cognizant of this fact, which is why they don’t mind that the vast majority don’t spend a dime. I’ve always found it amusing that some people care that a game doesn’t have 80 servers with 10,000 concurrent users on each one. If you’re playing on one server and that server is hopping, who cares? Unfortunately, a lot of people do, and free players will instantly start filling up servers, including your home server. This has a psychological effect on those who are still playing and on those who never took the plunge.

There are simply more people talking about the game outside of the game as a result of the influx of new players and this goes a long way towards drawing new interest. Word-of-mouth is an incredibly powerful tool. This is also why I feel that SOE really got it wrong with EverQuest II: Extended. They really missed the point by segregating free users from subscribers on different servers.

Simply put, just about every MMO that has re-launched using the hybrid free-to-play model has done so to great success. No one should be looking at these gamers with a sense of dread; we should all be happy for their potential enhancement of the experience. If your game of choice was as popular using a pure subscription model as it ends up being in a hybrid model, I guarantee you’ll have close to as many asshats disrupting the game. I’m not going to name names here but there is one pretty solid example of this in the genre right now.

Have you been a long time player of a subscription-based MMO that re-launched free-to-play? What has your experience with the new community of players been like? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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