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The Devil's Advocate: Why the F2P Trend Won’t Last

Column By William Murphy on November 10, 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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There’s a common belief by many in the MMORPG industry that Free-to-Play must be the model to save the MMO industry. In truth, what’s really been missing from a lot of recent releases, isn’t a solid revenue plan… it’s quality. For some reason, because a game might launch to a ton of box sales and then fail on the retention part of its need to make a profit, there’s a prevailing idea that maybe the subscription model isn’t the right way to do things.  But what they’re failing to see is that it’s not the subscription itself that makes people stop paying up, it’s the simple fact that often the games in question are lacking in quality, content, depth, and design.

I realize this particular case of The Devil’s Advocate column comes at a time when World of Warcraft is reporting a massive loss in subscribers during 2011, and analyst firms are reporting a huge increase on F2P spending in North America.  But I (Satan) see this as less of a sign of F2P dominance, and more as a sign of a diverse market for all MMO gamers.  We’re also seeing one of the industry’s biggest F2P players showing signs of too-rapid growth while being forced to make drastic layoffs.

World of Warcraft has declining numbers for the same reasons any game hitting seven years would have declining numbers… it’s seven years old.  No doubt, it will see a strong refresh when Mists of Pandaria comes out despite the current controversy surrounding that expansion.  And then a year or two after, we’ll see another report on how WoW’s losing subscribers once more because it’s been a while since the last expansion refresh, and the cycle goes on and on.  Though this time, I do wonder if WoW’s loss in subs will start to be more permanent.  Seven years is a long time, and with other studios finally beginning to catch up in terms of quality product (Rift, SWTOR – we hope), it’s very likely that WoW’s established and firm grip on the reins of an entire industry is slowly coming to an end. 

But that alone doesn’t mean we’re going to see F2P become the new modus operandi for all of our MMO gaming goodness.  F2P sales are up overall in North America because F2P is becoming a more viable solution, and happens on a more frequent basis.  The F2P games, at least some, are also increasing in quality and learning what it is players in NA will pay for.  But again, growth of one sector does not cancel out the other.

There is room for both the F2P model (or the hybrid) and the subscription. I could lay down a bunch of analogies about which serves what type of player, but those would serve only to perpetuate stereotypes and incite finger-pointing.  The simple fact is that players are going to play whatever is A.) fun and B.) quality.  It does not matter what the revenue model is.  The game has to be good.

But think of it this way, if you want to talk Risk Assessment: You are a company, yes a whole company, and you spent 100 million dollars on the development of a game. You can make it accessible to anyone and everyone, free to play monthly, and hope to make up your costs in item and service sales.  Or maybe you can box it up, sell it on shelves, and hope to make up costs in retail and a combination of the items and service sales. Lastly, you can sell a box, and ask that players who like the game now pay for it monthly and pull in a guaranteed amount of money for that month.  Even a game with just 10,000 subscribers is pulling in $150,000 a month.  At this point you adjust your team, you costs, and a smart company can operate, maintain, and update their game on a budget that still makes a profit for the company. 

I say this all like it’s easy.  Look, I know it’s not.  I’m just saying that in a world, a society, where choice is King? It’s probably the best bet to keep an open mind on several different outcomes and not to throw all of your eggs into one basket.  The F2P basket is filling up with a lot of stinkers, and only the ones that do it right will survive very long.  But the question is, what exactly is “doing it right”? Maybe it really is a safer bet to make a good game, and tie it to subscriptions.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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The Devil's Advocate
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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