“The free-to-play MMO does not exist.” I have been fascinated by this idea for the past two months, mulling it over in my head while writing other pieces for MMORPG.com. I've also been wondering what this statement actually means, not only as an analysis of definitions and revenue models, but also as a concept, one that has repercussions when it is taken as truth by gamers and game developers.
I doubt today's Devil's Advocate will be the definitive reaction to the statement, but at least the thought will finally be out on the internet for people to read and (hopefully) out of my head.
The Ideal Versus Semantics
One of the very first issues when talking about the ideal of the free-to-play MMO is the problem of how the literal definition of what a “free-to-play MMO” is becomes the plaything of human subjectivity and semantics.
If I were to take a dictionary and objectively determine the most literal way of describing the phrase, “free-to-play MMO,” it would be defined as a massively multiplayer online game where no player is required to pay a fee to acquire the full experience of the game. Of course, I'm human, and this is still an imperfect way of putting it, but assume that there is a definition that everyone knows as a textbook case.
Assuming no one starts picking apart the definitions of what a massively multiplayer online game is, the last half of the definition is still - despite every attempt to be as clear as possible – open to interpretations when we discuss the words “required,” “acquire,” and “full experience.”
Some of you may have read the statement above with the idea that while we aren't required to pay a fee, we might be coerced into paying for something. Others might debate what constitutes a “full experience,” especially if there are items that can only be owned by a small subset of people or raids that can only be done by elite raiding parties. More to the point, “acquiring” the full experience of a game, whatever you might define the experience to be, is subject to the interpretation of acquisition (Do I “acquire” it through fun play, earn it through a grind, or maybe through random number generation and treating the game as a second job?).
The mind plays tricks on the human understanding of this ideal, making the term “free-to-play” less of a tangible notion and more seemingly a metaphysical, Platonic form.
MMO Revenue Models
With all that said, I'm pretty sure the basic tendency of gamers and economists alike is to look at the different ways the buzzword of “free-to-play” has been spun as a revenue model. We touched upon this briefly in July when we discussed how cash shops tended to operate. Let's delve a little deeper today though with a couple of different write-ups from bloggers who have tackled the issue in the past month or so.
Chronologically, what got the ball rolling was a post by Syp on Bio Break entitled “Free-to-play is...” where he enumerated a dozen different ways of spinning the F2P monicker based on different MMOs, including completely free, temporarily subscription-free, and subscription/F2P hybrids. Of the posts I'd seen, perhaps the most amusing one from my viewpoint was on Vicarious Existence, which took a look at video game payment models. This included not only World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, but also single-player offline games and the offerings on Miniclip.com.
Perhaps the most thoughtful analysis came from Ryahl of TSW Guides. He's been writing a series of editorials on MMOs, and preceding his revenue model analysis was a piece that saw a downward trend in the subscription MMO model. The week after, he posted an assessment of some of the major billing models as well as a revised model he called Box+. This article is intriguing because it took a good look at billing models and followed up with a reasoned, potentially lucrative hybrid model that would allow everyone to buy the base game experience and choose how they wanted to augment their play.
Of course, if semantics tells us that we can't agree on the meaning behind a definition, and the meaning itself is easily obscured by spin, I have to ask, “What's the next step?”
The Gangnam Gambit
I'm going to refer to this next bit of the piece for today as the Gangnam Gambit. For all of you out there, I'm referring to two things now. The first is the extremely popular Korean music video Gangnam Style, which appears to have a rather risky, subversive message that paid off because the inherent goodwill and enjoyment from the video overshadowed the risky message of Psy's Gangnam Style. The second is the gambit, which is generally defined as a risky remark, action or maneuver calculated to gain an advantage.
The Gangnam Gambit, as such, would be an attempt by the companies to potentially (though not as sneakily as Psy) increase their revenue by performing a gesture of goodwill, which in this case would be abolishing the free-to-play misnomer entirely and adopting various terms to represent their revenue models.
SOE's “Free-to-play, your way” is technically more of a “subscription teaser” model, to quote Ryahl. Fallen Earth's multi-tiered subscription model with cash shop would have its own tag. So would GW2 and any other game with some semblance of free-to-play built in. This is all, of course, barring the possibility that developers would see the Box+ idea and adopt it.
What benefits does a unified stance against F2P misconceptions bring to the table? It allows consumers to be informed of what they're getting into when they play. It allows them to choose games not only on the game's merits, but also on their budget at the time. It allows people to try more than one game, come back to the games they like, and spend as much as they can afford or are willing to give to support developers. It's a responsible free market that respects consumers while giving the impression that Ragnar Tornquist implied a few weeks ago: that it's okay to try new things and enjoy play for what it's worth to the individual.
More importantly, it destroys the idea of free-to-play in the current incarnations we see it in, which is a harmful and potentially deceitful means of drawing in consumers based on the idea that they don't have to pay anything to enjoy the full experience of the game. It may not reach the Platonic ideal, but it's something pretty idealistic that might benefit gamers and devs alike.