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Player Versus Player: Subscription vs Free To Play

Column By Christopher Coke on August 28, 2013

Welcome back to another edition of Player Versus Player. This is the column where MMORPG.com writers collide and debate the topics you care about. It’s easy to get drowned out arguing on forums and sub-reddits, so we step to the podium to represent your side of the issue before turning it over to you in the comments. Ready for another spirited debate?

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Carbine and Zenimax rocked the world this week by announcing their games -- Wildstar and The Elder Scrolls Online, if you’ve been living under a rock -- would be adopting the subscription business model. What’s that, you say? Subscriptions are dead? Free-to-play is the future? They disagree, and as it happens, so do a lot of gamers. That’s our debate this week, so let’s break it down.

Subscriptions Stance: Subscriptions are the classic, and best, model to support MMORPGs. They provide equal access to all content and keep more in development.

Free-to-Play Stance: Free-to-play is the wave of the future. It removes the biggest barrier to entry and let’s gamers choose how much a game is worth. Down with subscriptions!

Representing the issues we have:

Bill “The Manager” Murphy: Editor-at-large and playing the free-to-play advocate, Bill knows a thing or two about what makes an MMO worthwhile.

Chris “The Geezer” Coke: Columnist and podcast host, Chris wants you to take your cash shop and get off his lawn while playing subscription advocate. Whippersnappers.

Chris: Let’s get the big one out of the way first: Subscriptions have always been a staple of MMORPGs because they work. When publishers set reasonable expectations and design for them, they can support quality games that stand the test of time. Free-to-play is a result of AAA games chasing World of Warcraft’s success.

Bill: I can’t argue your first point, but the latter: that F2P is somehow a result of chasing WoW is a bit off. F2P, in my eyes, is a result of far too many games vying for the subscription. The market for the MMORPG, however much it grew when players discovered Azeroth, is still finite. Look at our Game List on the website, and tell me if even one-tenth of those games are something you’d consider paying money for. The best way for most MMOs to earn a buck and sustain profitability is to lower the barrier of entry and hope to Jebus that someone likes the game enough to pay for some perks.

Chris:  Maybe, but subscription MMOs will always have a one-up on free-to-play games because they can rely on a steady income. They don’t need to turn to fire sales and re-skins to keep people spending. The free-to-play model is stuck in a catch-22: players need to use the store to keep the game running but to get players in the first place the store it has to be ignorable at the same time. Is it any wonder so much design time gets spent away from the actual game?

Bill: Just as there are games that do the F2P model badly, there are those who do it well and without beating you over the head with their store. Though it’s more “Buy to Play”, Guild Wars 2’s store walks the line well enough that it’s now producing content at an alarming speed and likely selling plenty of desirable stuff from its Black Lion store.  I can point to plenty F2P offerings that do the model a disservice, I grant you that. But let’s not forget that it can be done well and without ruining the immersion of the player.

Chris: The subscription model keeps developers doing what they do best: developing the actual game. Free-to-play suffers because players are made into repeat multi-stop spenders instead of one-time payers already bought-in. A subscription demands that the player make demands - of the game’s quality, of continued development, and that the game support enough other players for it to remain fun.

Bill: Isn’t this true of any game though? For F2P games, it’s getting you to buy little things here or there on a repeat basis. For subscription games, and no one can deny this is true of the MMO genre at large I suppose, it’s all about getting players to subscribe for as long as possible through any means necessary. Subscription games will stretch out the amount of time it takes to get things done in their game in order to keep you playing. The problem is: this is a tactic that’s been proven to not work on most gamers these days. A game has to be good. That’s really the only thing that will get anyone playing, no matter the model.

Chris: Okay, but one of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard (and one you mentioned) about subscriptions is that they make the barrier to entry too high. I would argue that the barrier to exiting a free-to-play game is too low. Where is the investment? Players in free-to-play MMOs are far more likely to disappear overnight, leaving servers, guilds, and individual players in constant revolving door status. I would also submit that the sense of commitment from a recurring payment is anything but bad! Subscriptions support a social cohesion that free-to-play games lack.

Bill: Again, it comes back to if the game’s good. I don’t play an MMO for a long time because I’ve spent money on it. That’s not why I stick around. I stick around in those games that are good and make me feel invested through the world, the players, the content, and the amount of fun I’m having with any or all of these things.

Chris: Fair enough but lastly, and perhaps most importantly, subscription games don’t segment their players into groups of second-class citizens. Everyone playing has purchased their ticket to ride. It’s true that the time-rich will always be able to accomplish more -- but that is as it should be. Players devoting hours and hours, at once or over a slow climb, should feel progressed. But then everyone has that opportunity without bringing immersion shattering payouts into the mix. Making sure everyone has fun is a design issue; the time-poor shouldn’t be shut out, but the ability to start at the same point, and reach the same points, with only time and commitment is invaluable. The same can’t be said of the F2P Matrix where you have VIPs, Gold Members, Guests, and freeloaders.

Bill: I think you’re a bit jaded by the bad F2P games out there. You’ve recently admitted to greatly enjoying Guild Wars 2 these days after initially being turned off by the game. It’s “F2P”, thrives on a cash shop, and yet… is anyone in Tyria somehow better off than those who don’t pony up for the Mini Packs or armor skins? I’d also like to point out that it’s increasingly the case that subscription games also host a cash shop… is this OK?  I can completely agree that there are just plain bad F2P models out there. But I’d argue that as players we should be looking towards the good models, and supporting them as much as we support the tried and true subscription. Because frankly, for all of these AAA MMOs to thrive and for us to keep getting games we care about, everyone needs some measure of success. And for that to happen, we need diversity not only in the gameplay, but also in the revenue model.

That’s all from us, folks. Sound off with your thoughts in the comments!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. He once feared F2P for the “slippery slope.” He once feared subscriptions, too, because only crazy people would pay every month for one game. Now he just fears spiders. Hairy, nasty spiders.

Bill Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com and RTSGuru.com. He loves games, food that’s terrible for him, IPA, and his wife and son (and no, not in that order). 

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