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The staff of gets together to bring you some behind the scenes insights on stories, the industry and the site itself.

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Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

A Thought about F2P

Posted by Stradden_bak Friday July 17 2009 at 10:01AM
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The idea of microtransactions as a way of life has been gaining traction in the world of MMORPGs, and as much as some of us would like to hide our heads in the sand ostrich-style, the pesky things keep on edging forward, looming on an ever tightening horizon, threatening to overtake our precious and familiar subscription model.

Now, that might be over-dramatizing things just a little bit, but with the recent Turbine announcement that DDO would be going the way of the item shop, and Cryptic’s recent revelation that microtransactions will be available in their upcoming release of Champions Online, the call of the item shop is getting harder and harder to ignore.

Now, I’m going to start this by saying that I’m not an expert in either finances in general or microtransactions as a phenomenon. We have other people for that. I will say though that whenever the topic comes up, I am reminded of something that a F2P game developer said to me at one of last year’s trade shows:

I had asked what the advantage was to having a microtransaction based game as opposed to the traditional subscription based game. At least with a subscription, I assumed, you’d be making money from every player in the game. Free players, those who don’t buy from the item shop, were to my mind just a drain on resources.

The answer I got to this stuck with me and got me thinking. He said that there are a number of ways to look at it, but that in the end, the players who aren’t paying anything are still playing the game, meaning that they’re providing “content” for paying players. These free playing players keep the game world from ever feeling dead to players.

Looking at MMO launches over the last few years, with few exceptions, this has been a complaint that I’ve heard over and over again: “The servers are dead”. When server population starts to dwindle, so too do subscription numbers as even those who enjoyed the game enough to stick with it and keep paying for it after launch begin to feel isolated. So why then, based on that alone, would companies not want to at least consider a free element to their games? From a business standpoint, it just makes sense.

So, with that in mind, what is it that makes so many of us turn our noses up at the very notion that microtransactions might one day (and sooner than we’d like to admit) become the dominant business models for MMOs? I think that there are lots of reasons:

  • We don’t want to see people ‘buy their way to the top” of any game. We see enough of that in our every day lives.
  • We’re afraid that games will start to be designed to suck as much money out of us as possible rather than to entertain us.
  • We think that while our $15 a month is reasonable, we’re going to have to pay way more than that to get the same level of service we got in a subscription based game
  • We worry that a quick trip to the item shop will replace a tough run through a raid in terms of getting gear.
  • We carry over a stereotype about F2P games being of low quality
  • We don’t like the idea of change unless we see a clear benefit

These are just a few of the reasons that I see, I’m sure I missed a bunch, and until some or all of these concerns are put to rest through experiencing this business model, there will continue to be resistance to the change from plays who just don’t think it’s a good idea.

Now, since I’m talking about microtransactions and I have a bit of space left, I have a bit of a rant to make:

Part of the problem with Free 2 Play games is that the industry and players alike KEEP CALLING THEM FREE 2 PLAY GAMES. They’re not free to play. Sure, there are free elements to the game, but they’re based on an item shop or microtransactions revenue model. Free 2 Play implies that you can get the game, the whole game, without paying any money and that just isn’t true. At best, it’s misleading and at worst, it’s actually contributing to the subconscious feeling of being somehow scammed when we hear about a F2P game.

Mrbloodworth writes:

Well, considering that the subscription base model "You are over charging 50% of your player base, and under charging the other 50%", micro trans or, Ala cart make sense.

Fri Jul 17 2009 10:16AM Report
EricDanie writes:

CO is an exception, your argument is not valid for CO as it still has a subscription fee, although if people still have in their senses that fun must not mean money spent but rather time spent, CO will fail horribly past release and will need to drop their subscription fee and retail cost a few months after launch.

I do agree saying a game is "Free to Play" brings a lot of players, but if you release a game from Day One like that you won't have any new way of bringing new players except for massive advertisement campaigns (they cost a lot of $) and increasing the Item Mall appeal from these games, and by appeal, yes, it is strengthening the Item Mall advantages.

It's funny though that these F2P games are usually supported by a few players spending way over $15, and the major part of the player base is simply draining resources and serving as food for the paying minority. And I fail to have fun in any of these two viewpoints.

Fri Jul 17 2009 10:37AM Report
toord writes:

As with any economic phenomenon it will bubble and every game developer and their grandmas will put out a so-called F2P game. Eventually that bubble will burst and with it we'll see a shift back to subscription based model. I can almost guarantee you this.

I don't think the dollar signs in the eyes and the Kool-aid potions that the developers are drinking allow them to see that the F2P model is flawed (to be fair P2P is also flawed, but can be fixed) in that quantity != Quality. I have 1 million players ... who might not like the game at all and don't cancel their subs because there's no point to in a F2P game and you can have all the players of the world and people will naturally gravitate towards guilds (like-minded players) and NEVER group with anyone outside, PUG become even more erratic and unpredictable than EVER since the player pool is so big -- so people will stop pugging (to save their sanity) which sooner or later will drive people away.

F2P, IMO, is bad news. It's a mad financier's experiment and sooner or later it will unravel.

Fri Jul 17 2009 11:00AM Report
IronChu writes:

What kind of sense does that make? Free 2 Play games are Free 2 Play, just as they claim. You don't have to spend any money to play the game, therefore it is free 2 play.

The fact that you have to pay to get "the good stuff" is irrelevant, because you're assuming everyone is interested in getting it.

What about the more casual players? What about the players that don't care about the uber loot? The game is Free 2 Play for them.

Fri Jul 17 2009 11:18AM Report
Haradeas writes:

You hit the point completly wrong considering Champions online :)

you are explaining between F2P and P2P ( micro system and monthly fees ). Champions online has them both.

Still great article to read :)

Fri Jul 17 2009 11:32AM Report
johnspartan writes:

I dunno, I don't mind the option where you can either pay a monthly fee and be a Premium subscriber or just item shop it.

As long as by being a Premium member I get more/special stuff in comparison to the nickle and dimers, I'm happy.

I'm too lazy for micro-transactions, one flat fee, done.

Fri Jul 17 2009 11:32AM Report
Stradden_bak writes:

I wasn't proposing that CO had only microtransactions, and I wasn't speaking about CO specifically in the rest of the article. i mention it at the top because it's an announcement that's got the microtransactions debate heating up again, no more, no less.

Fri Jul 17 2009 11:55AM Report
Ozmodan writes:

The article hit the nail on the head when it said that f2p is most certainly not f2p play unless you can accept the reduced content available to those not paying. 

Content in all the f2p is limited for the free players whether they realize it or not.  If you pvp in any manner you suffer from reduced abilities due to paying players having better stuff and significant lvls on you from fast lvlilng aides.  A lot of guilds won't take in non paying players, they don't want to deal with players with unoptimal equipment.

I don't think the f2p model will ever go away, but I also think that the subscription model will not die either.    There are arguments for both and they will continue to coexist.

DDO is really bit of a different model of f2p.  You just pay for extra content, at the moment the item shop does not sell items that effect leveling.  It really does much of a pvp element to start with, either.   My guess is guilds will still exclude the non paying players though.

Fri Jul 17 2009 12:02PM Report
Innoss writes:

The day I cant find an MMO that I like that isnt F2P is the day I quit MMO's all together. I personally feel a microtransactional revinue model is another step in a long history of bad  design by former and now current developers as well as the companies who emply them.

Its not about the money to me. I retired at 40 pretty damn wealthy.Its about achievements and goals and friendships gained thru grouping/raiding and actually "playing" the game. Loot is just an added reward that sadely too many people are focusing on. Add in the ability to get that loot thru monetary means and the whole concept of MMO goes out the door.

Fri Jul 17 2009 12:20PM Report
LocoGunner71 writes:

 Well, personally i think the F2P concept will stick for various reasons that have been explained here and elseware in the site, I think this like any other game genre has to evolve, subscription model will prevail in famous IP games, but F2P will offer clons, and every now and then new concepts in social gaming, also there is another way companies maight to start getting money for F2P games rather than Item Store or Mall, and that is advertising, sports games should be doing it right away, like EAs FIFA games do, of course is more difficult to make it in place with a Fantasy game, but there are always cool (and crappy) ways to do it (The Castle restaurants franchise would be right at home).

Also let me point out there are F2P games that make everything available to the free player (but costs more work and time) like PWI, where u can even buy gold with game world money to buy at Mall. Its also a nice quality game since originally was sub modeled.

Fri Jul 17 2009 12:38PM Report
KinetiKoPP writes:

 I find both models to work wonderfully, depending on what the Item Shop has for items ofc. The major Issue I have with F2P games is that there tends to be a larger base of hacking. Yes it happens in both game types, but when its free to make as many accounts as you want, the hack makers are able to build them much easier and at a much lower cost. This means when they distribute them they are either free, or nearly free, while in P2P they tend to be much more expensive. Although there are exceptions to both.

Fri Jul 17 2009 12:44PM Report
sanders01 writes:

 I would love the have most games the way DDO is going it, with the 'premium' subscription, such as you pay a monthly fee, get all the content, and a monthly allowance in cash shop credits. In the end, that would what I hope games do if they turn over to microtransactions. Great article btw.

Fri Jul 17 2009 1:13PM Report
toord writes:

@Ozmodan, DDO store HAS many things that will unbalance leveling: 2X  XP potions, leveling sigils, etc.

DDO: EU will fail sooner or later. Not directly related to F2P but the game itself and the new house rules they've added are simply atrocious. (I played that game for 2 years+ and I won't be playing it again same goes for 90% of my guildies)

Fri Jul 17 2009 1:20PM Report
delateur writes:

I think I prefer a P2P game that has you pay for quality of life upgrades, like CoH did. They've had some booster packs and such that were purchaseable for a small fee and made available to all characters on the account. For the most part, I think the additions were worth the one time fee, but I agree with others when they say they would rather not have to spend real money to keep up with others, PvP or PvE. That being said, this model does address the idea that people have more in their lives going on than MMOGs, or perhaps more than one MMOG, and by giving people the chance to buy things that would take many days to achieve, they are respecting the needs of that player base. I honestly don't know how many people that addresses, though.  For me, there is SOME appeal, but I still think I'd rather just take a break from P2P and come back, or pay the nominal monthly fee ($15 or less is nominal, currently) and play casually, without worrying about guilds as much, or being a part of a similarly minded guild.  By buying something from a store that is "uber," I have a lot less satisfaction than actually finding it. I even feel that way about merit rewards in CoH. I'd much rather get the item as a drop, but if I must, I'll run TFs, etc. to earn the merits.

Fri Jul 17 2009 2:38PM Report
CyberNigma writes:


In my opinion, those are the very things that balance the game that you mention.  I'm not retired, Im not stil growing up with lots of free time, I'm not a student, so I don't have the time resource that many of those (someone will read that as ALL) people have.  Back in the day, early BBS games used to allow for everyone to have a chance to pay and play equaly (both because of limited lines as well as limited 24/7 players) by giving each player X amount of time to play or X amount of turns.  In that sense, Joe with 23 hours to play can't get an advantage in game over John who has only 4 hours to play.


By having xp boosting items for sale, the working guy with money can compete with the broke kid with time.  The alternative is to use the subscription model and limit the amount of time people can play per day.  While they can buy multiple accounts and keep playing, they will be playing on other characters that also will not be at an advantage just because the person can play all day.  Time is the biggest in-game advantage that exists in western (subscription) MMOs in this day and age.  Offering stuff in the item shop that can't be had by spending time (both resources - most people have one or the other with the exception of people like the poster above that retired rich) is bad juju altogether.


For most people in subscription-based MMOs, by the time they get to the good stuff, the people with the time advantage have already moved on to whatever the next patch introduced as the new stuff,.  If you could buy an xp booster then you're spending your resource (money earned) to match their resource (time spent in-game).


There will always be exceptions and abusers.  As far as having to spend money to keep up with others - without an in-store option like xp boosts, you probably can't keep up with others, period - assuming you are the person with a job and other duties and the 'others' are the guys with time paying 4+ hours every weeknight and 16+ hours on the weekend (or worse - 16+ hours every day).  Of course, the non-monetary fix, as I mentioned above, is to cap the amount of time that can be played effectively on an account - not by kicking you out of the game, but by turning it into a social experience after X hours, earning no experience or loot.   This would stop the oppsite from happening - forcing people to play 8+ hours a day to keep up with others in PvP or PvE (assuming level and gear progression is usually based on time spent in game and not outright skill).

Sat Jul 18 2009 5:42AM Report
CyberNigma writes:

just an FYI, my L key skips on this keyboard, so keep that in mind when reading my comment (missing several L's)

Sat Jul 18 2009 5:43AM Report
CyberNigma writes:

btw, there are some horror stories from China and Korea concerning some MMOs that have no alternative to paying to keep up, just like many western MMOs have no alternative to compete with people that can play all day.  When a game favors one type of player, whether its a player with excess money or one with excess time, over another its unbalanced.  So few MMOs balance based upon skill that they usually lean one way (time or money) leaving the other type behind.  Of course people without time and without money are really screwed in either case as there aren't many MMOs that allow progression solely on skill.  Guild Wars PvP is an example where neither the time nor the money player have a benefit.  WoW Arena on the Arena Server (20 dollar seasonal fee) is the same way - 20 dollars gets you max level with max gear unlocked).

Sat Jul 18 2009 5:57AM Report
LordDmaster writes:

Thank you for the info about DDO and CO. For me its simple, the powers to be want more $. Some day at this rate the P2P monthy will be $ 49.99. As for DDO and CO thay just hit my " Will Not Play list".

Sat Jul 18 2009 7:10AM Report
haratu writes:

I see it more like the players who pay allow others to play for free... your developer you quoted sees it too much from the money point, he also is presuming everyone will like the game and be playing it lots.

Sure the paying players get more people to participate, however those that don't pay are often casual players and not dedicated to the game, so really don't add much for the paying community.

Sat Jul 18 2009 8:56AM Report
CleverLegion writes:

You guys are making the assumptions that you can buy your way to the top in all F2P games.  I have played Atlantica Online at least 10 hours a week since December and I have spent a total of $50 in the item mall. 

I'm going to say this again, even though it has been said many times and you won't listen this time either.  YOU CANNOT BUY YOUR WAY TO THE TOP!  The item mall has convenience items, potions (that can be crafted or bought  in game as well) and mounts.  I don't see what you are bitching about.  Some games choose micro transactions, some choose subscriptions.  What the hell does it matter?  

ALL of you people who are whining for subscription games are idiots who cannot think through the entire issue.  You just hit a mental brick wall when it comes to F2P.   I will make it nice and simple for you:  You play a game and see if it is fun.   If it is fun, then you pay (whether it is a subscription or item mall) and play your heart out.  If it sucks, you uninstall and move on.  See?  Easy concept huh?  It applies to both business models.

This site has some great writers who know what is going on in the industry for the most part, but a lot of  these users are real morons. 

Sat Jul 18 2009 10:11AM Report
Thaenei writes:

@ Clever.....

1. shouting things like "YOU CANNOT BUY YOUR WAY TO THE TOP!" does not impress and makes your points in no way more worthwile.

2. it DOES matter if microtranscations are used, because the make it easy for the developpers to get out unfinished products and charge the customers for less. these transactions are a cheap way for many companies to get more cash out of their customers than using subscription. they are very dangerous if minors are involved who do not think of the financial impact!

3. yes i know we (everyone who doesnot like microtransactions like yourself) are idiots. yes we know you are the only non-idiot around.

4. of course everyone who doesn't creep in your as iss a  moron, you are again right here.



Mon Jul 20 2009 2:51PM Report
garry writes:

YEOW! The comments here range from interesting and thought provoking to amusing to downright funny. I would like to clear up one thing about the upcoming Champions Online. The MT's they have in the game at launch are cosmetic or things such as name changing. They have plainly stated that nothing affecting in-game play will be available that is not also available by game play. You can pay or play for the same stuff. Can't speak for the future of course, will have to wait and see. (Me and my brother and a friend are pre-ordering today).

By the way I am a 63 year old retired Game Designer (PnP)....not a kid. One of the things I learned at TSR (D&D) was that all game design first required a business model. It was money that came first, even before Genre, which was the next decision in line of necessity. I play WOW full time and have worked through over a dozen MMO games in the past couple of years to find what I enjoy most. I intend to run about three or four games for my retirement hobby. I don't much care if they are Sub games or FTP. I am a little unconfortable with MT but it is a good business model to obtain players for a game. From a business model it is similar to the free trial offers, competing for the customers business. No game I know of can begin or continue to operate without money.

The major contest I see from a consumer point of view is between MT and Subs, simply, how you go about getting that consumer money so you can survive and profit. Without that there is no game to play..period.

I am not advocating either method, just pointing out the cold facts of operating a business. You might imagine the painful surprise I had when, all excited, I joined TSR as a designer, then found that the game designer was NOT the most important employee. It was probably the PR/Sales/Distribution departments that gave me my job and a paycheck so I could do what I loved the most.

So in the end it will be about how the company obtains customers and their money. One, the other or both. CO seems willing to try both with modifications at launch. I have tried about four FTP games and MT's in game have been somewhat obtrusive but not terribly so. The graphics were ok (Never point/click to move) but the genres were very basic and....well ok...but, I haven't spent any money on MT's yet.

By the way, MT were an attempt to take a portion of the money being gained by third party sales of in game items/gold etc... again - MONEY. Sigh! Altruism is erratic in the business world...Competion is not.

Sat Aug 01 2009 12:29PM Report
Bhagpuss writes:

As a reader of reviews for nearly forty years, music, film, books, games, you name it, what I most want is to be entertained.

Witty, well-written, amusing - all these come way before "informative" or even "accurate". In all other genres, at the top end at least, reviewing is much more about the reviewer than what's being reviewed. Purely factual information belongs in the news section, not in the reviews.

Back in the newsprint days of the 80s, gaming journalism wasn't that much different from music journalism. Opinion and personality were valued and reviews were often a pleasure to read in and of themselves, whether or not you had any interest in the game under review. There was a wonderful magazine called "Crash" that was almost entirely reviews;  I used to read it from cover to cover every month, even though I had no intention whatsoever of buying 99% of the games reviewed, because it was just a great read.

Nowadays, with instant feedback, not to say personal abuse and death threats, much of that irreverence and vibrancy has vanished. Online reviewing seems to have stagnated into a dull, worthy attempt to be "fair" and "accurate". Terrible shame.

If game reviewers insist on going down this route, the result will be that no-one reads any review unless they are already specifically interested in the game already, in which case they will be disproportionately disposed to feel aggrieved at any negative criticism, thereby causing a feedback loop that makes the reviewer play even safer next time out.

My advice is cultivate strong, idiosyncratic writers, who can draw an audience on the strength of their writing and opinions alone. Short of libel, let them review games however they choose. Stick with them long enough for we, the readers, to learn their tastes and quirks.

After reading certain film and music reviewers for ten, twenty years now, I'm able to use them as belweathers. It doesn't matter whether they conclude a new release is good, bad or indifferent because I have an understanding of how their standard of quality relates to my own. A vituperative demolition by a certain reviewer may tell me that band is one I probably wnat to look out for; a rave may tell me to steer well clear.

As for a points system, well thay are always amusing, but never meaningful, so use whatever you fancy.

Sun Aug 02 2009 2:49AM Report
Bhagpuss writes:

Bah! All that effort and posted in the wrong thread...

Sun Aug 02 2009 2:50AM Report writes:
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