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The Free Zone: An Intriguing Year for Free to Play

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on December 07, 2009

An Intriguing Year for Free to Play

With 2009 winding down, it seems only natural to look back at some notable things that have happened in the free to play space since the beginning of the year. Of course, since the topics I've chosen to discuss - note that they're in no particular order - represent a completely personal, non-comprehensive selection, it's a dead certainty other people's lists will differ, quite significantly in some cases.

In this respect, I'm not expecting or aiming for any form of consensus. I look forward to seeing some very interesting and well thought out comments, whether they align closely with mine or not at all.


Continued growth despite the harsh economy

It's abundantly clear that F2P's market share is still growing, although due to the scarcity of empirical data, it's hard to gauge how quickly. My main focus here is dollars, not the grossly inflated and thus essentially useless registrant counts put out by publishers, or the incessantly increasing number of titles.

Here in North America, it's easy to get some distorted impressions related to the global MMOG market. We see World of Warcraft having 10 million subscribers, and mentally multiply that by $15 per month. Blizzard's game does bring in a huge amount of revenue, but not that much. What we don't take into account is the fact that more than half of the accounts, namely the ones in China, pay far less.

We also tend to discount how many people around the world play F2P games. I haven't seen any recent figures I'd be confident quoting, but whatever the actual number may be, it's huge. So even taking into consideration that the demographics are weighted such that the average revenue per user is less than the typical subscription rate, we still arrive at a whole lot of dollars.

If you choose to think total F2P revenue is smaller than it really is or that it's not growing, both here and globally, you won't be alone. But don't claim you weren't told otherwise.

Continued growth despite limited visibility

If you read this column at least semi-regularly, it's not news for you that I believe the amount of coverage most game publications provide on the F2P sector doesn't come close to corresponding with its overall importance. This is so even if we only consider North America. But it hasn't prevented growth. Slowed, it seems like a reasonable assumption, although how much is a matter of conjecture.

Larger development budgets

Nival has publicly stated that Allods Online, which is live in the Russian-speaking countries and in closed beta in both North America and Western Europe, was budgeted at $12 million. There are others in the same ballpark, just without specific amounts stated for them. This doesn't nearly measure up to the cost of a major subscription game, but it does indicate very clearly that large F2P projects are now substantially more expensive than their counterparts from only a few years ago.

Smaller development budgets

Okay, I'm primarily not talking about "traditional" MMOGs here. But the growth of the F2P space has helped open up opportunities for other types that can be created for much less money. For example, thinking outside the box enough to adopt a standard of graphics that's available via web-based technologies reduces your total costs very dramatically.

If you combine this with other steps such as not trying to be all things to all people and avoiding rampant feature creep, it's possible to bring a game to market with only a few people and a budget level that's within reach for independent studios of that size. Just as important, such projects' cost structures can allow them to be profitable with relatively small numbers of players. Personally, I'd welcome more of these since I think they're more likely to incorporate unconventional thinking and elements.

The entry of SOE and Turbine

We knew for quite some time that Free Realms was coming, but it's probably safe to say the shift of DDO wasn't widely anticipated. Although this column is about looking back, I have to admit I'm even more interested to see what both companies will do in the F2P category as we move into 2010.

And it's not just them. I also wonder what the other familiar players have on their planning boards. How long can they stay away? As stated previously, there's more revenue out there than many people realize - millions upon millions of dollars. Right now, almost all of it is flowing into other coffers. It seems rather unlikely that the big boys will be satisfied to let this go on for long without taking action to grab their "fair" shares.

More instance-based games

It's not that we hadn't seen any before, but they seemed to take on greater prominence in North America this year. In part, this was simply due to more of them launching. However, I think it's too simplistic to assume this was the sole reason. For one thing, designs with persistent characters and impermanent maps lend themselves to genres like sports and shooters.

RPGs aren't the most popular category in the single-player sphere, so why should they be when we go online? Don't get me wrong; virtual worlds with thousands of people on a server are great. Instance-based games can certainly be seen as quasi-MMOs, but since they offer additional ways to have fun, I'm not surprised they're gaining traction.

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Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on every Monday.
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