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Bill Murphy: Brace for the Free Wave

By William Murphy on May 26, 2011 | Columns | Comments

Brace for the Free Wave

My grandfather once told me never to buy anything that I could get for free.  Of course, he was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and he was talking about prostitution but I’ve since learned that this bit of advice can carry over in many aspects of life, including gaming.  Now, hush down I’m not talking about piracy.  Those days are long gone for me.  I make a decent enough dollar to shell out for the games I want to play.  But when it comes to MMOs, I’m beginning to think the end is near for the “Subscription or Bust” mentality.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that most F2P games of the past were little more than generic grind-fests which test your wallet more than your skill.  But (and I hope I’m not putting too many eggs in one basket) I think that Guild Wars 2 has a chance to prove that a truly massive MMORPG can be built from the ground up with no subscription revenue in mind.

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If you look at the recent conversions of games like Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and Champions Online yes they are technically free to play, but to get the most on offer you’re better off buying a subscription.  There are plenty of little doodads to be had: cool looking cosmetic upgrades, boosts to your XP, and so forth, but it’s the expansionary content that is the most important purchasable upgrade.  And you get that “for free” if you’re so good as to pay the optional subscription.  But then, let’s go back in time to look at the original Guild Wars.

Mind you, GW wasn’t/isn’t exactly a “true” MMORPG if such a thing even exists anymore.  It was heavily instanced, had a finite amount of content for its campaign, and largely keeps people playing due to two things: replayability for PvP and, more importantly, the expansion content.  Guild Wars’ expansions cost as much as a full game because they were as good as full games.  They added equal amounts, if not more, to the original game and could be played independently of one another.  You didn’t need to spend $100 bucks to just get started on Guild Wars.  You could pick up whichever version pleased you most, and play away until your heart’s content.  There were connecting arcs throughout, but by and large you didn’t need to know what happened in one game to play the other, and you certainly didn’t need to buy them all right off the bat.  There is such a low barrier to entry when compared to other MMOs that I’m surprised it didn’t do even better than its millions of sales.

I fully expect GW2 to rock the MMO world for the good or the bad.  It is launching with the same disposition towards “no subscriptions” as its predecessor but purportedly will have content of the RPG variety to rival the largest MMOs on the market.  Gone are the days of a limited RPG campaign, and here to stay is the full-length adventure.  It’s also sporting a server versus server (versus server) incarnation of massive PvP.  Perhaps it’s their server architecture, or the still unannounced item shop they’re banking on to save or make money, but chances are ArenaNet has thought long and hard about what it needs to keep GW2 afloat and chances are it’s come to realize that the subscription isn’t the only way to go anymore.

So why can’t everyone else see that?

There’s a stigma hanging over F2P games, because they’re admittedly running with a track record of extremely poor quality.  Hell, I’m guilty of letting my expectations for these F2P games make me lighter on what I think is “good” from them.  But like it or not, LotRO and DDO have upped the ante.  Nexon’s stable of games keeps increasing in terms of quality as well.  Though few here may call Vindictus an MMO, there’s little denying its craft and polish.  More and more games that won’t require a subscription are going to see the light of day, and they’re going to be good.  They’re going to be good because they know it’s not enough to be an also ran like so many failed F2P clones.  They’re going to be good because they don’t want to go up against Blizzard.  When Guild Wars 2 comes out, with any luck and a whole lot of hard work from ArenaNet, it’s going to show the industry that a AAA game can be designed and built with “free to play” in mind. 

Sure the box sales will help.  And I don’t think the next logical step for all AAA MMOs is to do away entirely with retail purchased software.  If that day ever comes, it’s going to be a slow and steady path towards it.  But let’s say GW2 sells big.  Let’s say the critics love it and players go ga-ga.  Then the hard part comes from ArenaNet.  They may not have to keep people playing for revenue, but they’ll need to earn additional funds from their item shop.  More importantly they’ll have to keep people interested enough to pay attention when new content drops, and when new expansions hit the market.  They won’t be able to rest on their laurels just because their game doesn’t have a subscription.

That will be the hardest part about what’s around the corner.  It is coming folks.  GW2 will likely lead a brand new charge of F2P MMOs in the West.  And just as we have to be prepared to accept them (so long as they’re actually any good), so too the developers need to be ready to realize that it’s going to be business as usual on their part.  We’re going to be just as demanding, just as fickle, and we’re going to clamor for more content as always because if you don’t deliver it we’ll move on to the next game.  It’s not an enviable position, to be an MMO developer when you really think about it.  Just as the genre’s starting to get its feet wet, it’s facing a shift of momentum in terms of its once widely accepting business model.  It’s going to be rocky, and I wonder which companies won’t be agile enough to adapt just as I think I know which one’s won’t have to. 

In any case, I’d buckle down.  2011 may not amount to much if all these new games miss the calendar year, but 2012 is going to be a wild ride.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all of his pointless rambling.