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Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: Community Matters

Many argue F2P MMOs hold back anyone who doesn't spend a lot of money in their item stores. This week, Richard hits back at that line of logic.

Doesn't Community Matter?

During the entire time I've been playing and covering massively multiplayer games, I can't recall even a single instance of someone arguing in a serious, reasoned manner that community isn't vital. What I do see all the time, however, is people who apparently have such an opinion. They just don't state it explicitly.

I'm talking about those individuals who keep putting down the entire free to play category by repeating the tired old argument that the games are unbalanced in favor of players who are willing to pay a lot of money for items. Since there are now hundreds of titles just in the west and quite possibly four digits' worth if we look globally, this is a pretty sweeping generalization. What's more, it's never supported by any kind of solid data. Even examples are lacking, although citing a few wouldn't prove anything anyway because using selected anecdotal evidence to support a universal conclusion is flawed logic.

So, here are some questions for anyone who holds said point of view.

If communities are critically important, then why would developers design their games in a way that seriously disadvantages a substantial majority of their users, including the ones who don't buy anything plus those who only spend small amounts? Do they deliberately ignore all those players? Are literally hundreds of teams and thousands of designers afflicted with some malady that causes them all to be shortsighted in the same way? Or are they all simply that stupid?

Perhaps it's someone else whose vision may not be so clear? Do you actually believe communities are crucial? If so, then it seems like there's a serious disconnect. How do you reconcile this conviction with the fact that the F2P category as a whole attracts millions of players - far more than subscription - most of whom are either low or non-paying?

In reality, F2P developers are completely aware that most users will pay little or no money. They also know that a few will spend a lot; while I don't recall the specific details, I remember one report where someone paid over $20,000 for a unique weapon. In case you feel like dismissing that because it happened in China, you might also want to consider a case here in North America where an individual forked out $10,000 for an item - in a text MUD.

Those were both anomalies. What matters in terms of an F2P surviving and succeeding is appealing to and retaining enough players with sufficient Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). Theoretically, even one person paying a whole lot of money would work, but realistically, those willing to spend substantial amounts probably want to do so in popular games, be it because they want the sense of recognition they get from their respective communities, or for whatever other reasons they may have. And what does that mean? For one thing, that the developers need to aim at attracting lots of players they know will spend less than the ARPU, including a good number who won't pay a cent.

By extension, it should be clear that building as large a community as possible is just as important for an F2P as for a subscription release, possibly even more so. Accordingly, asserting developers would design in a way that's likely to drive people away is patently ridiculous. It's basically tantamount to saying community doesn't matter.

In my opinion, it matters more than many people realize. If everyone just played the best releases, would there be nearly so many available? Sure, we'd still have some variety in order to suit the preferences of different types of players. But would they stay when something new and supposedly better came out? Would many go, take a look and then decide to return to be with their friends in the games and the communities they know and value?

In the end, it's not about F2P vs. subscription. This is a false dichotomy some people set up for reasons I don't understand - maybe to make it easier to bash whichever side they're not on. It is about the overall experience, of which, for many, many users, the other people comprise a critical part. I choose the titles I play on that basis. And deep down, I really don't understand why anyone would arbitrarily rule out games and communities they might enjoy because of the business model they use.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
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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