Although Dungeons & Dragons Online wasn't the first MMOG to change its business model from subscription to free to play, when Turbine made said move just over two years ago, it did turn out to be the start of a trend. Since then, a number of other prominent, visible titles have followed suit. And of course, the list continues to expand. DCUO will be added before long, and it surely won't be the last.
In terms of how this trend is affecting the overall MMOG landscape, I thought it would be interesting to get a couple of opinions from within the industry. Accordingly, I was pleased to find two company representatives who were willing to go on record with their thoughts. Matthew Denomme is the Marketing Manager for Game Bridger Entertainment, which publishes Priston Tale II: The Second Enigma, FreeJack and Aida Arenas through its portal, GamerKraft. He sees an important benefit for the entire F2P sector. "Now that high-quality, big-budget multiplayer games are going free to play, I think the negative stigma that once surrounded free to play games will soon (finally) be dispelled. Players will realize that a business model is just that, and does not speak directly to the quality of a game."
Fernando Blanco brings a different perspective to the discussion. He heads up marketing at Spacetime Studios, the developer and operator of Pocket Legends, which has gone through the shift from a content-gated revenue model to full F2P. It seems the decision to change wasn't particularly easy; he says that even after analyzing the market situation, it was "a scary thing" done with fingers crossed. "We were now giving away for free what we had previously charged for - dungeon content. We were also gambling that players would enjoy our game enough to actually want to play it past the paid gating."
He continues by reporting that after an initial small drop in revenue, the result has been positive. "At first, sales went down a bit. After some time though, they levelled out and actually began to increase from their previous state, given the same average numbers of concurrent players. Extra health and mana potions, elixir buffs, items and all the other categories of micro-transaction purchases started to go up. As more and more players progressed further along, the additional merchandise made up for the lost dungeon content sales, and then some."
Blanco seems to feel the trend of changing business models reflects a reaction to the changing nature of the MMOG market. "F2P games attract a much larger and wider audience to try them out (depending on the storefront) than many if not most pay up front ones. From a publisher perspective, there's a significant advantage to be gained from having large numbers of players at least try out games... a much larger top of funnel plus re-marketing opportunities such as e-mail, investment possibilities, and as we’ve seen more and more... in-game advertising."
From the player perspective, he does recognize that F2P games can engender a degree of hesitation, although he feels this happens more among those who speak English. In comparison, he says international users "tend to praise F2P games for their accessibility first, and then there may be some discussion about the monetization or pricing schedule." With his gamer hat on, he favors the trend since "I can try and play a lot more games than I ever did before because I'm not gated by having to buy them first outright."
Voicing a somewhat similar sentiment, Denomme says that "You can also assume that if more games are free to play, people will be able to try out many different kinds, expanding their gameplay tastes and experiences before settling on titles they truly want to invest their time and money in. Game players will get to play more games and more different kinds of games. They'll also choose how they want to pay for games and what they want to buy within them."
Blanco also addresses whether the arrival of the "big guys" will require other publishers to change what they are doing. "In terms of market competition, I feel straying from an F2P experience would generally be the wrong approach. If the big guys with much more substantial budgets for game design and development are giving away (most of) the content for free, smaller F2P companies can still compete in areas like genuine innovation or game design."
Denomme then offers up a possible competition-driven scenario that is rather intriguing, saying that the current trend means increased competition leading to better F2P games overall. As players come to expect this, he wonders whether they will remain as willing to buy single-player releases when they have more quality F2P titles available to try. "While I always think there will be a place for single-player and narrative-based games, the scope and budgets of these types may decrease should free to play games become more prevalent. At the same time, these genres may increasingly incorporate multiplayer and co-operative components in order to justify their price point and to amass the long-term audience necessary to support the sale of expanded downloadable content."
Also looking forward, Blanco expresses his belief that F2P and subscription can co-exist because they address different consumer preferences. "I like empowerment, and having the ability to choose how I want to patronize a game means a lot to me. For me, a subscription is a heavy commitment that represents a willingness to say I want to play this fun title for the foreseeable future and support it, its developers, and publishers. I also wish more games I subscribe to offered micro-transactions on some level. I believe they can all work together in a proper balance, especially for virtual world games, but it requires careful analysis and understanding of what players want from a game when they decide to pay."