Disclaimer: The Devil's Advocate is a place where the MMO-Loving world can go to hear the unpopular opinion. Please note that this article does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of MMORPG.com, columnist Drew Wood, or any of the game companies that may be discussed. The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.
The Free-to-Play model is killing the MMOG industry. Games suffer in terms of quality being sacrificed, gamers suffer from “pay-to-win” scenarios, and the market is simply becoming over-populated with inferior games. The F2P model is a bad thing.
On the contrary.
I understand that “free” has become the most hated four letter f-word in the English language when it comes to the MMO World. Many consider it to be something of an inconvenience to the genre, or perhaps even something much more sinister than that, by encouraging a pay-to-win structure. In actual fact, free-to-play seems to have given many games in the industry new life, whereas before they struggled due to lack of subscriptions, or heck, a lack of interest. Does that conclude my point? Oh my, no. Fernando Paiz, in an article published here on the site in reference to DDO: Eberron Unlimited in January of 2010, said “we have seen unprecedented response to the game. We've attracted tons of players to DDO, and been able to achieve and surpass all of our internal projections” and this seems to have been confirmed according to a March, 2010 interview done by WoW.com with Design Director at Turbine, Ian Currie when asked about the success of DDO's transition to F2P, was described as saying that “they had gained over a million new subscribers (effectively doubling their player base), and revenues from the game had increased by an astounding 500% since going free-to-play”. A similar announcement was made at GDC Online 2010 regarding Turbine's other Subscription-Gone-F2P title, Lord of the Rings Online.
With other notable games having gone subscription to free-to-play within 2011, Champions Online, the announcements of LEGO Universe and City of Heroes' revenue restructuring, and the acquisition and re-distribution of APB: Reloaded after All Points Bulletin's initial demise, there seems to be a trend of the F2P model being a good thing for developers and publishers in terms of financial stability and relevance within the gaming community. That being said, some gamers are still on the fence about such a structure, leaving many people scratching their heads and hesitant to buy into the F2P model.
Quite simply put, the game itself is free. For me to play Lord of the Rings Online all I need to do is visit the game's official website, register an account, download and install the client and away I go. Now, naturally, the game does have three different ways to play, and I absolutely won't go any further without mentioning this. LotRO offers a “Free Player” subscription, where not a penny is paid, a “Premium” Paid Account, which becomes active on your account the moment you purchase “Turbine Points” from the cash mall, or for a monthly fee, there's the “VIP Account”. The subscription type holds no bearing on the character's level cap, classes, or races (available in the core game), but other limitations are in place (a full differential chart can be found here). The cash mall also makes many vanity items available to Free Players who wish to spend the real world money to make their characters look all spiffy.
The features available within the free portion of the game are entirely reasonable, based on the fact that you are choosing to play a game, with a surprising amount of depth and content, that you don't have to pay anything for. The Premium and VIP accounts are there for players who wish to get more out of their experience than just a Free Player. Like purchasing map packs for Call of Duty, players have the option, whether through subscription or through the cash mall, to use some of their hard earned money in order to unlock and gain access to additional Quest Packs, character slots, skirmishes and vanity items. You're not getting an incomplete game, but others can purchase extra should they choose to reach into their wallets.
Item Malls, in and of themselves, are often considered to be the biggest of the obstacles in the way of F2P becoming a universally accepted and rational business model. Many players are quick to scream “pay-to-win” at the mention of an Item Mall. While some games may be guilty of such strategies, many gaming companies, particularly those with large fan bases or high expectations, go out of their way to ensure that the game is not “pay-to-win”. Some address the term with the same disgust and contempt that many players share. Others will simply explain that, while extra items (sometimes, quite powerful weapons or armor, for example) are available by paying your dues, this causes no imbalance in the game, PvP or otherwise, because of the emphasis placed on the importance of playing through the game, understanding your character's equipment and abilities, and being able to out-think and out-plan your enemies. Is it a thin excuse? I've never sunk a dime into an item mall in any game and I've never, ever felt underpowered in comparison to another player.
The over-saturation of the market is not the bad thing that some people make it out to be. Sure, there are a lot of MMOs that come out during the course of a year that have a free-to-play model, and a lot of them are say… fantasy themed. Small, independent MMOs that release in that format have audiences of their own, many of whom you would find amongst our forums’ more quiet readers. Games do not suffer in quality because of other games being out on the market, nor does it affect individual players on a game-to-game basis to have so many on offer. Like purchasing a boxed game in a store, you choose to play what appeals to you and what works for you, the only difference is that with F2P you can try a game out without consequences to decide for yourself whether or not you can invest the time and yes, maybe even some real money into playing such a game.
Free-to-Play is a structure that we will see more and more, the financial successes of trend-setters has pretty much seen to this fact. We've even seen this bleed over into other genres, the MOBA, or even the online shooter (with Team Fortress 2 going F2P with an item mall the other day). Who's to say that this isn't the future of the gaming industry, and who's to say that that future doesn't appear bright? With things like rent, gas, insurance and food prices all rising like the sun in the morning, can't we all use a little bit of Free Play?