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Richard Aihoshi: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Each Monday, the veteran MMO journalist examines the free to play genre in this new weekly column.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

This past week, I was once again asked a question I seem to get at least a couple of times each month in one form or another. It's the one about why I pay so much attention to the free to play category. Sometimes, the people simply want to know, but at least as often, the wording indicates I ought to stay focused on subscription titles, which they consider far more significant. Occasionally, it's quite explicit, along the lines of "Why do you keep covering those unimportant free to play games?" Every so often, someone even expresses doubts about my intelligence or sanity. Thankfully, such occurrences are uncommon.

The fact of the matter is that I spend a lot of time covering the free to play sector because it is important. Very important. However, it tends to be... out of sight, out of mind. The main reason is simple. The amount of exposure that the category receives in the game media isn't nearly on the same level as its significance, neither in terms of the huge numbers of players nor the major amounts of revenue they represent. As a consequence, if you lean on those publications for information, you get little or none about free to play titles.

So, they can't be very important. After all, if they were, they'd get more coverage. Wouldn't they?

Actually, I'm not so sure they would. No matter which revenue model they use, MMOGs are complex, and thus more difficult to cover than other genres. Previews, interviews, reviews et al either take longer, so publications don't assign a lot of MMOG articles. And when they do, it's natural to lean toward those that already have some hype going for them, which tend to be the subscription ones with more support from their publishers' PR departments. This compounds the imbalance; those games that already have visibility get even more.

It's also quite easy to come up with other reasons not to cover more F2Ps. The problem there is that they usually incorporate some degree of spin-doctoring. For instance, the subscription model must be more successful because it's used for World of Warcraft. There are at least two issues here. One is that half of its 10 million subscribers, the ones who play in China, pay by the session, not a monthly fee. Blizzard tends to put this information in a footnote, and... how often do you read footnotes? The other is simply that WoW's popularity doesn't men its business model is superior. If it were, wouldn't the subscription category have more and bigger successes?

Another fairly frequent tack is to denigrate the F2P sector by pointing out that the titles we see launched here can be three or four years old, with technology and graphics from a generation or two ago. My problem with this is that it doesn't fit very well with the positive position the same people and publications put on games becoming more mass market. Isn't it just possible that a key driver of this trend is having games that run on more PCs; i.e. on more older PCs? Or do people actually think new gamers are running out en masse to buy $600 video cards and hot systems?

So the F2P category is important because it's a major driver of industry growth, even with it's relatively low visibility. In addition, it offers significant variety. Sure, there are games that can seem clone-like. But isn't that also the case with subscription releases? Yes, there more of them are F2Ps, but that's hardly a surprise given there are many more F2Ps.

The opposite side of this particular coin is that there are also more F2Ps that aren't clone-like. So, if you're looking for something different, you'll have many more chances within this segment. That's another significant reason for my interest. The more games I look into, the more I find interesting features and variations. My main regret is that it gets more and more difficult to try all the ones I'd like to, at least for decent amounts of time.

I'm sure lack of time impacts you too, so another significant reason why I focus on F2Ps is to help shed some light on interesting games, trends, stories and people within the category. As a reader, I'm always looking for sources of information that are interesting and thought-provoking. I hope you'll come to think The Free Zone fills that kind of role for you so that the free to play category won't be out of your sight and mind.

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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 MMORPG.com every Monday.
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