The Future is Now
With all the buzz this past week about Lord of the Rings Online going free to play, I've been excited. LotRO is a personal favorite of mine, so seeing some extra life injected into it (along with the chance to be able to drop in without a subscription) is something I'm looking forward to. As public conversation grew, it branched away from Turbine's decision itself, and more to the “free to play transition” of the market, something most gaming journalists and writers seem to happy to accept.
Sometimes, however, the media needs to turn down the volume on the PR hype, hop off the bandwagon, and ask the same questions the community does. Someone needs to ask, “why?”
“The future is now” is often used to refer to new and favorable trends as being the way the market will adapt; it's saying, “This new thing happening is going to take the world by storm and become the standard.” It's a predictive phrase, implying the current state of affairs is evolving by leaving one idea behind to adapt to another. It's also popular propaganda used by marketers, lobbyists, and others who wish to convince the masses that “this new thing” is the trend of the future. For instance, take Nexon's E3 theme, “The Future of Free,” which not only implies their games are an evolved model of free-to-play, but also that “free” has a place in our future.
Obviously, Lord of the Rings Online's transition to a free-to-play model won't be the doom that some gamers are foreseeing. As many have already pointed out, the model is little more than an extended demo with the option to buy more content instead of purchasing a subscription. While this certainly means that the “noobs” will saturate the low-level areas, it doesn't mean that the game's community will degenerate. Those that stay will become invested in the game's maturity and complexity. LotRO has never been, and likely will never be, attractive to the type of gamers that the community finds bothersome.
DDO's free-to-play fusion model, which the LOTRO model will be based on, is so great because it offers players three options: completely free, free with micro-transactions, or paid subscription. It lets the gamer choose how to pay for their gaming experience, and it balances very well. Although there's fair argument that DDO adopted too many micro-transactions, a concern that LotRO will also have to contend with, both games lack competitiveness – PvP and otherwise – that causes trouble in other free-to-play landscapes where power purchased becomes the only way to keep an edge.
Ultimately, Turbine's free-to-play model is a microcosm of the future of MMO gaming: the freedom of choice. Free-to-play and micro-transaction supported MMOs are already here in the Western market, and they are here to stay, simply because there's a significant portion of the gaming market that enjoys them. This does not mean, however, they are the “future,” and that eventually all MMOs will go the way of free.
This is exactly what many 'experts' are claiming, however. “It's inevitable that we go to a free to play MMO model,” the chant cries; but this isn't a matter of death or taxes. Nothing is inevitable in the video games industry. What's more appalling, however, isn't the false assertion of inevitability; it's the use to silence dissenters who don't want to see F2P become the norm. Writers – and strangely, staunch members of the larger MMO community – are persistent in telling those who value and appreciate what a subscription-based MMO brings they are part of a dying past, and if they don't like it, they'll either have to suck it up or find a new hobby.
Why this hostile attitude toward the founding model of the industry? It's true we shouldn't cling foolishly to an old idea that doesn't work. However, there is no evidence in our Western market that pay-to-play doesn't work: in fact, it's worked spectacularly for over 10 years. Free-to-play/micro-transaction MMO models may be more profitable for businesses, but it doesn't mean they're welcome by the consumers who will put money into them. Gamers, especially, are very vocal with their dollars: if they don't like it, they won't buy it.
Somewhere, a very basic part of the equation is being forgotten: the customer. For those who listen, the western MMO market is making it very clear they don't want to see the disappearance of pay-to-play games, period. This isn't a conditional statement, no “if maybe” or “I'll be sad if it goes but I'll keep playing.” This is a section of market demanding a product that doesn't have reason to disappear.
Pay-to-play fans are often told that they have misconceptions about free-to-play games; that the reason they don't like them is simply because they don't understand. Meanwhile, those same accusers are making assumptions of their own about pay-to-play MMO players. It isn't that there's a war between P2P and F2P, or that pay-to-play gamers don't understand how free-to-play games work. On the contrary, sometimes the pay-to-play gamers show more understanding of the free-to-play model than its vocal supporters. This isn't a matter of burning hatred and a wish to see free-to-plays die in a fire. Free-to-play games have been given the freedom to co-exist, but not to replace.
The heart of the matter is the western MMO player doesn't want to be forced into a single choice. What's concerning about Turbine's precedent is it forces players to accept the product they've invested a significant amount of money and time into is changing its business model without consultation or consent, even if it may benefit the players. No one wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a product to see it tossed aside later, or to buy a product merely to have it go on sale the next week with no buyer's remorse refunds. That's why Quest Online refunded Alganon subscription costs to players who had purchased them, only to have Alganon go to a subscription-free model to survive.
“Free” is a growing business model for the entire online world. A great article at Wired discusses how the digital world has shifted to devaluing products due in great part to their sheer abundance, as well as an ever adjusting marketplace trying to buy consumer attention. The model relies on 1% of users to cover the costs of the other 99%, and that means a complete internal overhaul of the company and its products to compensate. Online gamers won't be able to fully escape the ramifications of this shifting market model, and that new model is currently learning to localize itself to Western gamers. While it's certain we will continue to see continued acceptance of free-to-play games in the West, that doesn't invalidate a pay-to-play model. It just increases the competition and puts pressure on companies to change and improve.
I typically end my thoughts for the week on a call to action for the MMO community, but such action is already alive and well in the community. We've been telling the media and the industry we don't want a fully free-to-play or micro-transaction supported market for a while now. We've been pretty loud, even obnoxious at times, about making our point clear. However, this time I appeal for the industry and the gaming media to listen up, re-evaluate, and think about what this shifting model means for the industry as a whole. This includes the impact on the consumer. It's time to stop patronizing the gaming community and listen.