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The Free Zone: Three Reasons Free To Play Isn't Dying Either

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on July 05, 2010

Three Reasons Free To Play Isn't Dying Either
To complement last week's column, Richard Aihoshi turns his attention to the current status of the F2P revenue model, which seems to be in good shape

Free to play isn't dying.

While there's a sometimes highly vocal portion of the MMO gamer audience that fervently wishes it would, it's not happening and not going to, at least not unless we see some pretty dramatic changes in the market.

As I noted last time, the space isn't a binary proposition where either model can basically only grow at the expense of the other. This type of competitive situation isn't uncommon. As a somewhat simplified real world example, if we consider the two most familiar regular colas, Coke and Pepsi, any actions that cause the sales volume of one to increase will probably lead to a decline in the other's. It's possible for both to rise or fall at the same time, but largely because the total market size is relatively fixed, that's not nearly as likely to happen.

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This isn't the case with MMOGs. The subscription and F2P segments can both grow at the same time, at least in terms of player numbers and total revenues. So, just as there are strong indications the former is healthy, there are reasons to believe the latter is and will continue to be strong.

Lower barriers to entry, especially for the non-hardcore

It's not inherent to the business models themselves, but it's generally easier for people to enter the MMOG space by trying an F2P release. For multiple reasons and combinations thereof, this is probably more so for those who aren't serious gamers. One is simply that there are substantially many more available from which to choose. Another is the greater presence of casual and quasi-MMOGs that, by their nature, are more accessible due to lower complexity of gameplay and shallower learning curves. A third is a larger assortment of themes, including some, such as music and sports, which have very broad potential appeal.

As well, people who aren't serious gamers tend to think differently, and may not possess the same information or values. It seems reasonable to assume that a lot of MMOG newcomers, particularly those who don't have any major reason to try a particular one and who do little or no research, may lean toward starting out without making a purchase. While most subscription releases do offer free trials, the possibility of never having to pay at all can appear more attractive.

Non-hardcores are also more likely to have less powerful systems. In general, F2Ps have lower requirements, which means they exclude fewer potential players. Another factor is that on average, the clients are smaller, which means they're quicker to download. This may seem minor, but the current North American penetration rate for broadband still misses a sizable minority, about one-third of the population, for whom size can be a much more important consideration.

People don't automatically "move up"

It can be tempting to think that once people start playing their first MMOGs, their interest will grow; even if they began with something that's F2P and relatively casual, they'll eventually want to explore more possibilities, and will become willing to pay monthly fees.

This is undoubtedly true for some, but it's not universal. A lot either quit or are content to play occasionally, with no great desire to look for something else. So, many whose first MMOG is an F2P will either not move, or when they do shift, will change to other non-subscription offerings.

The improving quality of F2Ps

There can be no question that the games of the current generation are superior to their predecessors. Runes of Magic and Allods Online are probably the most familiar examples, but with the amount of competition in the F2P space, the quality bar has been rising for some time. This trend hasn't always been easy to see. It can be obscured because of titles that are in service elsewhere for quite a while before they launch in the west. I expect it will become more readily visible as the importation rate of older releases declines over time.

This week's MMOG trivia

No anecdote this week, so...

Name at least one F2P and one subscription game in which characters seek a substance called Oriharukon.

Answer

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 MMORPG.com every Monday.
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