When Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games were at their peak, subscription fees were all the rage. Games would gouge you out of $60 dollars to purchase the game then pry $5 to $15 dollars a month out of you just to play it. This business model hardly seemed fair, but you endured to play great games with your friends. However, the golden age of MMOs is almost over and many are floundering to stay above the water. With this came a different business model in which the games became free to play for everyone.
What Is Free-to-Play?
Free-to-play games are just as they sound. They are MMO games that either drop the subscription fee or never insisted on one in the first place. This may seem like a weak business model if you want to make any sort of money, but many free-to-play games do very well. Instead of a subscription fee, these games have in-game stores in which you can buy little things for money. Some games sell gold for money, other sell weapons and armor, some just sell vanity items.
There is a line these games have to dance in order to be free-to-play but not become pay-to-win. Pay-to-win means you will do the most damage, have the best gear, and look the coolest, but only if you shell out the cash to do so. People will play pay-to-win games if they have the money to throw around but more often than not, people just will not play if they cannot be the best the honest and cheap way.
Why Go Free-to-Play?
So why are games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift, The Secret World, and Tera going free-to-play? The simple answer is money. They didn't make enough of it. Star Wars: the Old republic is considered (and might possibly be) the most expensive game ever made, costing over $200,000 million dollars to make. However, while it started off with a boom, the subscribers quickly dwindled. Leading them to do something drastic—make it free.
Even with implementing a cash store and making it so you have to pay to really get the full game, it does not seem like MMOs would really make any more money than with a subscription fee, but they do. In the case of Star Wars and Rift, people do not want to buy the game and then pay a subscription fee just to play anymore. Especially for games that are not tempting them along with new content releases like a carrot on a string the way World of Warcraft does.
What this business model does is invite players to buy the game by letting them pretty much play it for free. Everyone likes free stuff, that is an undisputed fact. If it is free and gamers are even remotely interested, they will try it. This brings in more gamers and increases the chance that someone will love it enough to pay the subscription to be able to have unrestricted game play.
The cash stores implemented in F2P MMOs makes money because, now that they do not have to pay every month, people are a little more loose with small transactions. Oh, that armor skin looks really cool and for only two dollars? Sold! Or perhaps they need a few more gold but just do not have the time to or will to grind it out, why not just buy it! It's the small transactions where developers make the big money, which is why microtransactions in all games are becoming increasingly popular.
The Downside of Free-to-Play MMOs?
Of course with F2P games, there is a lot of downsides. Your gameplay is restricted to the point where sometimes it is not even worth playing. Star Wars: The Old Republic made this mistake. They restricted everything. Restrictions are there to give gamers a taste that actually make them want to subscribe, not to irritate them into doing so. Star Wars slowed your experience gain, made vendor costs higher, did not allow you to equip high end equipment, restricted chat, and you cannot even send mail. That is not even all the restrictions, just the insane ones.
Another downside of the free-to-play model is you attract all kinds of gamers. Without the barrier of a subscription you let in the gold sellers, the spammers, the trolls, and just the all around bad of the community. Now that it's free they are free to make honest gamers miserable. Sure interacting with other people is part of the experience, but sometimes enough is enough.
Will All MMOs Go Free-to-Play?
Now with Star Wars and Rift going the way of the free-to-play the MMO community is starting to ask about the big name MMOs. Will World of Warcraft go free-to-play? Will EVE? What about Elder Scrolls Online?
The developers of elder Scrolls Online are playing their hand pretty close to the chest when the question of subscriptions comes up. A consultant for the game says the developers intend to start with a subscription fee but then go free-to-play later. I think intending to do this model from the beginning looks nice to gamers, however if the game is great and they have enough subscribers, they will never go F2P, that is just how businesses roll.
World of Warcraft and EVE are a different story. What makes it so they can continue to use the subscription model and succeed is brand strength and fanbase loyalty. EVE is able to survive with a low number of subscribers because they are not going anywhere. There is a fanbase and they are loyal to the intricate gameplay.
World of Warcraft relies on brand strength and a somewhat loyal fanbase. WoW is the king of MMOs and is not going anywhere or becoming free anytime soon. They have survived for nine years and done well over all other subscription MMOs, who rarely make it to their first birthday on the subscription business model. The subscriptions of World of Warcraft have been dropping drastically lately, but it would take devastating losses to get them to quit. Though after every World of Warcraft expansion gets stale, subscription numbers drop. The fanbase, no matter how casual, hardcore, or angry at the game always comes back when a new expansion is dangled in front of them.
In conclusion, I believe that the free-to-play model is the future for all MMOs if they want to survive, it is possible for the subscription model to still survive with the big name MMOs. Really, the genre of the massively multiplayer online game is undergoing a catharsis and evolving into something different. It is no longer the world of subscriptions or sweaty obsessive nerds, but something more reachable to the average gamer. The golden age is over and a new age is beginning for the world of online gaming.