Saturday, August 10, 2013

Free-to-Play and the Casual MMO Player

Another bug to ride on.  Thanks, Klaxxi!
There have been many discussions about when and if World of Warcraft will go free-to-play and it has become much more intense since the recent announcement that there will be an in game store.  This has sent me back to contemplating what free-to-play means to me.

When I first started this blog, I had stopped playing World of Warcraft and had just a very short time playing Star Wars the Old Republic.  In both cases I didn't feel like I could play enough to justify the subscription price. As I mentioned many times before, I don't mind paying, but I was hoping there would be a free to play game that I'd enjoy and would allow me to play casually and pay something that would approximate my limited playtime.

Free to play seems like an ideal model for a casual gamer since you can pay for content as you use it and you use it less than a more 'serious' gamer.  I still think the 'Lord of the Rings Online' has a quite generous model for the casual gamer, where you only need to pay for the areas as you get to those levels and there are several methods of getting several at one time.  I still feel it is possible if my wife or a friend was leveling with me, I could really enjoy my time there, but that didn't happen.

When I was playing more regularly, I had friends who started other games when they came out including Rift and Aion, and when they asked if I was interested in joining them, I always said that I had limited time and I couldn't see starting over in a game and that I'd rather continue on in World of Warcraft where I had invested that time.

'Investment' is an odd word to use when talking about a game, but I believe it does really apply to MMORPGs.  Part of what makes RPGs in general and MMORPGs more specifically fun is that you get to see the 'new things' as you advance.  They may be new skills or new areas of the game world or new dungeons or learn new bits of lore, but, cumulatively, they provide a great sense of accomplishment.

However, I discovered the opposite is also possible, where you start playing a game, see yourself falling further and further behind and that game that you played for years where you know you could catch up quickly becomes very appealing, particularly if you have less time now than you did previously. Now this could apply to any new game, not only free to play games but I have other concerns there.

I had already mentioned that I personally am troubled by the 'gambling' aspect that often is part of a free to play games.  More generally this can be broadened to the marketing that by necessity needs to be part of a free to play game.  Again, this is a personal statement, but I don't like to be sold to.  I'd much rather do research on my own, decide what I want, and then try to get it for the best price I can.  I very much believe that developers deserve to be paid for their work and I've paid for free applications after I have used them just because I believe it is the right thing to do.  However, an MMO that requires constant investment from the developer, also requires a constant source of income.  A subscription makes that source of income directly related to playing the game.  

It is true that the person, like myself, who plays the game less than 10 hours a week is paying for the person who plays it much more, but I don't have a problem with that.  I know the agreement when I subscribe and I've never really cared much about whether it is 'fair', just whether I think it is worth the money.

Now, in a free to play game, it is those that spend a lot of money on the game either by subscribing or buying items in the shop that 'pay' for the person who doesn't pay at all.  Also, what is the 'right amount' becomes confusing.  Content is a pretty obvious investment, and I am not concerned about paying for expansions, but there really is a significant investment by the developer for the time you are playing on their servers and either that is paid by a subscription or there has to be some other way of getting that money that doesn't add up.

I don't mind that MMOs sell pets and mounts that cost them very little, but return a large profit.  I will probably never buy one, but it is up to the person to decide whether it is worth it to them or not.  But if a game does not have a time based payment method, it is dependent on these 'cosmetic' sales, the sales of items that make the player better (pay to win), or crippling the game to encourage you to pay the 'alternate' subscription.  The first two lead to heavy marketing that I don't want to be a part of the game and the last alternative would make me feel like the company really doesn't want casual gamers, but only those who play a lot and therefore pay for the subscription.

For me, I want to have a upfront model that says this is what you pay for what you get.  Maybe someone will come up with a new model that I love in the future, but, for now, the subscription model of MMO payment is the one I feel is best for me even if it is becoming more and more rare.


  1. I think it will be interesting to see how the F2P v Subscription model plays out. I think one of the key aspects of any successful MMO is building a critical mass of players and I guess many publishers see subscriptions as a barrier to building that kind of mass. I play WoW currently and I know that in reality I can only afford one subscription, so when The Elder Scrolls online launches I am going to sit back and wait before I put my cash down to try it out. If it was f2p I would probably dabble a lot sooner as I would not really have anything to lose. There again I would feel less commited because I haven't really paid anything for me time in the game.

    It's an interesting one....

    1. Hi, James, Before I started playing some of the Free to Play games last year, I really thought that for someone like me, it would be an easy choice. However, it isn't that easy. For most casual players, one game is all they have time for and a single subscription isn't that expensive and may be more convenient than dealing with the monetary choices in a Free to play game. Thanks for stopping by!