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Giving it away: An opinion on free to play MMOs.

Tonight I examine the consequences of the free to play model in MMOs.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

January 25, 2011

5 Min Read

Within the last few years there has been a new design philosophy with MMOs and that is going from a pay per month model to a free to play with microtransactions. The first MMO that I saw do this was Dungeons and Dragons Online which was floundering before the change. Since then switching to the F2P model turned things around for DDO and this was not unnoticed by other developers.

Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online and a few more I can't remember off the top of my head went the same route. LOTRO reported a major success with this model and has since moved on to improving things using the micro transaction model. This tactic has become viable for MMOs looking to turn things around and for today's entry I'm going to talk about the repercussions, both good and bad.

Let's begin with the good:

All the time in the world: Personally one of things that I don't like about monthly fee MMOs is that I never feel that I get my money's worth. This goes back to me always switching between multiple games. By switching to a F2P model the user can play at their leisure without worrying about not spending enough time playing the game.

Selective game-play: One aspect of the micro transaction model is itemizing and separating game content that the player can pick and choose what they want. If someone doesn't want to play raid content then they don't have to buy the respective quest. This allows the player to fine tune what they want out of the game content.

Easier to develop content: In traditional MMOs new content can be categorized as game balance or bug fixes and new content for expansions/updates. Because of this many MMOS can go months without new content as the developers work on massive updates that will be featured in the next expansion or content patch.

With the F2P model developers can work on content that can be added in as soon as it is finished and tested instead of waiting for additional content to be done.

Moving on it's time to talk about the issues with the switch:

Annoying your fan base: For many gamers it can feel like a slap in the face after spending so much money per month to find that if you would have waited it could have been free (for the most part); for life time subscribers this could really sting.

Lurking around on certain MMOs forums I've seen several posts asking if they should even bother subscribing in fear of the game going F2P at some point. This in some cases could become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Itemizing content: While one of the benefits of F2P is separating the content into pieces it can also be annoying to look at everything the game offers each with its own price tag. One of the more annoying designs of the F2P model is how everything, even quality of life items like additional inventory bags or character slots have a real life cost to them. Arguably spending a few dollars to unlock content per month may come out cheaper than the $10 or $15 monthly charge of MMOs. However it can start to rub gamers the wrong way to have their game content as a shopping list along with charges.

Balancing: While not a huge deal for PvE (Player vs environment) content, having F2P content in a PvP setting can be a slippery slope for balance. How far can someone who doesn't spend additional money get? How powerful should the purchasable items be? These are important questions that need answers for or you will destroy the game balance.

A few years ago with Hell Gate: London when the designers announced the free to play and subscription based models for it everyone including yours truly moaned. There was a Penny-Arcade strip that highlights this which I can't find right now.

There is another way of handling the F2P model and that is with still having a monthly fee. In these titles instead of just having micro transactions you offer a basic plan that has a lot of features and content locked which can be bought if wanted. Then you have the "deluxe plan" that gives you everything at a cost of a monthly charge.

This is an interesting system and is like having your cake and eating it too. The only problem I see is how paid content gets handled if the player decides to switch to the basic plan for a while. Or if while in the basic plan the player buys content that would be free with the monthly plan. Personally I'm not a huge fan of this as I would be someone who would go one way, either sticking with F2P or subscribing.

Star Trek Online is experimenting with combining both models with their "C store". The game is currently 100% subscription based, however they have released additional uniforms, aliens and ships that you can spend additional money on. I'm split on this decision, from a design point of view as long as the options are purely cosmetic it is fine for balance, but on the other hand it does seem almost tacky to have two payment models used at the same time in my opinion.

Is the future of the MMO genre going to be F2P? Personally I don't think so; if the MMO is popular enough the designers wouldn't dream of switching to a F2P model (see WoW). This does seem like a more then capable alternative to generating revenue and I wonder if MMOs that did die; if they would have switched to this could they have been saved such as Auto Assault.

I think an interesting article idea would be to examine the micro transaction craze and how it has affected MMOs both from the designer's perspective and from the players. I would bow out of this as I don't play enough MMOs or games that have micro transactions to give a thorough look at it.


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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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