2 Sep 2011

Free to Play: MMO Retirement?

Like many people, I recently heard that Star Trek Online was moving to a free-to-play model. In all honesty I’m not surprised, and like Spinks I think it should have used that model from the outset. Reaction to the news also seems to be positive. Some say that it means that they’ll give the game a try, while others are surprised this move hadn’t been made sooner.

I’m not convinced about free to play models myself. My own prejudice is shackled with two issues about free to play – they’re either poor quality item shop games or former subscription MMOs that failed to pull in enough subscriptions to sustain themselves. I know this is a sweeping generalisation that’s unfair to a lot of games out there, especially that Lord of the Rings Online has done quite well since they swapped models last year.

My own experience of Star Trek Online was limited to the beta, which I didn’t get on with. I had a real dislike for ship to ship combat, mainly because I was brought up on a diet of X-Wing and Tie-Fighter. In many ways I was hoping that Jumpgate Evolution would fill that hole, but the ongoing legal battles have since crushed that hope.

I’m also left pondering about just how many subscriptions it takes to maintain an MMO and supply it with regular content. It’s probable that MMO producers have a model that indicates when they should consider flipping from one model to another. Is a movement to free to play the retirement home of the MMO or the last chance saloon? I’m wondering if Blizzard are aware of this when they brought in the unlimited free trial.

Ultimately I don’t think that the question is about how much a subscription costs. For me they represent good value, being a quarter of a meal out, half a cinema ticket or about a third of a pizza order. The question is about having the time free to play games. There’s a great quote from Syp: “I wish the game luck, although I’m doubtful how much time I’ll be able to spend playing it in the future”.

The struggle I have is with the MMO model. In almost every case, time spent in an MMO is rewarded with progression, which is in return rewarded with increased power. It encourages an intense focus on a single game instead of dabbling in a mixture of them. That’s not to say I’m against trying out a variety of MMOs to see which ones you prefer, but I think it’s difficult to nudge players away from a game they’re heavily invested in.

There’s also the “playing with friends” aspect. I was recently reminded that a solid chunk of MMO players tend to go for a game because it’s where their friends are. Does the free to play model encourage a compromise of this – would you be prepared to play solo or with strangers if you weren’t putting your hands in your pockets every month?

For me there’s only a few answers. I have little enough time as it is without having the luxury of revisiting old games to see how they’re doing in a free to play world. I feel doubtful that free to play can act as a magic bullet to put unfortunate MMOs on a sounder footing, and I wonder if it’s only a way to delay the inevitable day when the servers are eventually switched off. The continued persistence of Lord of the Rings Online may yet convince me otherwise.

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