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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10 Responses to Free to Play: MMO Retirement?

  1. Eccentrica says:

    I honestly don’t know how people can play more than one MMO at once. You are quite right in that they require or compel a large time investment. I personally can only give my attention to one, much as I can only read one book at a time; finish it and then move on.

    I’m all for F2P but with some restriction on it such as time or levels. Provide enough for the potential customer to try it for fit and then make the purchase (subscription) decision. Endless F2P doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me unless the goal is to populate the game worlds to make them seem more vibrant.
    Eccentrica recently posted..Creating a Game Within a Game – Alternative PlaystylesMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      You make an interesting point about free to play MMOs. A lot of item shops offer experience boosters to allow people to chew through content faster, perfectly suited for the time poor gamer.

      Personally, I’d prefer a side-mmo to be like a TV series, delivering great stories an hour a week, but not requiring continual investment.

  2. Longasc says:

    Eccentrica has a point. I personally can’t “dabble” into every MMO or every MMO beta. When I do something I am quite involved.

    The secret sauce why I can play STO? I am quite done with Guild Wars (did really everything) and I am waiting for Guild Wars 2, play no other MMO atm. And in STO there is simply not much to do. So yeah, in a way it’s ideal for F2P…

    In general I think the “F2P boom” is already over. As Eccentrica said, people can only play so many MMOs. For the player who really plays a MMO F2P probably means even more expensive than a monthly sub. Count on that. It’s true for LOTRO, it’s sub and shop now. Unless you really want to play to max level without any dungeons, skirmishes and quests. I think if you play a MMO you don’t do it for 5 minutes a day every other week, it’s a world that demands some time and attention.

  3. Redhawks says:

    Great article. When I was cash strapped when I had just gotten married, I tried a lot of F2P MMORPGs and agree 100% with your assessmentt. While LOTRO, AoC, and Champions had a great amount of polish, it still didn’t seem like a Rift or WoW. The others like DDO, Runes of Magic, etc. just didn’t feel that gap either. I also played STO during the beta phase and found the whole thing meaningless. Ship to ship was horrible. There was no strategy to the ground instances except run and shoot and hope you didn’t get killed along the way. It was for the people who were really big fans of Star Trek. I’m just hoping SWTOR doesn’t turn out similar to it as the ultimate fan service.

    • Gazimoff says:

      I think my view is a little tainted by my experience. I played these games when they were released, putting my hand in my pocket for the boxed game and a monthly subscription. It’s an expensive way of doing things. Seeing them go free to play gives conflicting emotions – on the one hand I’m resentful after paying for it at launch, but on the other hand it makes me consider going back for a while just to see what’s changed.

  4. Liore says:

    I too have a prejudice against F2P, although I know I might be unfairly tarring all games with the same brush. I see it kind of the same way I see a beach vacation: sure, I could stay in a hotel where I pay a small amount every time I want to do something, or I could pay a larger fee up front and go to an all-inclusive resort where I don’t have to think about money for the rest of the trip. Clearly I’m biased towards the latter. ;)

  5. Liz Danforth says:

    You might find this article about F2P in smaller media of interest, Gaz: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=157522
    The gentleman being quoted, Paul O’Connor, is someone I worked with for several years in my days with Flying Buffalo. He was always one of the cleverest of GMs for our various tabletop RPGs (this was long before MMOs), and one of the most creative bright minds I ever worked with in the industry. I found his remarks unexpected but entirely credible.
    Liz Danforth recently posted..A Brief Look Back at GenCon 2011My Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      That’s an interesting comment and an even more interesting source. The way of managing app store games for mobile devices is always going to be a delicate one, but I think the way of getting games to gamers on that platform is changing. You deserve a fuller response though, and I’ll try to give you one in the next few days.

      I think Paul’s right, but I’m just trying to work out whether his experience is a function of the evolving app marketplace and changing customer behaviour, or if it’s something else.

  6. Razerbug says:

    Maybe this is one of the route causes of the ST/SW debate but I always preferred the more naval battle style of Star Trek over the swooping about Air force style of Star wars. Preferred the exploration over constant warfare as well, Both these things make me eager to give ST:O a go.

    However, I can only afford the £s and the time for one MMO, and WoW has my full investment at the moment, (even if not my full attention right now). I will be at the front of the queue when ST:O goes online, and actually like their pay model in this case, enabling me to buy the races and ships etc I’m interested in, and ignoring those that I’m not bothered about. If it wasn’t going F2P however I wouldn’t be signing up, simply a matter of time/money budget.

    Having said that, if I’m not paying (much) for a game it has to work doubly hard with content/gameplay/community to hold my attention, because when the next shiny thing comes along (Wildstar) I’ve a lot less invested.
    Razerbug recently posted..Free to (Role)playMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I’m still living in denail over Jumpgate Evolution. I want space dogfighting and there’s no game outside the ancient X Wing Vs Tie Fighter that offers it. Maybe something will arise to fill that niche, but currently I don’t see it.