15 May 2012

“I’ll Wait Till It’s Free”

When I started playing MMOs, it seemed that the genre was split into two camps. Subscription based games were seen as champions of quality, coupled with legendary customer service. By contrast, free to play games were looked down upon with distain, being games for those who preferred to buy their way to victory instead of earn it the hard way. They also had a tinge of underhandedness, as if developers were looking for increasingly ingenious ways to crack open customer wallets.

Over the last five years, I’d argue that our perceptions have changed. Guild Wars 1 and 2 introduced the “buy the box” model, delivering a high quality game while still using the subscription free microtransaction model. We’ve also seen several MMOs transition from being subscription based to free-to-play and becoming successful as a result. Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online and EverQuest 2 are all positive examples of this change in model.

This year, a new trend emerged. After reading a number of blogs I’ve seen the same phrase repeated again and again. “It’s a great MMO, but I’ll wait until it goes free to play before I play it.” We now expect subscription based games to fail and eventually switch to a free-to-play-model.

Have our previous experiences conditioned us as consumers to expect games to switch to free to play? Are we becoming congested with too many games we want to try and not enough time to play them, so we’re cutting back on the ones we subscribe to? Or is it just a polite way of saying that we have no intention of playing a game, either at launch or for the foreseeable future?

My own suspicion is that there’s elements of all three. With pre-launch betas becoming larger in size and scope, many of us get the chance to try an MMO before we put our hand in our pocket. Instead of buying the box, subscribing for a few months then ditching the game for something else, we elect to bide our time, drifting from beta to beta while we wait for a bargain. A game might grab our interest, but we have a ready-made, plausible excuse for why we shouldn’t buy into it.

But is this healthy for the industry? With subscription-based MMOs still being developed, are we discarding them out of hand? It’s possible we’ll see a reduction in subscription games, forced by changes in customer behaviour. What’s much less certain is if we’ll see future games take the same route as Guild Wars 2 and avoid subscriptions, or launch as completely free to play. It’s also possible that we’ll see MMOs switch to a single player RPG (such as Warhammer 40K: Dark Millenium), or cancelled completely.

There’s also the economic impact – is it a sign of these austere times that we’re more reluctant to pay a monthly subscription for a game? I think this is partially true – I’m cutting down the number of games I subscribe to and playing the remainder more. I’ve also dropped secondary accounts I had for some games. But I’m still happy to drop a three month sub on a new game to see how it fares post-launch.

Are we likely to return to MMOs if they switch to free-to-play? I’m still undecided on this. Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online have failed to pull me back in. Everquest 2 hasn’t managed to grip me for an extended period. But that’s largely a lack of time. What I play changes from month to month, and while I have a few core games I still play, I rarely get the chance to return to older titles.

What next for MMOs? Stick with subscriptions or forge ahead with freemium? Ultimately, I think that it’ll be the player rather than the developer that decides.

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18 Responses to “I’ll Wait Till It’s Free”

  1. Tesh says:

    As it should be. The consumer *should* have the power over consumer goods. Games are consumer goods. Trying to force them into a service model is the old round peg in a square hole problem. If anything, subs are the skeevy bit of the business side of MMOs, as they are designed to keep leeching money. The sooner subs die, the better, at least as exclusive models. I’m happy enough with hybrids since some players still prefer the subs, but the market realities and economic realities just don’t support subs long-term.
    Tesh recently posted..Bluth and Bricks: StorybricksMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      Indeed. Although I also think that the MMO genre is the only one where you need a good game *and* a good monetisation model to be successful.

  2. Ted says:

    One way or another, the developers have to get money to pay their bills (and their employees). I’m not sure which model works better. I’d love to play both WoW and SWTOR but I can’t swing a subscription for both.
    Ted recently posted..NFL Draft – Carolina at 9My Profile

  3. Luna says:

    I would like to see a pay what you play model. I know it would be hard to put together, but I feel like paying for a full month and then only logging in for three hours that month is a waste, but sometime life is more important. I would rather be able to buy a game card or something and it tick away as I am logged in and then when its gone I am forced to buy more time. It could tell me how much time I have left when I log in, so I know before an instance that I can only play 10mins until I buy more time. I love my SWTOR but when I only have time to log in for 3-5 hours a week it feels like a waste. I would rather pay more upfront for an mmo than to continue to waste 15$ a month to play. I would be happy with a tier payment system. I would gladly give up access to pvp and some instance content for a cheaper monthly fee. I mostly play for the flashpoints and storyline content anyway.

    • Gazimoff says:

      Usage based models are actually very popular in some Asian markets, where PC ownership is low and most gaming is concentrated in cybercafes. In markets where PC ownership is higher, the unmetered model tends to dominate. I agree though, it would nice to have some choices.

  4. thade says:

    It’s funny. Software-as-a-Service is the industry standard for software licensing between companies; the whole ‘buy a thing and own it’ when applied to software is purely a consumer expectation nowadays. Bred from, perhaps, the same mentality the consumer buys everything else.

    When you “just buy the box” you’re paying for a limited license that comes with remarkably little support and no more than rare bug-fix and balance updates; when you continue paying $15 – which is such a pittance that I honestly don’t understand questioning it – you can expect regular patches to address bugs and balance, as well as free additions to content. Is it any wonder why companies are rushing out pay-to-own DLC for their games nowadays? It’s not just greed; it’s to sustain their business. I’d rather pay a regular fee than be confronted with a cash shop. Honestly the only game I think does the F2P model in an acceptable way is League of Legends…where you buy decorations for champions and unlock champions to play with them. Companies more often get dodgy and dirty when they can’t charge you per month anymore, instead finding ways to make their cash shops more appealing.

    Considering the cost that goes into these games, it shouldn’t be weird to pay for them. We have this weird culture that feels entitled and expects to get crap for free for some reason.

    It’s only $15.
    thade recently posted..Optimism in the face of Pessimism: Elder Scrolls OnlineMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I kinda understand the point… if it’s just one game.

      But say I want to play a mix of games:

      World of Warcraft
      Star Wars: The Old Republic
      Final Fantasy XIV
      The Secret World

      My $15 a month just became $90 a month. Plus, I can only play each of them for one sixth of the time. If I elect to be diverse in my game playing, adding each new subscription reduces the value (in time played) I can extract from them. The business model actively works against gaming diversity.

      • eki says:

        @Gaz: I think many people are expecting too much for their money. If you can only afford one sub-based game then, well, so be it. I think the enjoyment we can get out of those games do perfectly support the 15 bucks fee.

        Diversity comes at a cost, let’s use cars as example:
        you got a car that drives perfectly fine, you don’t really need it for work or something but you enjoy driving it and you can afford it. Now you want another one, maybe a red instead of a blue one, because sometimes you’re more in the mood for red. But you still don’t want to give up your blue one.
        That’s perfectly fine, if you can afford it, go for it! But if you don’t, do you blame the car manufacturer because he’s charging too much? I don’t think so…

        • Gazimoff says:

          I don’t think the car analogy works particularly well, partly because they’re used for much different purposes. Besides, many of us need a car for work, whereas very few of us are employed to play MMOs.

          On your first point though, I think that if you compare the MMO market to the single player RPG market, the FPS market or offline games in general, gamers have the option of buying and enjoying new games on a much more regular basis. I think that’s a much more interesting comparison.

    • Doone says:

      I don’t really buy the “it’s greed, but it’s also …”. No, it’s *just* greed. Understand that games, even online games, have been sold for years. Some choose subscription, others choose non-subscription models. This day and age it’s simply just not a matter of one working better or not. It’s overwhelmingly based on product quality. This is self evident: WoW rakes in more than any other MMO because (when it was released) it was the finest thing on the market. It sustains those subs due primarily to social networking ties; one may idly unsubscribe from an MMO, but almost never when there’s friends involved. We all have friends who tell us they only subscribe because we still play X game. Social bonds. Oh and it doesn’t hurt that Blizzard used to offer some of the funnest experiences.

      Greed. Software as a service is a poor model for long-term sustainability. But we all well remember the fiasco of 2008 which proved these corporations don’t mind a big loss in the long run as long as the short run profits make huge piles to sleep on *now*.
      Doone recently posted..Diablo 3: What’s Your First Impressions?My Profile

    • Tesh says:

      The service model works if the end user is constantly using the product. Some people *do* play MMOs (or better, a single MMO) that way, but in a crowded market, that’s less and less common. It’s not just the money, it’s the time investment, and that second variable skews the value/cost ratio, sometimes in big ways.
      Tesh recently posted..NBI: Wordle DiagnosticsMy Profile

  5. Bernard says:

    What if new developers had a F2P migration as part of their business plan?

    Launch day 1 with a subscription and box sales.

    6 months in launch RMT fluff.

    12 months remove the subscription and launch the full item shop.

    You maximise your revenues and establish your title as one of those ones that is a “high quality” subscription game rather than a F2P con.

  6. Blue Kae says:

    My opinion is that people who’re waiting for a game to for F2P before trying it, aren’t really going to be playing it after said change either. They’ll likely spend a little time checking things out and then move on to something else. Not having a subscription removes the barrier to entry, but it also makes leaving a lot easier as well. If someone is really interested in a setting or mechanic, they’re not going to be willing to wait months or years in order to play it.
    Blue Kae recently posted..Time traveling book reviewers.My Profile

    • Tesh says:

      I waited on STO, DDO and LOTRO. Wound up spending money in each of them that I’d not have done if they stayed as sub games.

      Might also be worth noting that a lower barrier to entry is also a lower barrier to reentry. This keeps the player interest and the dev interest aligned; keep churning out content or *stuff* worth paying for, and the customers will pay. Make crap and you’ll rightly lose market share, rather than cruising on inertia and sunk cost psychology behind subs.
      Tesh recently posted..NBI: Wordle DiagnosticsMy Profile

  7. Pai says:

    “We now expect subscription based games to fail and eventually switch to a free-to-play-model.”

    I disagree with this point. I think it’s more that players refuse to pony up a box+monthly fee for a product they don’t feel is worth that level of upfront investment on their part. It’s a value judgment and a valid one for a consumer to have. If a MMO cannot get people excited enough that they don’t mind spending money on it, that’s a bad sign. The best F2P and Freemium games have people who go out of their way to put money into the studio’s hands because they are simply enjoying the game that much that they feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

    Sub games can’t coast half-assedly anymore and expect enough people to be willing to support them while they take months after launch to finally get their acts together, that’s all.

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  9. Matojo says:

    I think the switch from subscription-based to (mostly) free-to-play is also a sign of the quality of the game itself. I wouldn’t consider STO, Champions Online, or LOTRO to be of the same quality of game experience as WoW, RIFT, or SW:TOR, though some will inevitably disagree. STO and LOTRO fell flat of expectations, IIRC, and have had a reduction in active servers since launch. Age of Conan is treated like a joke in many circles.

    I can’t see the subscription-based model completely dying off any time soon. There will always be somebody (like myself) who will be willing to pay a small monthly fee for something of decent quality, and who prefers to have everything out of the box instead of having some things up front but have to pay for other things if we want the full experience (I’m looking at you, LOTRO and CO quest packs, AoC classes beyond the base two).

    Any idea what sort of money the F2P+microtransaction model pulls in?
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