10 Oct 2013

Free to Play: Myth or Miracle?

It’s become almost a perennial tale: an MMO in distress makes the switch to free-to-play and becomes instantly successful. But, without hard numbers, it’s been difficult to appreciate just how much a difference it can make.

That has now changed. In a great interview with Daniel Tack at Forbes, Rift Creative Director Bill Fisher revealed some fascinating figures. It’s worth reading the entire article, but the headline number is staggering: revenue increased five times. That’s difficult for any developer to ignore.

It gives rise to a number of follow-up questions. Was the uplift a momentary surge or sustained growth? What does the average revenue per active player look like? How reliant are they on a certain subset of players? Has the change improved Rift’s long-term fortunes, or was it just a blip on the radar?

In the Forbes article, Tack also cites other games that have recently made the transition, referencing Turbine’s and Sony Online Entertainment’s entire stable. With both of these companies, the decision didn’t just hinge around a single title, but instead was part of a transformation around how they did business.

Taking SOE as an example, the universal free-to-play approach meant that they had a ready-made customer base that could easily move between all their existing and upcoming titles. Players have less fear about buying Station Cash credits, as they can spend it in any game they want to. If an EverQuest II veteran wants to dabble in PlanetSide 2, they don’t even need to create a new account. The business model change was just part of a much larger strategy.

That said, it’s not a magic formula. Subscription-free MMOFPS Defiance experienced a lukewarm reception at launch, with Trion shutting down the studio responsible in August. The publishing deal with Crytek over online shooter Warface seems to have gone south, with the European developer now going it alone. Even SOE hasn’t been immune to layoffs. While it might represent better value to the player, there’s no strong indication that it’s successful for every game or studio.

Tack finishes by asking some common questions amongst MMO gamers, particularly when new releases are around the corner. Are subscription models still viable, or will we be looking at a shift to free-to-play in six months’ to a year’s time? That’s a much more difficult question to answer, and it depends heavily on each titles’ post-launch activity.

When I interviewed ZeniMax Online studio General Manager Matt Firor at Gamescom, he described the subscription model as a promise. In return for a monthly subscription, his team would deliver content every four to six weeks to keep players entertained. It means that players become the ultimate arbiter of quality: fail to keep us entertained, and expect us to unsubscribe. It’s a pattern that World of Warcraft developer Blizzard, with its incredibly long update cycles, is all too familiar with.

While we might balk at paying a subscription just to access an online game, we’ll happily part with cash for downloadable content that extends that original experience. It’s a pattern that’s been demonstrated with popular console titles, where extra mission packs or explorable locations are offered for a modest fee several months after launch. It’s that mindset, I suspect, that Zenimax are trying to tap into.

Likewise, in an interview with PCGamesN, Carbine Exective Producer Jeremy Gaffney chimes in, stating that “free-to-play is not a magic bullet.” It’s one of the reasons his studio chose an approach similar to EVE Online, allowing players to buy and sell WildStar subscription blocks on the in-game marketplace. It’s a system that’s worked well for Icelandic developer CCP since its introduction in 2008.

Is there a way to ensure a successful MMO? Almost every developer I’ve interviewed says the same thing: make a good game that’s fun to play, launch with plenty of endgame content so that players who hit level cap have something to do, and update regularly to keep them interested. To achieve all that, there’s no alternative but hard work.

Are those transitions inevitable? That all depends on us as gamers, and I’ll answer that with a question of my own. What is more important to us: the enjoyment we get from an online world, or the business model attached to it?

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