The false economy of Free-to-Play

I spent a while this weekend in The Secret World (surprising, I know), which is currently having a one-month-iversary free play celebration weekend. That meant that the chat channels in the first few zones were full of people trying out the game, and most seemed very positive about it. That said, there were a surprising range of sentiments about the costs of subscribing.

Image credit: Twid @ Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA

The most common refrain I heard was “I won’t bother subscribing, I’ll just wait til it goes free-to-play” (often with the addendum “because Funcom games always do”). That was closely followed by “the lifetime access pack isn’t worth it, it’ll be free-to-play soon”.

Given that a Grandmaster Pack (which bestows the lifetime sub) costs the equivalent of 13.3 months’ subscription, that’s a gamble that TSW will go fully free-to-play in a year or less 1 and it’s assuming that the free-to-play mode won’t lock you out of content you’d otherwise want to do.

Now, different games have different free-to-play limitations. SWTOR, for instance, will allow you to complete the entirety of the quest content, and will just restrict the number of instances, PvP warzones and space missions you can do every week (and restrict you from raiding). 2 LotRO, on the other hand, only opens some questing areas to free-to-play users; if you want to progress further, or explore more widely, you need to unlock regional quest packs with microtransactions in their store. (As well as a range of other restrictions.) Many games restrict free-to-play players to more vanilla classes and races, leaving the interesting and exotic stuff for the subscribers. And almost every F2P game restricts your character slots, bag space, bank balance and/or concurrent auctions/sales if you’re not a paying subscriber. For comparison, check out the free-to-play models offered by SWTOR, LotRO, EverQuest 2, DC Universe Online, City of Heroes, Age of Conan and Star Trek Online.

So “waiting for F2P” is a gamble that it is coming sooner rather than later, and that its implementation won’t be so restrictive that you’ll feel the need to pay anyway. Remember, the whole point of F2P is to lure you into paying, and one way devs do that is by restricting what you can do as a free player. Which is fair enough — they’re not a charity, after all. In most MMOs, if you’re a non-subscribing player, buying access to all the features of a subscription costs as much as months of subscribing.

Now, if your gaming time is already full and you just can’t see you’d get value for money out of yet another MMO sub, or your budget is creaking and you can’t afford it, that’s another matter (and waiting for F2P seems an entirely sensible choice). And F2P modes work well for people who get very little regular gaming time — you’re not wasting subscription time and you can still get months of entertainment out of the limited content they offer for free. But if you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time – and you like the game – why not pay for it? Waiting for a free-to-play implementation that may never come seems like false economy to me.

  1. And for comparison’s sake, Funcom’s other two MMORPGs both took three years to offer a free-to-play option.
  2. Which is why I’m concerned about SWTOR’s implementation of F2P — there aren’t enough restrictions to encourage a free player to subscribe. I don’t think it’s going to do good things for their revenue.

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4 Responses to “The false economy of Free-to-Play”

  1. August 6, 2012 at 16:53 #

    EVE Online actually has an interesting F2P option too. You can buy 30 day time cards for the in-game currency: ISK. I think it’s probably a little more ISK than a casual player is going to make, but the facility is there.

    -kris

    • August 7, 2012 at 12:33 #

      LotRO and DDO let you do something similar, too — you can earn store currency with ingame play; you can then spend that store currency on things like expansion packs (although I don’t think you can actually pay for a sub with them).

    • August 8, 2012 at 02:32 #

      Many things in EVE, except for the sociopath focus, are well done. So you can pay for your subscription with RL$ or ISK.

      But there is also “EVE Offline.” If you are a subscriber, then if you log in every so often, then your character continues to get skills without any additional effort.

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