Tag Archives: swtor

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.

SWTOR and the F2P tango

Well, today’s big news in MMO Land is that Star Wars: the Old Republic is going free-to-play. That will gratify all the doomsayers who predicted failure for the game, and said “see you when it goes free to play in six months” — whether or not this represents a failure, it will certainly be perceived as one by many commentators.

Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place. Few big releases these days don’t include at least a cash shop of some kind (as TSW does), if not an entire free-to-play or buy-to-play model (as GW2 does). SWTOR was very much an “old school” MMO, and at the time of its launch many commentators claimed that if it failed, it would signal the demise of the subscription model MMO altogether.

I’m not actually convinced about that. The people who make those claims are, I suspect, those for whom $15 a month is a substantial purchasing decision. But that’s always been a factor; a monthly subscription hasn’t stopped WoW from succeeding. Most of us feel that $15 a month is worth it for the amount of entertainment we get from a good MMO, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree; the buy-once-play-forever model of Guild Wars 2 will suit them down to the ground.

But contrary to public perception, a game going free-to-play isn’t necessarily failing. The value of F2P isn’t in luring cash-strapped or thrifty customers (because let’s face it, they’re not particularly valuable customers); it’s in giving enthused players more ways to spend money.

The LotRO cash shop

As Tobold argued a year ago, MMORPGs are “too cheap”. The average American 1 spends $58 a month on their hobbies; for a dedicated MMO gamer, there’s just nothing to spend 75% of that leisure money on, without a cash shop. If you give people an outlet to spend their money, they will – when LotRO went free-to-play in 2010, its revenues tripled. Now, LotRO’s implementation of F2P was one of the best I’ve seen 2 and these days there are a lot more MMO cash shops competing for their share of player dollars, but the principle still stands: if you give gamers a way to give you more money, they will.

Along those lines, I’m personally a fan of the F2P + subs + cash shop model, because it lets me choose how invested in a game I want to get. I’m far from alone in this, but there are many gamers who cry that cash shops are terrible things and even their mere existence is an indicator that a game is terrible, especially if the cash shop exists as well as a subscription fee. It’ll be interesting to see just how much negative feedback BioWare attracts for their decision.

The thing that strikes me in all this is that SWTOR going free-to-play now looks like an admission of failure, whereas if it had launched as free-to-play, it would have looked like a canny business decision. SWTOR’s inability to succeed at the old model doesn’t prove that the old model is dead, but it certainly gives the naysayers a lot more ammunition.

  1. Okay, I’m not American, and neither is Tobold, but it’s a handy metric to use.
  2. …but that’s a post for another time