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Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place.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.
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.