The touted free-to-play model has traditionally been associated with a less-than-polished experience, dull game mechanics, and the overpowering influence of a cash-shop. Most F2P games have already enjoyed success in their domestic market, and there isn’t much of an incentive to adapt the experience for overseas players. In the vast majority of cases, the transition to the West seems like an afterthought or an attempt at gaining some easy money. However, the last two years have become a sign of change for the free-to-play model and the quality of games associated with it.
In 2009, Turbine announced that Dungeons and Dragons Online was going free-to-play. This triggered a wave of horror in the gaming community as doomsayers claimed the game was destined to close its servers for good. When DDO emerged from this transformation stronger than ever, it also signaled the first signs of change for the business models associated with MMOs in the West. Since that time, more and more developers seem willing to experiment with different ways of monetization.
In June, Turbine dropped the bomb again by shifting their subscription-based game, Lord of the Rings: Online to a new payment model which was similar to DDO’s, and SOE followed suit with an announced free-to-play version of their popular game, EverQuest 2. Global Agenda, Guild Wars 2 and others have also used their ‘purchase game + play for free’ business models as a viable way of differentiating themselves from competitors. Couple this with the producer of Star Trek Online mentioning that the free-to-play model could definitely work with their game, as well as vague hints by BioWare that Star Wars: The Old Republic will have a twist to the traditional model, and even those in severe denial will have to admit that things are changing.
Whether this is ultimately good for the future of the genre is up for debate, but what does it mean for the F2P experience? There is now a presence of not one, but several highly polished games on the free-to-play market, and some of them were originally developed as AAA franchises. The experience offered by these titles is likely to be well above your average F2P MMO. The over-powering cash-shop has been replaced with reasonable (in most cases) convenience items, cool flair, and new quest packs. Gone are the more shallow systems used in most F2P games to prolong the time players spend in the game.
All of this leads to an increase in standards we expect as players from both current and future offerings. In fact, the market is slowly becoming (if it hasn’t already) as saturated as the P2P alternative. Most savvy gamers are no longer willing to tolerate severe flaws within a game just because it initially costs nothing to play. The same principle applies to the effect cash-shops have on the gaming experience — a fact that Allods Online learned the hard way when their community was in outrage over the prices charged in their item store.
As more and more established developers look at F2P in its various forms as a viable business model, the better it is for those gamers who cannot afford paying a monthly fee or just want to supplement their main MMO addiction with something fun on the side. Regardless of the reasons, it is a good time to get involved in MMOs if you haven’t before (then why would you be reading this, eh?) as there are less and less barriers to do so. And perhaps, it is finally time for F2P games to reach maturity and not be associated with a sub-par experience any longer.