The New Breed Of F2P Games

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.


  1. Ultimately, I think the F2P model will eventually die. As you stated, the market is becoming increasingly saturated with companies going switching over as is speculated with SW:ToR and Star Trek and games such as DDO, LotR which are already F2P.

    If, in fact, they’re taking things out of these games that are ‘game changers’ i.e. gear, mounts, bonuses etc. and replacing them with vanity items and downloadable one dungeon expansions, then it’s no different then Blizzard’s business model except Blizzard offers FAR more for the money.

    I hate to say it but the F2P model if the above comes to pass is just another moniker without monthly subscription fees. Without monthly subscription fees and income being derived from sources like vanity items and single dungeon expansions, eventually people will become frustrated, abandon the games.

    Blizzard knows this and refuses to change their subscription fee model for good reason. It’s a loss of income that will eventually lead to loss of playerbase. No one in their right mind would pay a substantial amount of IRL money for some neato pet (even WoW players are complaining about $25.00 mounts) or mount. The F2P model DEMANDS bang for the buck and if these companies are straying from that model because of player concerns, then my concern is for the games and companies themselves.

  2. Highwayman,

    I see your point about f2p titles not offering the same amount of value when compared to subscription based titles. At the same time, there are no initial costs that you have to pay; unlike games likes WoW where you have to buy the game, the expansions AND pay a monthly fee. This low barrier to entry is one of the bigger advantages of f2p games.

    On the topic of getting the ‘bang for your buck’, titles like DDO have tackled this problem by having a well designed system in place – supply and demand. When they release the latest content packs, the ones that have the best content (as perceived by players) will be the ones that sell the most. Word quickly spreads around and the player base will usually know about content packs that are worth buying and the ones that aren’t. This in turn encourages the developers to create better quality content if they want better sales.

    Another interesting thing to note is that subscription numbers for DDO actually INCREASED since it went free-to-play. A lot of the players that got lured in by the whole free-to-play deal actually found themselves enjoying the game so much that subscribing turned out to be cheaper :)

  3. Right..but by the same token, as players DEMAND more (and we always do!), how long before companies like Turbine and the like simply cannot continue to produce at current production levels and quality with little to no cost? Content and development of content costs money. A company simply cannot continue to produce at current levels without either a) raising prices on content or b) dropping the F2P model altogether. The technology evolves and as such continues to cost more.

    Secondly, you have to look at the content you get for WoW’s cost v. the cost of a F2P. It’s no where on a par with what Blizzard offers. $75 for basic WoW expansion + monthly sub fee=multiple dungeons, zones, etc. Not too shabby though one might question the long term costs which is another argument altogether. $25 for a single dungeon for F2P games? Not so sure about that one. It’s a numbers game imo. Which will give you the more bang for your buck? Simply put, subscription based games (mostly) do.

    I do understand why people play F2P games. But it’s also a matter of caveat emptor. What’s F2P now, may not (and most likely will not) remain so. When they stop being F2P, you’ll see subcribers drop like flies and the companies will go under in a HUGE way. It’s a model that cannot last.

    It follows a basic economics rule: Free is NOT free. You end up paying a LOT more for a LOT less in the long run.

  4. You’ve pretty much outlined the challenge for all MMO developers. There is always a pressure to provide more stuff to do for the content-hungry players, regardless of the business model. It is safe to assume that Turbine is making quite a bit of profit on these content packs to afford having more in development. By now, it’s become a well designed pipeline.

    I definitely agree with you about F2P costing us more in the long term than subscriptions. Due to the reasons you’ve mentioned above, most well-informed and dedicated players would not have an MMO in the current F2P incarnation as their main game. That includes you and me. However, it will be interesting to see how the model evolves over the next 5 or so years.

    The types of players that the F2P model is most attractive to, usually do not have the time or money to fully invest in an MMO. They are more interested in a F2P set-up because it accommodates their style of play. Think of someone with a job who does not have enough time to fully dedicate to a game and you can see why he/she would feel that they are wasting their money on a subscription. Think of a teenager who does not yet own a credit card to pay for a game but has a lot of free time instead. F2P allows these players to feel like they are getting the value for their money or time. As long as that stays viable for them, F2P will thrive.

    One thing I’ve learned for sure, do not take any business model lightly as long as there is a player base for it. Two years ago, if someone told me I’d be interested in playing F2P games, I’d laugh. These days, there are several titles that catch my interest and I want to at least try them out.

  5. You make some good points regarding who might find an F2P game appealing. But with the above restrictions i.e. teenagers with no credit cards, the ‘not enough time’ subcriber, you have to wonder at what point do they become bored with the content?

    Sure, the teenager will eventually get a credit card/bank card and most likely the ‘not enough time’ subscriber will just up and quit. But how long before they look at the content they’re able to access and realize they’re not satisfied?

    It’s a good idea in some respects. It draws a different crowd, has an ‘indie’ feel to it that companies like Blizzard just don’t have, and as you said, the initial cost investment is nil.

    There are some roadblocks though. I, during the Real ID scandal, applied to be a beta tester for F2P LotR. I downloaded the game (after it kept freezing up my computer which is older but by no means outdated) and when I went to launch it, I found that I had an error of some sort that wouldn’t allow me to run the game. Weeks later I found out I’d been selected as a beta tester. One can make an argument that yes, F2P games may initially be graphically superior or perhaps their gameplay is ‘innovative’, but at what point do those that find themselves attracted to the F2P games decide that they don’t want to/can’t pay the extra money for content that’s REQUIRED to progress because it eventually becomes prohibitive?

    I suspect that the F2P model, without serious innovation technically and fiscally, will become nothing more than a memory within a year or two. Consumers aren’t stupid. We want the bang for our buck and especially in this economy , which is terrible enough with how we spend money on things we need, we’re becoming more and more discriminating and ‘cost effective’ when it comes to things like entertainment.

    Honestly, if the F2P model really wants to survive long term, and I estimate maybe it will for maybe the next 2 years, it will need to become subscription based. It’s the only way the companies like Turbine can survive long term.

    But, on the flipside, this is fantastic back and forth with you Ronix.

  6. ‘Consumers aren’t stupid. We want the bang for our buck and especially in this economy , which is terrible enough with how we spend money on things we need, we’re becoming more and more discriminating and ‘cost effective’ when it comes to things like entertainment.’

    This I couldn’t agree more with. The process you mentioned is also influenced by the fact that the MMO market itself is not the same as it used to be and we as players have more options than ever. This concerns not just the types of MMOs available to us but also the payment models associated with them. It will largely depend on the market to decide the models that will survive and proliferate and the ones that will cease to exist.

    ‘But, on the flipside, this is fantastic back and forth with you Ronix.’

    Right back at ya :)

  7. Free to play mmorpg is better in the eyes of the consumer by that one main thing nobody wants to pay money whent hey can not play by making a game free to play it will be able to encourage a wider gap between people and their ages, an working person older who wants to play games and relax a bit would surely not like to pay up every month but in the end only be able to åöay one third or fourth of an month i played 10 days in total this month for example yet i payed for 30/31 days of game time, what happened with the other 20 days, i want to play them i payed for it but i am not getting it.

    Check out Global Agenda they have an extremely interesting free to play model, they had it all pay to play stuff but they garbaged it and made it free so instead they will make everything free plus the small patches workaround and such also free of course, but only time you pay for the game is the expansions they release for the game which is every 6months, new zones for example new dungeons and such i mean full package here every 6 months pay up for new expansion, but here is the cool part if you do not want the new expansions you do not need to get it but in the game the new zones you will not be able to reach them unless you have them. So you can play the game without the new content for free, but yea every 6 months big ass expansion who would not want all new dungeons new stuff new zones to explore a bit fresh stuff it sounds reasonable for me. And Games i am extremely anti pay to play.

  8. Okay, while much of what has been said by those who have already posted has merit, You actually fail at research. It You download DDO for free, and buy turbine points equal to the cost of purchasing a copy of Wow + Expansions then just pay what each new wow expansions costs as it comes out, you would likely be able to own all the content of DDO.

    That’s the thing the truly f2p player will lack for content and get bored, but you can buy stuff as you need it and it will be less than buying a p2p. Also DDO offers a subscription account and as Ronix pointed out the number of subscribers has significantly increased since the game went f2p.

    As for new content, DDO has released 6 updates and a couple of new adventure packs since it went f2p. Tha’ts more new content than most mmos have gotten in the last year.

  9. In terms of DDO, this is actually true. I bought all of the content packs (no items) on sale last… April, I believe, and paid no more than I would for a full retail game ($50-60). And that’s *after* I had already spent a few dozen hours playing free content.

    While cash shops are certainly a questionable proposal for the player, as long as the pure *content* remains reasonably priced, it’s not that big of a deal.

Comments are closed.