What once may have been considered a gamble now looks like it’s on the way to becoming the default model for modern MMOs to follow. At least, you’d certainly think so after seeing the massive success Turbine has earned after detouring two of their premiere franchises towards the Free-To-Play model. At the recent GDC Online conference last week, the company announced that Lord of the Rings Online has doubled its take since the game’s re-launch nearly a month ago.
Here are a few other interesting stats to go along with the presser:
- Over 1 million new accounts have been created in the last month.
- The Free-To-Play re-launch is bigger than the launch of the original game back in 2007.
- Twenty percent of previous players have returned to the game, the sum of which is greater than the normal peak-time server population under the old model.
- Around half of the playerbase is using the in-game store.
- The top items in the cash shop? Item storage space, stat boosters, mount riding skills, and the Mines of Moria content pack.
So does this cement F2P as the future of the medium? It sure seems to be catching on, and Eastern MMOs have been using the model for ages. Those games have made a lot of money, too, but it doesn’t always seem to go back into the development of future content. I think it’s worked so well for LotRO and DDO because people genuinely like those franchises and a lot of effort is put into making them better. Marrying quality content with a cash shop model (that doesn’t completely favor players who buy their way to the top) appears to be the way go for the time being.
However, it’s a bit like working for a salary (Subscription) versus working for a commission (Free-To-Play). The latter is subject to interest decay as much as the former, and without guaranteed income (say, the existing players have bought most of the content they’re ever going to), a flagging playerbase will eventually become an issue. Now, you may say that companies are turning to this model in order to counteract low sales/subscriptions, but a bad game is a bad game. At best, a mediocre game can hope for a temporary boost in profit, but if the content isn’t there, people are going to leave sooner than later.
A subscription, however, is verifiable income. Even a small MMO with a reliable and consistent community can enjoy profitability for years, because they know that each month, they will be receiving an estimable amount of money, and can plan their development process accordingly. When you’re talking about an MMO on the scale of World of Warcraft, the numbers get even crazier. With 12 million players under your belt, you can even start doing both — charge each player a subscription fee and sell them special vanity items that rake in several million dollars apiece. You could even, say, throw in a mobile app to make things more interesting!
Musing aside, I’m happy for Turbine, and though I no longer play it, LotRO remains one of my favorite MMO experiences to date. The fact that it’s finally getting its due makes me as warm and fuzzy as a hobbit’s foot inside.