Free to Play and the Implied Social Contract

I am going to start sounding like I hate free to play if I am not careful.

I do not hate free to play.

Free to play can bring a lot to a subscription game that transitions to the model.

The primary benefit is more players.

Bringing more players to a declining MMO can be a wonderful thing.  When I was playing the short-lived EverQuest II Extended, one of the best things about it was that the world seemed quite alive relative to the subscription side of the house.

It is also very nice to not be tied to a monthly subscription plan when it comes to games that you no longer play regularly, but still like to drop into now and again.  For example, I doubt I would have resubscribed to EverQuest II just to be able to see… well… whatever it was they did to Qeynos.

These are clear benefits on which I think most people can agree.

But I am also mindful that there are costs as well.

There are the inconveniences, the nagging, the intrusion of crass commercialism into an alleged escapist fantasy world, and the inevitable realization that, unless you’re buying what they have on offer in the cash shop this month, you really aren’t important to the company any more.

But you can get used to that.  Or some people can.  Probably most people can.

The problem, as I see it, is that you may have to get used to the way things are over and over again.  Currently, “free to play” is a pretty empty phrase, since it can mean so many things.

A long and winding thread of “logic” follows after the cut in order to spare the front page a wall of text.

Ah, remember the good old days?

Back when MMOs were primarily a monthly subscription business, we reached a point where there was a defacto standard, a set of services and behaviors we expected and on which most companies delivered.

If you paid your $15 a month… even pricing had a standard… you were allowed access to a wide range of content and character options, access which generally did not change.  An expansion might come along that offered more content or options.  You might have to purchase that expansion, but after that point your account had free reign in that new content as well.

The system was simple and, perhaps more importantly, reliable.  Companies messed with it at their peril.  Remember when it was suggested that Warhammer Online, being a “premium” game (i.e. better than its competitors, no really) might charge more that the subscription standard of $15 a month? If you were going to step outside of the box, you had to have something worthwhile.

The monthly subscription model chugged along mostly unchanged for a decade.  We all knew what it meant to be a subscription game, even if it wasn’t always spelled out in detail.  But it was implied by the behavior of the companies and their subscribers.

The problem is, of course, that MMOs do not go away.  Thirteen years down the road EverQuest is probably still holding onto more subscribers than were in the initial pre-launch goals.

And then there is World of Warcraft, the shiny behemoth, which shed enough customers last quarter to keep any two other MMOs happy and profitable.  It still has 9 million customers, probably half of which are US/EU style monthly subscribers who keep on paying.

So, it was pretty much a done deal that, at some point, MMOs would have to start competing on price and barrier to entry.  We have seen enough subscription MMOs launch, peak, and begin to hemorrhage in a single quarter for even that story to get old.   So limited free trials gave way to unlimited trials which burst into today’s free to play market.  And that market is chaotic because what passes for free to play in one game may differ drastically from what free means elsewhere.

I suspect that chaos will remain.  “How free is free?” is a way companies can compete on price… or lack of price.

What I am more interested in is how the free to play model for individual games will evolve over time, and SOE’s games seem to be the ones to watch at the moment.

SOE, once a bastion of monthly subscription games, has taken up the free to play (your way(tm)) banner and has transitioned to a fully free lineup, with one minor exception. (What will become of PlanetSide?)

Free to play has been a long time building at SOE.  Their currency, Station Cash, was introduced almost four years ago in EverQuest II, along with some over-priced cosmetic gear.  There was a dalliance with Live Gamer, which introduced a real money auction house to a pair of special EQ2 servers and Vanguard.  And while Free Realms came along as their first free to play title, things really kicked off for the corporate transition with the EverQuest II Extended experiment, a year long trial to see if free could work.

It did, and last fall EverQuest II went completely free to play, as did EverQuest this past spring and Vanguard just this past week.  And somewhere along the line, DC Universe Online made the quick transition to free as well.

And by losing subscriptions, SOE did more that ditch a publicly stated obligation.  The removal of the barrier to entry saw a big increase in players in each game.  Now all SOE has to do is pester you to subscribe once you arrive in one of their worlds and get you to buy some Station Cash.

Oh, and get you to spend some of that Station Cash as well, otherwise you might not buy any more.  But spending it doesn’t bring in any money, only buying it does.  And so they have pushed the Station Cash deals, regularly offering double or triple Station Cash deals or bonuses when you redeem a Station Cash gift card.

And to soak up those piles of discount Station Cash so you will buy more?  Well, they sell gear with stats outright in EverQuest and Vanguard.  In EverQuest II the economy appears to be more mount and housing based.  And in all of the games you could use your Station Cash to finance Gold level subscriptions and purchase expansions.  They even offered some very generous sales on some of these items.

Well, they did until somebody did the math and realized that a canny player taking advantage of sales could end up paying as little as $1.25 for their $15 a month subscription.  This lead to SOE yanking subscriptions from the cash shop with no advanced notice… or notification of any sort… something that caused a minor uproar.  SOE made subscriptions available again for a short time in order to calm things down, but the writing was on the wall.

More recently SOE announced they were pulling the ability to purchase expansion (which might total up to as little as $6.65 if you bought them with the right sales in place) with Station Cash as well, though they learned their lesson this time and gave notice in advance.

So a trend seems to be emerging at SOE.

Where can I spend my Station Cash?

Ah, but do not worry, SOE knows they have to soak up the pool of Station Cash out there, if only to get you to buy more.  And so they are experimenting with new things.

Over in EverQuest they have announced a new feature, The Hero’s Forge, which is essentially a special cosmetic appearance system for old Norrath.  It is going live this week.

Forge a new look

No big deal right?  At this point, what self-respecting fantasy MMO doesn’t have some sort of cosmetic option in game?

The interesting bit though is in the Hero’s Forge FAQ.  This will be a per-character feature that you have to purchase with Station Cash, regardless of whether you are a Gold level subscriber or not.

The explanation in the FAQ is that they needed to finance the feature, but did not want to have to tie it to an expansion.  This is how new features and content were financed in the past, via expansions.  You did not get player housing, for example, unless you purchased the House of Thule expansion.

Of course, at this time, there does not appear to be an EverQuest expansion waiting in the wings to act as a vehicle for such features.  That, in and of itself is something of an oddity.  For the last decade we have been getting at least one and often two expansions every calendar year.  That no expansion has been announced for 2012 might be an additional sign of things to come.

Have we seen the last real EverQuest expansion?  Or the last EverQuest II expansion for that matter?

And, if we have, are we also witnessing the breaking of assumptions as to what you get if you are a $15 a month subscriber?

Yes, SOE has gone there before with the $65 Freeblood Vampire race.  But that seemed to go over like a lead balloon with even the most loyal subscribers, so I had to wonder if they would go down the path of separating features from subscriptions again.  It appears that they have.

Instead, SOE appears to be headed towards more of a downloadable content (DLC) model, where new zones and features will be available on a per character, ala carte basis.  And yet they are still pushing people towards their subscription model, while more and more of the buffet is being roped off even from those subscribers.

Yes, they have to make money.  Giving it all away for free is a sure fire way to fold.  And with a Gold subscription they throw 500 Station Cash in your wallet each month, so you are subsidized somewhat against the cost of things in the store.  None of this is an earth shattering change.

But it does feel like things are changing, that even our assumptions about what you get for your $15 a month can no longer be taken for granted.  The simple days of the implied social contract that came with the subscription model appear to be fading as companies look for further ways to monetize their games.

And SOE, which has been a leader in embracing new subscription options, is leading again in its usual way.  That way is often full of mistakes and miscalculations, but SOE does appear to listen in the end.  They haven’t gone full-on Incarna in their foibles of late.  But they do try new things.

Are we seeing the wave of the future here for MMOs?  Or at least one possible path in the world of free to play?

I suppose EverQuest Next will answer the question for SOE.  Will we start getting MMOs with limited initial worlds and day one DLC?

Where will free to play head next?

What cash shop option that was unthinkable before become the norm?

For MMO payment models, this is certainly an interesting time… and you know what they say about living in interesting times.

16 thoughts on “Free to Play and the Implied Social Contract

  1. Tesh

    Tangentially, players have made a lot of assumptions about what the subscription does for them, and what it actually pays for. We know little about the latter, and there is little actually “promised” on the former. Some players assume that *everything* is included in the sub fee, and get fussy when expansions ask a box price (and savvy devs subvert this trend). Some subscriptions are offered with bulk sales, or various loyalty discounts. There are a lot of rather… squishy… variables, even under the subscription tent.

    To be fair, there’s little on the financials in microtransaction models, too, but the “what you get for your money” purchase feedback cycle is much clearer, for better or worse. I say it’s largely better, but it does make customers pay more attention, and that can be a distraction for the players… and trouble for devs who have gotten used to skating on inattentive habitual subscriptions.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Tesh – Indeed, this is why I said “implied social contract.” In what is now perhaps only the WoW and Rift model, devs and players have consistently behaved in very regular pattern where the base assumption has been that subscription keeps the servers up, fixes bugs, and keeps the client up to date while money for they new expansion box pays for that new content. Nothing says it has to be that way, regardless of what the financials are below the surface or what EULAs may declare, but a lot of people have come to accept that as “normal.”

    And we know how “normal” can change.

    I suppose the TL;DR for this post is “There is no F2P standard to replace the subscription standard. Expect more “bad” things along with the “good.””


  3. Tesh

    Aye, I’m not disagreeing with you, just chiming in with a few tangential thoughts. We’re certainly in a phase of the market that’s ripe for some abuses and …renegotiations. :(


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    I actually started thinking about this after a Planet Money podcast where they talked about the effort it takes to move something that was once taken for granted as “free” or at least covered in the price and making it a separate line item. Some times we get angry but get over it, as with charging for checked bags, and some times people just won’t let go, as with the Red Cross charging soldiers for doughnuts during WWII.

    People are apparently still pissed about that last one.

    Of course, I was going to reference all of this. But it slipped my mind when Hero’s Forge came up and I ended up writing something that didn’t line up quite as I had planned. Go figure.


  5. bhagpuss

    Great read. Plenty to digest there, too much to respond to in detail in comments.

    Just about everyone who blogs or comments on MMOs takes a position on payment models but apart from one or two zealots with what seem like a religious belief in one system or another I think there’s really a single question that we all want answered:

    Which gets us better MMOs?

    And of course there’s no answer. It’s not the payment model alone that decides whether a game is one you want to play or one you want to avoid. I don’t want to play TOR because I have small interest in Star Wars and don’t like BioWare’s storytelling. Making it free doesn’t make me want to play it more. On the other hand, I very much like the storytelling in TSW and find the setting fascinating, so I’m not balking at paying a monthly sub.

    Someone else faced with the two same MMOs might have the opposite reaction. Another example: I didn’t stop playing Rift because I objected to paying a subscription, I stopped because I ran out of interesting things to do there. If they dropped the sub I would pop in now and again but until and unless they add content that interests me, making Rift free won’t make me play it. On the other hand, if they add some content that looks right up my street, I would be very likely to resubscribe.

    My experience so far is that how much I want to play an MMO, how often and for how long has next to nothing to do with how it chooses to fund itself. I completely agree with you that the market is in a total state of flux and we will see all kinds of things tried. I am personally happy to pick my way through the options on offer and play the MMOs that work for me under whatever funding method they choose to use.

    Like you, I do very much appreciate being able to pop into games I’m not playing regularly just to catch up, mooch about and see what’s going on. When all games were subscription-based I never did that. Once I stopped paying I stopped playing and never returned. The current state of play is much better for me, even given the increased commercialism within the games themselves.

    It is true, as you suggest, that increased commercialism makes it harder to take the worlds seriously as immersive fantasy settings. That’s a shame. Given the choice of being able to visit scores of slightly tarnished fantasy worlds on a whim or one or two slightly-less tarnished ones all the time, I prefer the former option.

    It’s not, after all, as if any of these worlds were ever pristine and untainted by commercialism, is it? Anarchy Online had in-game video adds for bands and movies years ago. EQ had /pizza ffs !

    That was a rambling response! I might try and do something more coherent when I’ve thought about it a bit more…


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – “Which gets us better MMOs?”

    That is the key long term question which, as you say, has no real answer right now. Almost everything I have mentioned has been a subscription MMO that has gone free to play. So there has been the benefit of years of traditional content to build on.

    Meanwhile, a lot of what has launched as F2P in the West has been cheap Asian ports and the like which probably could not have competed if they had been subscription.

    We shall see when… and if… we get a serious, big(-ish) budget fantasy MMORPG that was focused as F2P from the start. GW2 could be a good indicator of where things will head, though I suspect that EverQuest Next and Blizzard’s Titan will be more controversial when they show up.


  7. kiantremayne

    You’re right that there was a consensus on what a subscription bought in the old days – basically “keep the servers running, some content updates (although really big ones will be paid expansions) and human support in-game when needed” Note that the last of those is probably the most expensive – even at minimum wage, if you take two hours of GM time a month you’re a net loss for the company, which is one reason why support for F2P players is almost always “you can look stuff up on our knowledge base”.

    The flipside of the social contract in F2P, though, is that a lot of players in a game have paid no money to be there. That causes all sorts of issues – for starters, if someone hasn’t paid a box price and sunk N months subs into a game he’s got less to lose if his account gets banned for being a jerk. On the other hand, players who have paid money feel that they have invested more into the game than the unwashed freloading masses and sometimes expect more special treatment than what their money has explicitly bought.

    I expect in a year or two things will settle down to a general understanding of what F2P means – games that don’t offer enough for free (I’m looking at YOU, SOE) will lose those potentially paying customers to games that make them feel more welcome. Meanwhile, games that give away too much will struggle to monetise the players they attract (and now I’m looking at SWTOR, whose F2P plan seems to be to give the good bits away for free and then charge for the bits that make the game a palwe copy of WoW with lightsabers).


  8. Green Armadillo

    “Have we seen the last real EverQuest expansion? Or the last EverQuest II expansion for that matter?”

    Can’t speak for EQ1, but last I heard (via Feldon) was that EQ2 will have another paid expansion at the end of this year. They can cut the number of patches per year, they can reduce the amount of testing (and thereby increase the bugs and issues) but all available evidence indicates that their prime directive is to extract $40 from all loyal players every 12 months by whatever means necessary.


  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @GA – If SOE has an expansion planned for EQ2 the end of this year, they are keeping it unusually quiet about it. All I found was a mention that we’d know more after E3.

    While I was digging around the EQ2 Wire looking for something about that expansion, I found this quote:

    “[Social and free-to-play] is a business I think a lot of companies are learning is difficult to sustain for the long term. It’s an adjunct or it’s an add-on, but it’s not where gaming is headed. It’s an additive diversion. There’s a place for social and freemium, but it’s not going to replace the business models that are out there.”

    This is from Jack Tretton, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, who also happens to be Smed’s boss. Interesting.

    And then Tesh tweeted a link to this article at Gamasutra where Jan Richter at Bigpoint says that WoW is essentially already a free to play game because people use what is essentially an external cash shop to buy gold. I am not sure I am buying that pitch. It sounds more like somebody who has a hammer seeing every problem as a nail. Bigpoint is all-in on free to play after all. Maybe five opinions about free to play.

    Anyway, more evidence that we are living in interesting times.


  10. Green Armadillo

    Ironically, Feldon just tweeted on the topic.

    He was also on EQ2 Talk earlier this year and said the rumors he had heard were that there would be an expansion at the end of the year but it would NOT be a feature expansion like Age of Discovery. My personal take on AOD is that they were told they could have their three month delay for Destiny of Velious (bumped from Nov 2010 to Feb 2011) on the condition that they still charge $40 for the FY 2011 expansion no later than the end of the year. Because the content for said expansion would not be ready until the April 2012 game update, we got an “optional” “feature-based” expansion in 2011 followed by the extremely odd scenario of a content patch that included a level cap increase and a full gear wipe.

    As to Tretton’s comments, I would be saddened but in no way surprised if one of these days Big Sony announces that they’ve sold SOE to Perfect World (assuming they’re still shopping for Western studios, fill in any other plausible F2P-based contenders).


  11. carson63000

    Damn, Wilhelm, I know it’s due to vested interest and not stupidity, but boy does Jan Richter talk a load of bollocks in that point about WoW in that Gamasutra piece.

    What part of “the progression system” does he think people are “shortcutting” by buying black market gold? And how can he make such a ludicrous claim as “the majority of people” are doing this, with a straight face?


  12. Machination

    @bhagpuss “I didn’t stop playing because I objected to paying a subscription, I stopped because I ran out of interesting things to do there.”

    Now that’s a sentiment that seems to be exceptionally common with MMO bloggers, and I share it. If you’re going to charge a sub, it had better be above a certain line of quality (which most simply aren’t).

    I personally think subscriptions naturally align the designer’s goals (make $$$ through player satisfaction + longevity) with the player’s goals (be satisfied for a long time).

    Free-to-play doesn’t technically detract from this goal, but it does insert obstacles, diversions, or ‘hoops’ that developers must jump through while still trying to make good content. Possible, but it really just makes it harder on the developers to stay focused on what’s important for the game itself IMO.



  13. spinks

    I wonder if the sub model works better for a sandbox type of game. Like, on an access to service basis.

    In some ways it’s like tax and the way some people only want to pay for the services they use. There are some global benefits to all MMO players in a game, like a wide variety of content, large and immersive zones, content that lends itself to groups of disparate ability, good user support, a solid pipeline of incoming story and content, etc. Plus anything else that helps build and support the in game communities, (which uncertainty over future pricing models and the game’s future almost certainly doesn’t). A lot of people might opt out of paying for some or all of those things if they could save some money, but having central funding to pay for them makes the game better for everyone, and increases its longevity which is also better for everyone.

    Right now, I’m losing confidence that any game except WoW has a sustainable model, and increasingly coming to the belief that the ideal model for MMOs is F2P, based on open source code, and staffed by volunteers. The MUDs may have had it right all along.


  14. bhagpuss

    That Jack Tretton interview is a good find. Would be very worrying except that he’s specifically talking about Consoles (PS3 and Vita in his case) vs Tablets/Smart Phones. I wonder how much he knows or cares about the PC-based MMO market?

    My feeling is that in ten years there won’t be a PC market period because in ten years there will be no PCs. Tablets and SmartPhones will eat the entire desktop market, both home and business. Probably will take a decade, decade and a half to happen but the Big Box that Gets Hot will be a museum piece. Dedicated game consoles ditto.

    That’s the far future, though. Smed is betting the farm on F2P right now. I can say from my experience on EQ2’s Freeport server, the original EQ2X server, that if nothing else it’s worked in keeping the population up. Freeport is always packed, day or night, week or weekend, and has been since it launched two years back. How much money it’s making, who knows?

    I played Free Realms last night, for the first time in ages. Another game bloggers ignore. That was packed, too, as it always is whenever I remember to log in. When I last played Clone Wars Adventures that was also heaving with people. The persistent business bodes well but it comes down to how much people are spending in the end.

    As for an EQ2 expansion, Windstalker’s August Update Plans include this:

    “Greetings Norrathians!
    Now that Qeynos Rises is live, we’re switching gears to a year-end expansion…”

    No details, true, but an announcement of intent. I’ve seen nothing for EQ though. Maybe the last one didn’t sell well enough to justify one?


  15. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss: Jack Tretton represents the classic Sony mindset of wanting to control the hardware to lock out competition. Sony has traditionally gone out of its way to shoot itself in the foot by making their hardware incompatible with the rest of the world.

    I would be willing to bet that you would find some old hands at Sony who feel that the biggest mistake they ever made was creating the Walkman without a proprietary media format.

    Lord knows they spent years and piles of money trying to fix that with the MD format.

    And even when they have to go with an industry standard, they like to hide that fact if they can. So you get an IEEE 1394 interface on their equipment, but they call it SonyLink or some such and never reference the industry name.

    I have been worried about SOE since the day they got placed under SCEA. Sony has not proven very good at software by itself. They managed to buy out, merge, and screw up a number of audio editing packages I used to use regularly.

    So I worry that the demands on Smed from his boss will have less to do with cash shop sales… as long as they aren’t losing money… and more about how SOE is helping to sell hardware.

    Meanwhile, August seems a rather late date to be starting to focus on the latest Something of Something expansion for the end of the year.


  16. HarbingerZero

    I think the question is more than “which gets us the best MMO.” The F2P market has some strength in its variety. Back in the day, I had enough money for one (or if I was lucky at times, two) subs. These days I play a minimum of three at any given time. And if they aren’t “the best” that’s okay…I can walk away for a month or six and see if they get better…all while exploring a new (and potentially better) game elsewhere. Of course, I did that back then too I guess…but now I don’t have a $15 cover charge every time I game hop.

    As with Tesh…this is tangential to your main topic, which I agree with. There will be good and bad F2P options (heck, both exist in quantity right now), and the needle will probably not lock in on a “standard F2P” for awhile yet.


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