Daily Archives: March 15, 2023

Did Free to Play Work for MMORPGs?

This will be one of those posts where I am asking a question that I do not… and probably will never… know the answer, it both being murky, situational, and possibly unknowable because there is no way to go back in time and test the alternatives.  But such barriers have never stopped me from asking a question before, so why let it stop me now?

In my memory, when it came to MMORPGs, free to play had two objectives.

The first was to remove a barrier to getting players into your game.  I will use WoW as the example, as it stands as something of the pillar against which success might have been measured.  Back in the day you needed to commit to a $15 a month subscription in order to play WoW.

You might have gotten a free trial period from an offer or through a referral, but in not too many days you were going to be asked to commit to a monthly fee to access the game.  In addition, you might have to buy a box up front.  Or a virtual box.

I remember being annoyed way back in the day when I first started playing EVE Online because once I got the end of the free trial I not only had to subscribe, but I had to buy the game… but there was no physical game to buy.  I had to give them money up front for the privilege of being able to subscribe to their service.  I already had the game downloaded, so this felt more like an initiation fee than buying something tangible, and it irked me.

I think free to play has wiped most of that away.  At a minimum I think most MMORPGs have some sort of infinite trial period.  Even World of Warcraft doesn’t require you to buy the base game anymore, and you can hang around and play to level 20 taking as long as you want.  There are restrictions, and companies will promote the benefits of subscribing… every time you log off a Daybreak title it opens a window in your default browser to encourage you to subscribe… but the barrier to some sort of basic level of entry is pretty low.

I am sure there are still a few titles out there that are old school on this front.  I think Final Fantasy XIV still requires you to buy the game.  But, on the flip side, there are titles like Guild Wars 2 that have a whole game available pretty much for free.

So I think on that front free to play succeeded. Some f the friction, the barrier to entry, was erased. Granted, there is still the whole multi-gigabyte client down that stands in the way, but at least most places don’t make you pay for the privilege.

The other aspect was competitive advantage. Against titles that charge to play, free is a pretty good opening bid.

And, certainly, the early titles to jump on board did, in fact, find the conversion to that model drove their numbers and revenue up. There were more than a few press releases about the total and complete success of the change in the first month or two.

But as Brian Green once pointed out to me, nobody puts out a press release when the numbers fall off down the road. And, since almost all entrants in the MMORPG market have some free option, has free become a requirement rather than a differentiator?

Some titles still have subscriptions to back up their free model. John Smedley was very up front when he said that the free option was there to get you to subscribe. Others sell expansions. And there is always a cash shop and an RMT currency.

I do think that free to play has let some titles survive. The $15 a month model can be a high bar for many. So success in that way seems to have occurred.

But, just to throw out another measure at the end of this post, did we end up with better games because of the free model. That is harder to measure. Sure, a game that is still up and running is better than one that shut down because of the subscription model. However, it also feels like the cash shop and the weekly specials become the focus of some titles because of that model.

So no good or definitive answer here I suppose. But, as I said, that never stopped me from asking a question.