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.


10 thoughts on “Did Free to Play Work for MMORPGs?

  1. bhagpuss

    I can’t answer for the developers but as a player F2P has been nothing but a huge, huge win. Because of my preferred playstyle, the part of the game that most developers choose to give away just happens to be the part I’ve always been most interested in – the part that lets you make new characters and level them up so they can go exploring. The parts some developers choose to put behind a paywall tend to be the endgame activities that don’t much interest me or the quality of life improvements that I’ve often complained actually reduce the attractiveness of the genre by taking out the necessary friction.

    The F2P revolution has allowed me to play far more games than I otherwise would have. It’s also meant I don’t have to apply for every closed alpha and beta as my only way of trying games for free. And perhaps best of all, it means that I can keep going back to games I used to play without having to drop the ones I’m playing now or recommit in any way.

    Added to that, I don’t believe there’s been a material decline in quality compared to the situation that pertained during the subscription years. It was up and down then and its up and down now. The main diference is I used to have to pay for it, whether it was good or bad and now I don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. C. T. Murphy

    Great question!

    I don’t think I count as a MMORPG fan anymore. The genre has left me far, far behind. That said, I would lean toward ‘maybe’ as my answer. F2P changed how MMOs are designed and updated for the worst. Now it is about the almighty cash shop or the glorified in-game currency on top of the same game you probably played 5-10 years ago.

    Yes, the barrier of entry is lower, but a more robust trial (like FFXIVs) could also do that. Worse, I am not sure how many of these people translate to paying customers or – more importantly to me – contributing members of the game’s community.

    Yes, F2P has helped games like Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic online. That’s probably the one good thing the model has done.

    Ultimately, I think the F2P model has contributed to the stagnation of the genre (in addition to other factors) and it makes me sad, even if that is just bias or nostalgia talking.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mikeazariah

    Unless you see the numbers (as you said) it is hard to say whether it is a last gasp attempt to revive and if it actually works. Basically free is nice from the players standpoint but the devs want to get paid, servers need servicing etc.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. zaphod6502

    The FFXIV trial is reasonably generous. Their free trial allows you to level up to 60 but there are some restrictions like not being able to join a Free Company, not engage in PvP, and your currency caps out at 300,000 gil. But it is more than enough to experience the meat of the game.

    But longevity in any MMORPG is based on playing with online friends and guilds unless there is a strong social element and good grouping systems in the game which allows solo players to thrive like that in FFXIV. I don’t find full F2P games encouraging keeping players and most of them exist to earn a quick buck from players via cash shop addiction.


  5. Pendan

    Hard to say for sure but it feels like LotRO would have died had it not gone Free to Play. City of Heroes though went free to play and died even if it is rumored it was still net profitable just not enough for the Korean owners.

    I can name a lot more MMORPGs that changed from subscription to free to play and are still around than I can MMORPGs that that went free to play and are no longer available. I can also think of a lot of subscription MMORPGs that never changed and are no longer available.

    So my answer is a soft yes it somewhat worked for MMORPGs. No huge successes but few outright fails.


  6. Shintar

    I think it’s like you say and giving some sort of free access level has worked well to get people to try these games. Whether it’s called a free trial or a F2P limitation is just semantic nitpicking at that point.

    I do think that games that bought into F2P too quickly and too hard may have suffered a bit in the sense that they had to tighten the screws later on once they realised that money still had to come from somewhere… I’m thinking of Rift for example. Or Neverwinter, which was designed as F2P “from the ground up” and constantly has to keep coming up with new P2W mechanics to keep the cash flowing.

    And of course the advent of free-to-play me it has meant that cash shops are here to stay, because if you don’t charge for access to your game, what else is there to make money off?


  7. Noizy

    It really depends. I think it helps boost the game for a year or two, but then a lot of the restrictions get in the way. Some games, like Elder Scrolls Online, make the game so painful to play I felt I either had to sub or quit (I wound up quitting). I still consider EVE a mainly subscription game for similar reasons. And EVE really only got a 6-9 month bump.

    Then you have Square Enix. Both Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV are subscription model games. I think it’s a Japanese thing. If it is free-to-play, it must not be worth the time to play. Although FFXIV does have a generous free trial that includes the entirety of A Realm Reborn AND the award-winning Heavensward expansion up to level 60 with no restrictions on playtime. (Yes, I went there). Players on the free trial aren’t even allowed to purchase items from the cash shop. Yoshi-P probably pissed off the CEO by doing that, but the CEO is out the door in 3 months.

    I do wish Square Enix would fix their website though. The hardest part of the game is signing up to play. But the website is out of Yoshi-P’s control.


  8. Renata Tarnay

    It’s a good question. I think it has both good and bad results, but probably mostly bad in the long run. The good is that new ppl can be attracted to a game and help keep it running, but the bad is that the in game society becomes unbalanced due to some players making large purchases from the cash shop, and others not doing so. The mmo genre was/is groundbreaking. Keeping it viable for
    all customers and solvent for the devs are definitely the challenges it’s currently facing.


  9. Archey

    I’m thinking a lot lately about Elite Dangerous because that’s what I’m playing. It went the tried and true route of buy the box (and expansions), get the service. That’s as old as Diablo 2 if I’m not mistaken. It seems to work out because there is active development and content generation. And the cash shop exists but isn’t intrusive.

    I know companies have to make money somehow but the intrusion of offers in other titles is really distracting to me. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not in a world, I’m consuming a service. I’m not a heroic fantasy figure, I’m a customer entertaining myself.

    I am glad certain MMOs continue to exist because of the model, and honestly I think a free trial is almost a requirement nowadays. But how it’s done makes a difference.


  10. Mbp

    Even though I don’t like free to play personally I have to admit that it did work. The spread of free to play from Asian RPGs to Western RPGs around 2010 coincides with my own departure from the mmorpg genre. However the genre was already in decline at that point. The golden age was over and we no longer believed that this was a gaming phenomenon which would change the world. If it wasn’t for free to play and extended free trials the genre would almost certainly have faded into obscurity much like point and click adventure games did a decade previously. F2P kept the mmorpg genre alive.


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