Free To Not Play (Redux)

ArenaNet’s Mike O’Brien recently did an interview with PC Gamer about the microtransaction system for Guild Wars 2 (and we recorded a news hit on it this afternoon), and he made a very interesting statement regarding free-to-play, and ArenaNet’s model for both Guild Wars games, and its relationship to games with monthly subs:

“We’re gamers, right? You’re a gamer. Don’t you love to be able to experience all the new games that come out? And we said, seriously – MMOs are going to be this way? I have to pick one or pick the other, and if a new game comes out that I’m excited about I have to cancel my other subscription and subscribe to this other one instead? Why do they have to be this way?”

I actually wrote about this a year and a half ago; I’d love to think that Mike O’Brien saw that and copied its essence for his interview 🙂 but it’s probably been part of ArenaNet’s philosophy since day one. While I didn’t mention GW/GW2, the same general notion of not having to play a monthly fee holds true for both game types.

Since the Massive Online Gamer site could vanish any second (surprised it hasn’t already), here’s my article from September 2010:

In 2009, Nintendo sold 9,594,000 units of its Wii console. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sold 9,105,300 units – combined. Casual gaming is king these days, and the success of the Wii is a clear indicator of that growing trend. So what does that have to do with the new paradigm in MMOs? More than you might think.

Back in the day, you could charge $15/month to play EverQuest. Now? Not so much, but that's not really SOE's fault.

For years, MMORPGs – and video games in general – catered to an elite crowd, the type that would spend countless hours raiding and looting and grinding and leveling in their favorite game. Bleary-eyed gamers would huddle hunched over their keyboards or consoles whacking away at buttons late into the night and well into the wee hours of the next morning. E might be the most common letter in the English language, but ask any hardcore gamer what keys he uses the most, and the answers will probably be W, A, S, and D.

But with the success of the Wii, game manufacturers realized – or at the very least, finally came to grips with the fact – that hardcore gamers make up a very small percentage of the potential game-playing and game-buying public. That was a bitter pill to swallow for all the lifers out there who were used to having the companies cater to their every whim and only put out games that they liked. Now, instead of Strategy Gorefest III, companies are tripping over themselves to create the latest version of Bejeweled, Mario Kart, or Wave-Your-Controller-Around-Fest. And don’t get me started on FarmVille.

The initial impact of this trend on MMOs is obvious; many online role-playing games, such as Wizard101, Lego Universe, and Hero: 108 Online, in addition to online minigame sites, like Club Penguin, Webkinz World, and Clone Wars Adventures, appeal to a younger or more family-oriented crowd. That’s great for moms and dads who want to play with their kids, but the single college-age or slightly older gamer, once the cream of the demographic crop, understandably feels a little left out.

But the effect the “casual” crowd has on MMOs might go beyond just how many games are developed and have an effect on how they’re developed. Consider that pretty much all MMOs are designed to be a timesink on a greater level any other category of video game in existence. Most video games have a shelf life of a couple months before you beat the final boss, rack up all the achievements (or at least the ones you’re willing to pursue), and maybe do an extra playthrough or two. Sure, you might play a competitive online shooter for a couple years, but there are people who’ve been playing World of Warcraft for nearly six years and EverQuest for over a decade. Because of the level of dedication required to truly excel in such games, the genre doesn’t lend well to playing multiple MMOs – there just isn’t time to be a high-end player in more than one or two games, at most. And that’s where the casual games, and virtually all console games, make it big – there’s no commitment, so they can sell you a different $50 game every two or three months, once you’ve done everything there is to do in the last one.

I've spent three months in-game on this character, but I still joyfully remember his first five minutes.

Now enter the MMO free-to-play phenomenon. Now, instead of spending 30, 40, 50, or more hours per week playing a single game, players can sample all sorts of different games, for little to no money. It’s a lot tougher to justify that $10-$15 monthly fee – not to mention the typical $40 or $50 just to buy the retail box – for a game that you aren’t sure you’ll like for years or that you’ll have time for beyond the next month. Now you can claim to be “playing” five or more MMOs, even if you only log in once every other week or so, without being forced to shell out the big bucks every month. Sure, we all know free-to-play games aren’t really “free,” but even if you do hit the cash shop in a game with regularity, it’ll be tough to outspend a regular subscription unless you play frequently enough that a regular subscription would be a good idea anyway, at least for games that offer this option (like The Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and EverQuest II). F2P is no longer relegated to Asian-style grindfest MMOs or “kiddy” games; the big boys are taking note and either producing or converting their AAA MMOs to follow an F2P model.

It’s actually a strange concept in MMOs, when you think about it. For years, the marketing focus for game manufacturers was that you should be playing their game, and nothing but their game, as much as possible. That’s true not just of MMOs, but of any product. However, at some point, the hardcore gamers who will put more time into their games than into their jobs became the minority – or maybe it was always that way all along – and the F2P concept is simply the next price model development, adjusting not to people with limited bank accounts but to people with limited time. Now the marketing message seems to be that of freedom to play other games, with no real commitment. And maybe that’s what the term “free-to-play” should really represent.

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4 Responses to Free To Not Play (Redux)

  1. Dave Hatcher says:

    I like your re-definition of F2P. Free to play what you want, not play the game for free.

    Right now F2P effectively has no meaning. It is used for everything from absolutely free games (Farmville) to games that sell content piecemeal (Wiz101, DDO, Lotro) to games that have restricted free trials and subs (Fallen Earth, AoC, Sony games) to games that basically use free players as content/fodder for paying players (WoT, many asian PK/grind MMOs).

  2. Dave Hatcher says:

    I missed buy to play games like minecraft and GW… I hate not having an edit button.

  3. site says:

    I Am Going To have to come back again whenever my course load lets up – nevertheless I am getting your Rss feed so i can read your blog offline. Cheers.

  4. Pingback: WoW, SW:TOR, and the Rise of Free to Play | SuperiorRealities

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