Free To Play – A Beginning And An End.

MMOs are funny beasts at the best of times – for all the money vested in this sector of the market, the reality is the financial returns can often be… well. Limited at best.

There are several good reasons for this – saturation of the market, the role brands that have already achieved dominance taking up the lions share of consumers expenditure and most of all – a games own financial mismanagement. No matter how tempting it is, throwing money at a situation isn’t likely to make a problem go away. Quite the reverse, in fact, it rushes development along at too swift a pace – too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth, and too many developers can often mean a cack-handed approach to quality and balance.

That said, one sector of the MMO market is proving financially rewarding and self-sustaining: Free To Play, or F2P for short. With games like Champions Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online and Age of Conan posting significant increases in their revenue once dropping their subscription requirements, everyone has taken a very good look at their own games and started to ask the valid question; can we make more money by going F2P?

You may find it odd that a free game can make more money, and you’d be right of course. The term “free” is a loosely defined one in this context.

A Free To Play model basically takes away the initial investment outlay – instead of buying a game for £25, you can download the game completely free, make an account for free and, largely, play the whole game for free as well. This is the Carrot on a Stick tactic – it’s designed to attract people to give it a go.

Once inside, the game then offers you some paid services – from increased experience gain and therefore faster levelling, to bonus healing items (useful when questing, they will tell you!) and armour. Some even give you additional cosmetic items as well, so you can personalise your avatar and make it more unique and stand out more. They can also charge you for certain amounts of content – adventures in different continents and lands can cost you £10 extra per time.

The irony of this of course is that a F2P game can become more expensive for a consumer than when it was a subscription model – but the companies know this all too well, D&D: Online, Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online have demonstrated this perfectly. Age of Conan, a game that was struggling to maintain subscription numbers, has recently seen a surge of money flood into its bank balance since going F2P. Consumers are lulled into the idea that Free To Play means they are getting a better deal… truth is, we’re more likely to be ripped off.

But don’t think for a moment this is good for developers and bad for consumers. Because in this is a certain realisation – many of the games that have gone Free To Play in the last couple of years TRIED a full commercial release and, of course, subscription-based membership. And nearly all of them failed to break even with their own maintenance costs.

This means that for the success they are having in the Free To Play bracket, they also have failed as commercial developers. Cryptic Studios became such an embarassment to Atari for that reason they sold arguably their most profitable asset off to Perfect World Entertainment – something that to you and me, as consumers, sounds like absolute madness. But Cryptic Studios carried with it a stigma – it had failed not once, not twice, not three times but with four games. And whilst they make lots of money as F2P games, that’s not the point to the men in suits – they had become an embarassment, something that they were ashamed of, and therefore despite the potential profits, they felt they had little option but to sell off this arm of their company.

In that, you see the problem. Unless your game was expressly made as a Free To Play entry, an entry into this arena is often seen as failure. Despite the potential money increase, and irrespective of how easy it is to market and fit into a F2P mould, a game has failed to sustain itself. It has failed to attract the subscription numbers required to keep a company afloat.

The irony is that subscription-based gaming is a concept that is dying out altogether – even the giants of Blizzard are looking to a “freemium” version of World of Warcraft, one where the entry level is free and a certain amount of content is too, but where certain degrees of content, such as Northrend and the Cataclysm endgame content, require you buy those expansions at £14.99 each.

Why would Blizzard do this? Because they had to acknowledge that since Cataclysm was released, they have lost over one million subscribers in the West – their largest market is of course China, but that said, China has serious restrictions on online gaming and subscription-based models there are illegal.

“But Kami!” I hear you cry. “They told me they had 11 million subscribers! A million can’t hurt them much!”.

Here’s the honest truth. Sit down my child and listen…

They. Were. Lying.

The likelihood is that less than half of that 11 million PLAYERS number are US and EU members, and again, it’s quite likely half of that again are lapsed players.

Don’t believe me? Blizzard themselves recently admitted this;

“There are more people that played World of Warcraft but no longer play World of Warcraft than currently play World of Warcraft”

This admission is a warning shot to MMOs across the field that have based their whole ethos around World of Warcraft – it’s failing even this behemoth. Whereas once upon a time World of Warcraft kept Activision afloat, it is widely rumoured that this financial year the game will post quite remarkable losses.

World of Warcraft, as a subscription-based commercial game, is failing. And of course, Blizzard are looking at taking it closer towards the Free To Play arena – the place that games which failed in competition to it went to actually compete.

So whilst Free To Play is the beginnings of a beautiful financial renaissance for a game, bear in mind that many of those which litter this arena and strut are only there because they failed in what many call “The Big League”. They couldn’t compete, work or be financially sustained as full commercial entities against World of Warcraft.

And now, World of Warcraft itself is taking to the arena. I’m pretty sure there is some irony in there somewhere, I can see Alanis Morissette hovering around waiting to burst into song…

MMOs may be fun. Just take care. F2P games want your money, and if you are not careful… you can spend a lot, lot, lot more on a game than you ever would have as a subscription-based game.

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