February 27 2011
Thanks in part to MMORPGs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, gamers in North America and Europe have grown increasingly comfortable with monthly game subscriptions. Alternative revenue models have been around for a long time, but they're only beginning to catch on here the way they have in foreign markets. Turbine moved two of their titles to a free-to-play (F2P) system in recent years with considerable success, and a number of other games have followed their lead. While this may seem like a harmless way to give consumers more options, not everyone is happy about it, so here's a closer look at the F2P trend.
What is F2P?
As we all know, free things often come with strings attached, and that is certainly true of F2P games. Unlike straightforward monthly subscriptions, there are many variations on the F2P model. About the only thing all F2P games have in common are basic versions that are free to download and play. Although they don't have time limits like free trials, they are typically limited in other ways to encourage people to spend money on the game. As a result, the amount that a F2P game can actually be enjoyed for free varies greatly from one player to another and from one game to the next.
Of course, it costs money to develop and operate an online game, so even F2P games need a source of revenue. The most common approaches are item shops that let players buy in-game perks or additional content, and optional premium accounts that come with a traditional subscription fee. Some companies have also tried to make money with in-game advertising, although this hasn't yet had the same level of success as the former models.
A Bad Reputation?
Free is generally considered a good thing, so many people see F2P as a welcome alternative to the pay-to-play model. Nevertheless, there are many complaints about F2P games and their impact on the industry as a whole. Often mass-produced on tight budgets, F2P has gained a reputation for sub-standard quality, long grinds, and questionable pricing schemes. However, the business model may not be as much to blame as the implementations of it. The recent adoption of F2P by several subscription games has gone some distance toward redeeming this alternative, and it should also be remembered that a subscription fee is not a guarantee of high quality.
Although there are a growing number of developers expirimenting with F2P games these days, I think the different revenue models will continue to co-exist, as they have for many years. The F2P concept isn't really a world apart from the free demos and free trials of old; it allows you to play a portion of the game to find out if you want to spend money on it. A lot depends on just how much people expect to get before opening their wallets, and what kind of value they get after opening their wallets.
Here's a quick summary of the pros and cons of F2P.Pros
- People can try a game for extended periods of time before spending money on it.
- People can enjoy a game periodically without paying a monthly fee for those months that they have very little time to play.
- In some ways it gives you more control over the amount you spend on a game.
- F2P makes it more practical to enjoy several games at the same time, which can get quite costly with subscription titles.
- F2P games vary dramatically in pricing. It's hard to tell at the outset how much you will have to spend to keep the game enjoyable, or remain competitive.
- Micro-transactions aren't always micro. If people find a game really compelling it may end up costing them more than average subscription plan would.
- F2P risks becoming pay-to-win. Paying sometimes means getting a competitive advantage or advancing in the game more quickly, which tends to offend those with limited cash on hand.
- Payment plans can be complicated, deceptive, and easily abused if a game runs into financial problems.
- Banned players can create additional accounts without having to re-purchase the game client.
The Best of Both Worlds?
It's worth noting that F2P and subscription business models are not mutually exclusive. In some cases a F2P version is coupled with an optional subscription plan that includes access to all of the game's features. I suspect that a combination of business models is the way forward, because there's no reason a game can't offer a free version along with both an item shop and an all-inclusive monthly subscription. In the end the success of this approach will come down to the implementation, but I'm quite optimistic that they will eventually get it right.