Good old Peter (Moore, EA’s COO). He is making ripples on the internet by predicting that within 5-10 years the majority of games will be distributed for free and then supported with an in-game store. Try as I might I really cannot see Pete’s vision. Make no mistake, this model is working wonders in the MMO sphere. However there are specific reasons for this. The subscription model in MMOs can be likened to a dvd rental service such as Blockbuster. You rent a dvd and you pay for the privilege to watch the movie but the minute you stop paying the entirety of the movie is unavaliable to you, no matter how much money you previously invested in the service.
This is not the case with the free to play (F2P) model. You get the barebones version of the game for free and then you spend money to access the parts of the game you are interested in. This concept in and of itself sounds very consumer friendly but the idea of ‘owning’ what you buy is the biggest pull of the F2P model. Once you buy the content it’s yours to enjoy ad infinitum. The main reason I feel Peter Moore is off the mark is that with current non-subscription games this crucial advantage is lost. When purchasing games with no subscription attached consumers already have unlimited access to all the content after that initial investment. The game does not ask them to fork out 50€ again in a couple of months time so they can continue playing.
The concept of ‘buying’ an MMO versus ‘renting’ it is what drew me back to Lord of the Rings Online. Full disclosure here: I played the game way before the free to play launch but truth be told I didn’t spend a dime on it. You see, I won the game in a Eurogamer competition, played through the first free month and was basically done with it. It was an interesting game, but I was already subscribed to World of Warcraft and having two MMOs syphoning my money was not something I looked kindly to. At the time WoW won out. Conversely, since LotRO went F2P, I have spent over 100€ in the LotRO store in the past year. On top of that I purchased all the expansions (bar Riders of Rohan). It’s gone to become the constant in my gaming life. I do not play it frequently but I do play it regularly. It’s also the only MMO in which I became an active member of a guild not comprised solely of real life friends. Knowing that I do not have to pay money for the privilege of keeping in touch with guildies in-game made all the difference to me.
Not enough can be said about Turbine’s influence on the current MMO scene. They were pioneers of the free to play model in the western world. The clever way in which they implemented F2P in LotRO transformed the game from a struggling and relatively niche MMO into one of the heavyweights of the genre. Their user friendly model drew in droves of new and lapsed players while the huge increase in revenue attracted the interest of other MMO publishers/developers. However LotRO was not conceived as a F2P game when it was being created and it will be interesting to see how a game developed from the ground up with this kind of business model in mind turns out*.
It will also be interesting to observe how Turbine’s chosen model for F2P will age. Time and time again you see VIP players on the Turbine forums question the viability of sticking with their subscriptions when they could feasibly buy all the content they need with their amassed TPs. As time passes this conundrum will become more relevant to old time subscribers and it is something Turbine has to contend with sooner or later. Then again it could well be the case that Turbine does indeed foresee a future where all VIPs have transitioned to Premium, making all subscriptions obsolete. Turbine reckon that (in the MMO space) F2P might be the only sustainable option and, while it’s hard to envisage a near future where games such as WoW or even Rift shift to F2P, their insight regarding this topic feel closer to the mark than Peter’s ramblings.
*Guild Wars followed a very different F2P model and only leveraged the advantages of an in-game store post launch.