Hammer and Nail - Should All Gamers Want MMOGs as Free To Play?

Hammer and Nail - Should All Gamers Want MMOGs as Free To Play?

In this week’s Hammer & Nail the EQHammer team discuss Dave Georgeson's recent interview with IGN and discuss his sentiments that gamer's should want all massively multiplayer games to be free to play and that free to play is the way that gamer's should want their MMOG's. Subsequently we answer the question: Should All Gamer's Want MMOG's as F2P?

Lewis "LewisB" Burnell

Discussing free to play is often predictable as players quickly reach the subject of selling or buying power, micro transactions, in game stores and the best looking armor always buyable. Gamers also discuss buy to play as a glorious alternative and renounce subscription as a financial approach to the genre that's commercially dead and buried. What frustrates me about this attitude is that while free to play is great at lowering the barrier of entry, game experiences are often neutered or tipped, ever so slightly, in the developers favour. Methods of progression and obtaining wealth or resources are often gated in subtle ways to protract your play to ensure you either buy into the games currency or spend your cash directly. Many might disagree with this, but there's a reason that the European Commision are investigating the term free to play and it's because it's misleading. Yes you can play the likes of PlanetSide 2 or League of Legends entirely free, just as you can Age of Conan or Star Wars: The Old Republic, but often the neccesity to spend cash doesn't always feel like a choice. I've often found myself spending significantly more than a monthly subscription in a free to play game just to feel like I'm on an even playing field with others who choose to buy into the game. Developers have to make money but I don't believe free to play is the best way of going about it. I've seen the impact its had on the likes of Guild Wars 2 (pretty much ruined by the carosel of armors and items added to the ingame store) and I've played PlanetSide2 enough to know how Sony Online Entertainment will approach Landmark and EverQuest Next though I still suspect that similarly to PlanetSide 2 they'll force your hand to subscribe. It doesn't put me off either product as SOE are clever enough to offer a subscriptions (unlike some companies) and that's something which I think works really well.

My biggest annoyance with the resistance to a traditional subscription model however is the fact that people act as though £8 or $15 a month is a large amount of money. Even as a youngster (boy I'm old now) I had a part time job delivering newspapers that paid double that in a week. The suggestion that people playing videogames can't afford this or are reluctant to support their passion and its continued development has never sat comfortably with me. Yes boxed games are expensive but there are few hobbies that aren't and gaming by contrast is incredibly cheap in the long run. World of Warcraft might have cost me £50 on the day I purchased and £8 every month for more than two years, but it's still a bargain when I consider the sheer amount of hours I've put into the game. What other hobby comes so cheap and yet provides so much enjoyment? Instead players seemingly want MMOG's to be free but to still provide all the depth of a subscription model, be an open playing field with no negatives to being free to play and to continued to provide updates as regularly as a subscription. I just don't believe we can have it all. Hopefully Sony Online Entertainment will continue down the path they have with PlanetSide 2 but as for Dave's sentiments that all gamers want MMOG's as free to play? No thank you. 

Alexander Wall

Seeing as how I've never participated in F2P with an MMOG - I don't know where I stand on this one. I was a huge participant of subscription based MMOGs (back when that was the norm). However, that doesn't seem to be the case any more. Given the success of many F2P models - particularly League of Legends (which I am very familiar with), I don't think it's a bad idea - for the developers or the gamers.

There is one extremely important factor that ties into this when it comes to MMOs; and that is: F2P should not eliminate the subscription model. It should be another method of monetization. A separate way for players to get into the game and potentially subscribe. One reason I believe League of Legends has had such a successful F2P model is because they've followed two extremely important rules en route to players' wallets:

1) You don't sell power - EVER.
2) You don't minimalize non-paying players.
(and a non-essential third one: it also helps if you don't spam your players with advertisements everywhere in game to buy/upgrade - it kills the immersion and makes your game feel like the commercials between your favorite TV show... so yeah, don't do that either)

Power is different from game to game, but generally anything that can give someone and instantaneous combat or economical advantage over another player - is buying power. That's bad. Secondly, when I say minimalizing non-paying players, I mean making them unimportant in the grand scheme of things. If a non-paying player feels like he can't compete with paying players - he has no incentive to stick around, and the possibility of him spending money in the future is null. Non-paying players need to feel like they matter, and can compete and go toe-to-toe with paying players. The caveat, of course, is that non-paying players should have to invest a more time and effort into the game to keep up with the shortcuts that pay to play or subscription based players will have access too (nothing granting an immediate and unfair advantage mind you).

Finally, F2P should NEVER eliminate the subscription method (SOE is making a smart move by retaining their all-access program, while also adding in F2P systems). Subscriptions are easy and convenient for gamers, and should stick around - regardless of how popular or successful F2P may become. I prefer subscriptions over a market system, but that's just a personal preference for MMOs. There are just too many factors going into an MMO that I don't want to deal with on the marketplace. So any time I have the option to subscribe to an MMO I'm playing - I will.

Fil Nonkovic 

Not all MMOs should be free to play. Camelot: Unchained is a perfect example of a game that would be categorically worse if it was F2P. The kickstarted, under-development game never made a secret of the fact that it wasn’t trying to appeal to a mass market. Right from the Kickstarter itself, the staff were saying, “We don’t expect to pull big numbers. But we believe there’s an underserved niche here, and we’d like to serve that niche community.”

Free to play relies on vast numbers of players trying your game, and a small subset of them (“Whales”) paying to keep the lights on at your office. That’s not an ideal fit for a game that knows it won’t appeal to enough players to flourish as an F2P title. Camelot: Unchained wants to be supported by a subscription model, where every member of its small, but devoted playerbase, pays a monthly fee to enjoy the game. That makes sense for them.

But F2P is still the wave of the future. Particularly with AAA games, and Landmark and EverQuest Next definitely fall into that category. If you’re making a huge, mass-appeal product, you want as many people to try it and play it as possible. You want there to be a minimal barrier-to-entry. And I think, for that reason, it’s a good thing that Landmark and (eventually) Next will both be free to play.

F2P, as a model, has some advantages over the subscription method - not least of these is that you’ll have tons of players occupying the world, filling it up, fleshing it out, and making it feel lived-in. This is important for any MMO, but doubly so for a game like Landmark, where the players (and their claims) really are the content.

So, to answer the question: Not all games should be free to play. Landmark definitely should be.

Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg

Once, not all that long ago, the term free to play was equated with one of two things: craptastic Asian-made games with cutesy character models and a soul-numbing grind, or the death throes of a failed triple-A MMO. But in recent years, that trend has seen a shift; free to play games don’t have the negative reputation they once had. And if there are any lingering doubts in the gaming community, I feel certain that Landmark and, eventually, EverQuest Next are poised to lay them to rest.

Free to play is becoming the new normal in the online gaming community. We have only to look toward the console-raised upcoming generation of gamers to know that’s true. My son is part of a weekly college radio show devoted to gaming. On a recent radio show episode, he and his co-hosts - all three of them Elder Scrolls fans since they were old enough to work a controller - discussed The Elder Scrolls Online and agreed that they’d give the game a try if only they didn’t have to pay a monthly subscription. They talked about subscription fees as though they were as retro as black and white TV sets with rabbit ear antennas. We gamers are willing to pay a box price (Guild Wars 2 proved that), but subscriptions are becoming a tough sell.

Part of the dichotomy between subscription-based games and their free-to-play counterparts is a matter of psychology. When we pay a monthly subscription fee, our frugal brains tell us that we really ought to play the game we paid for so that we get our money’s worth. The problem is that when we feel we should be doing something, it becomes a responsibility. Responsibilities aren’t fun, and we come to resent them sooner or later. But having free continuous access to a game means that whenever we play it we’re there because we want to be. Instead of feeling duty-bound to get our money’s worth, we’re logged in because the game is fun, and because we’re part of a community. With subscription-based games, developers are challenging us to get what we paid for, but with free-to-play games it’s just the opposite - we’re challenging the developers to make something we’re willing to pay for through microtransactions, something Dave Georgeson referred to as “throwing coins into the hat.”

Gamers who say they want subscription-based games are clinging to an old belief that if a game can command a monthly fee then it must be a fun, high-quality game. The scores of AAA games that launched subscription-based only to wind up free-to-play stand as proof that a monthly fee doesn’t necessarily equate to a good time. I wish you luck, ESO, but I’ll see you when you’re free. If the historic trends set by your predecessors hold, it shouldn’t be too long.

What are your thoughts on the free to play model? Does it suit EverQuest Next and Landmark? Is it good for the genre? Is it all gamers now expect? 

About the Author

Lewis B's picture


The only game to have distracted Lewis away from MMOG's over the last 15 years was Pokemon Red. Despite that blip, Lewis has worked his way through countless games in the genre in search of something that comes close to his much loved (and long time dead) Neocron. Having written for several gaming networks before Ten Ton Hammer, Lewis likes to think he knows a thing or two about what makes an MMOG and its player-base tick.

Lewis writes the weekly column "The Underfoot" published every Monday and "Hammer and Nail" when a good topic arises! 

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