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When Your Game Goes Free To Play

October 12, 2015 — by Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh0

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Should you laugh or cry as a loyal fanboy?

So Guild Wars 2 recently went free to play, and in doing so joined a number of other games that have adopted the free to play model. As of now, it’s safe to say that there aren’t many paid subscription games out there that are still successful, except the few behemoths that are coasting along on their inertia. By behemoths, we mean games such as World of Warcraft, which still has a large enough following exceeding 10 million active accounts. Looks like going free to play just might be the future for MMOs.

Why go free in the first place?

When we say free to play online games we’re talking specifically about the MMORPG genre. So what is it that makes game devs decide to go free to play? Well, there are several elements that come into play. Online games first and foremost need an active player base to survive. It’s a cutthroat world out there and competition is tough. The gaming industry is constantly churning out MMOs hoping that it’ll be the next big thing. Most of these are free to play, in the hope of attracting more players who can’t afford or would rather not spend on online games.

The recently released Skyforge and the upcoming Blade and Soul are going with this approach. Games with paid subscription are expected to be far better and offer more content than their free to play online equivalents. However, the recently released Elder Scrolls Online was found to be quite lacklustre for a game sporting the paid subscription model, and an Elder Scrolls game no less. This resulted in the game dropping the paid subscription model, with the option to pay for extra content. One of the reasons that MOBA games like DotA and LoL have such massive player bases is primarily because they’re free to play and easily accessible to the masses.

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But it’s free now so where’s the money coming from?

Several popular paid subscription games have gone free to play in the past. This includes many popular games such as DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic and games such as TERA that weren’t as popular before they became free to play, but gained a large player base after the change. In all of these cases, the number of players exponentially increased after the games went free to play. Going free to play is not only a smart move to attract more players, it’s financially sound as well. Lord of the Rings Online saw its monthly earnings double after it went free to play in 2010. DC Universe Online made its monthly revenue go up sevenfold when it did the same in 2011.

Keep in mind that these games were already popular and had a paying player base before they decided to go free to play. Star Wars: The Old Republic also saw similar success after it went free to play in 2012. The primary goal to attract more players and maximise profits were achieved in all of these cases. At this point of time, WoW is literally the only game that doesn’t need to worry about going free to play anytime soon due the loyalty of its player base. Guild Wars 2’s move to go free to play was probably made with the aforementioned thoughts in mind. It will definitely attract more players who might enjoy the game enough to actually purchase it.

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What if players want to continue their subscription?

Of course, most games that go free to play still have the option to continue with the paid subscriptions, and players who opt to continue with their subscription have that slight edge over their free to play counterparts. This could be in the form of premium items, boosters, extra character slots or more inventory space, among other things.

In other cases, they simply adopt the in-game cash shop, which has items players can buy in exchange for real money that would give them an edge in the game. This also means there are players that dish out insane amounts of cash on a free to play game since they have to be the “best” at it. This has its disadvantages as nobody wants to play a “pay2win” game.
In most cases today, cash shops only feature aesthetic items and PvE boosters to maintain balance and appeal to more players. Players would be more inclined to play if they knew they weren’t simply wasting their time grinding to be flattened in PvP by some guy who decided to spend hundreds of dollars on a free to play game.

What about new content?

In most cases, games that used to have a paid subscription don’t stop creating content for players who still continue their subscription. This move entices free players who thoroughly enjoy the game to consider getting a subscription to enjoy all of the content the game has to offer. In games such as TERA, which is completely skill based, the line between the paying player and the free player is blurred even further as someone with total crap for gear could still beat someone with amazing gear, as long as they had the skill. MMOs are no longer simply point-and-click fests, there’s plenty of innovation in newer games including and not limited to new features and different styles of gameplay.

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What about veterans who’ve been playing for ages?

Usually when a game goes free to play, there’s a big change in the game’s revenue structure. While in most cases most of the old community doesn’t outright leave, DCU Online saw a large portion of its paid membership leave the game when it went free to play. Several reasons such as the costs of expansions and changes to the gameplay were brought up. Similarly, Guild Wars 2 is currently facing a similar situation. The game follows a one-time pay scheme, wherein you purchase the game once and all future content is free. However, the announcement to go free to play came with the Heart of Thorns expansion pack, which costs around 60$, which is 10$ more than the price of the core game. While this is an amazing deal for new players who can buy the expansion and receive both the core game and the expansion, old players would need to pay the full amount for the same expansion, which was as good as buying the game twice. This has sparked a boycott by old players who refused to pre-order or purchase the expansion.

A game goes free to play primarily for financial purposes. The paying player feels ignored when all of the focus is moved to attracting players who don’t have to pay a penny to enjoy the game. Especially since the player has already put in so much money. This may be one of the reasons why subscribers grumble when their game goes free to play. Another reason is the community. Once a game goes free to play, anyone is literally free to play it. This comes with a lot of toxic players – people who ruin the fun for everyone, botters, automated AI that grind for you and scammers. Newer games have taken precautions against these things with the option to report toxic behaviour and several layers of verification to go through to thwart botters and scammers.

This method has its merits as well, however. Veterans of the game who may have left due the dwindling number of players would be more than happy to return to a crowded server. Going free to play can potentially revive a dying game, as was the case with Lord of Rings Online. LOTRO was almost deserted and pretty much dead before it adopted the free to play model. This brought back a lot of the older players who were more than happy to play again with friends who may not have been able to afford a subscription. Even simply seeing the world you were familiar with crowded with new players is enough to get you back into the game. In the end, we wouldn’t be playing online if we wanted to play alone.

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Goodbye subscription model and good riddance we say!

The monthly subscription structure has been around for a long time. We are all familiar with and have at least heard of or dreamt of having a WoW account at some point in our lives. From the stats, we can deduce that the paid subscription business model has lately been failing. The era of paying a subscription fee for online games is coming to an end, as going free to play makes strong financial sense. It all comes down to this: would you prefer in-game microtransactions as an option and a large player base? Or would you rather prefer a monthly paid subscription and hardly any player base at all?

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Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh

If he's not gaming, he's... no wait he's always gaming.

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