Ethical Gaming The Game Industry 8 Comments

F2P: game-saver or money-maker?

On the most recent episode of the podcast Ellydrial and I had a fun talk with Syl about free-to-play, with me being the grump as usual and Syl being much more open to the idea. Our conversation inspired an interesting post by Belghast about his own slowly warming feelings towards F2P.

There was one point in all this that both mentioned: free-to-play is saving games. It seemed an interesting topic for a post about because I think it gets to the heart of why my first reaction is to dislike the model. I don’t know if I believe that free-to-play saves games. In fact, I’m not sure the games needed saving at all.

I’m sure some did, of course! It’s unfortunate that MMO companies in particular are so cagey about subscriber numbers and hard data is tough to find, but I’m certain that some games were in a do-or-die financial situation. I’m just not sure that it had to be the case. Plenty of companies are making the switch to F2P not so they can go from no money to profitable, but so they can go from profitable to very profitable. That is what companies are designed to do.

And where does this extra profit come from? Not from me! I’ve bought a minuscule amount of stuff from in-game cash shops. And perhaps not from most of my friends, who at least profess to spend very little money on virtual frills. But still SWTOR’s monthly revenue has doubled since going F2P even though the number of subscriptions has held firm. Clearly someone is buying all that cash store stuff.

Perhaps this person is a well-adjusted individual with a great job who refuses to spend a moment leveling without XP buffs. Or, historically more likely, they’re someone understandably tempted by the millions of dollars and hundreds of brilliant minds put to work to lure us into microtransactions.

They like the gambling element of in-game raffle tickets or they’re swayed by all the “buy credits and be awesome” advertising or they see “so-and-so found treasure in a lockbox” announcements every 5 minutes. Or they get frustrated by the super-slow leveling speed or being behind in power-ups. The game publisher NEEDS to keep the pressure on because the whole model depends on Player Over There paying for the rest of us.

It is entirely possible to run a non-exploitative F2P model, or at least minimally exploitative. I’m sure some games are doing it right now. But it’s certainly not in the company’s best interest to do so and it’s my fundamental nature to expect the worst when profit is on the line. I may not be funding my F2P game experience through the cash shop, but I know that someone else most certainly is.

I don’t trust EA or Activision or even NCSoft, and I don’t like giving them any additional power to muck up my game experience with micro-transactions. I much prefer the straight-forward, non-tricksy contract of “I give you $15, you give me 1 month of game”.

However, this seems like a pretty personal small-p-political stance. Although I might worry about Syl and Belghast’s relative good faith in the intentions of MMO publishers, it’s just a small difference in philosophy and at the end of the day all three are united in the same goal of happy games with happy communities.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    June 20, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Then again, developers under the subscription model are also pressured to artificially extend the game through grind and sneaky ways to fritter away and waste your time, because it is in their best interests to have you keep that monthly subscription going. Even a sub may be less straightforward than it sounds up front.

    That said, I agree with you that the argument of F2P “saves games” doesn’t ring entirely true or convincing. Yes, in a broad sense, it extends the game’s lifespan by broadening the customer base with lower barriers to entry.

    But I think the main reason why companies introduced a cash shop and microtransactions (with or without sub option attached) is that they simply realized they could potentially get a lot more money every month than $15 per paying customer.

    Some people (the whales) are open to paying a lot more than that for a hobby, and a cash shop allows them to do that, whereas a plain sub game meant the only way to pay more is to drop it on multiple accounts (and there’s a time and desire limitation on how many they can play in a month.)

    The benefit with F2P is that with the whales paying extra, others with less interest or commitment to a particular title potentially have the option and flexibility to play free or for a minimal sum (how restricted they are, depends on the game.) The freeloaders add to critical population mass, increase social community bonds, or in some games, are “content.”
    Jeromai´s last post: GW2: o—==

  • Reply
    Mighty Viking Hamster
    June 21, 2013 at 12:20 am

    F2P! Its a topic which is so close to my heart so I had to reply to this.

    I think that if done right the model is both a game saver and a money maker for the simple reason that the factors which dictate whether a game keeps on thriving and the money made by the developer are intrinsically related. The main reason why F2P is such a panacea to MMOs is that is removes a huge barrier to entry for players. They can start investing in the game without forking any money up front. Ultimately the magnitude of this investment is dependent on how enjoyable said game is. Some will stick to it and some won’t. However removing that barrier will drastically increase the number of people who actually try the game. An MMO does not only need a steady influx of money. It also needs a steady influx of people. An empty world is a dead world and a dead world gives the impression that the end is near which in turn makes people less likely to invest any time (or money). Also an empty world is less fun in an MMO where social interaction plays a great part. The more people are playing the more likely it is that a healthy community is formed with people talking about the game – some may even start a podcast or a blog. These are all factors which increase the chance that a person will stick to the game.

    So you can see snowball effect this has on a game – bigger population leads to increased possible take-ups leads to stronger community generating a stronger buzz bringing in more people and so on and so forth. Point is – even if you are playing the game and you are not paying a dime to do so you are still very likely contributing to the game with your presence – unless you are constantly publicly dissing said game (but then again why would you keep playing?). If the developer is smart it will inject this extra cash back into the game with frequent updates and new interesting idea generating further buzz and interest while fostering the idea that the game is far from dead.

    Therefore if F2P is done right subscribers will remain subscribers because they have been with that model and come to love it (plus enjoying more frequent updates) and in the meantime a whole new audience is created – an audience which makes the game more vibrant and fun. A new audience which may replace the subscribers who naturally default for various reasons, a new audience which occasionally pays for an item or two when they go on sale and a new audience of whales who will spend relatively big chunks of cash in the cash shop.

    Also – while F2P can be exploitative with some dastardly schemes which ask for money in order to remove some developer imposed inconveniences keep in mind that the same concept applies for monthly subscriptions. The developer can (and does) impose limitations so that there is only so much you can do in a month with your sub money (raid timers and dailies come to mind). They do not want you to finish all the content in a month – even if you have the time to do so. Any model requires your time and money – the difference is F2P concentrates on the money aspect while Subscription concentrates on the time aspect.
    Mighty Viking Hamster´s last post: A War Of Excluisivity

  • Reply
    June 21, 2013 at 1:45 am

    That one is an interesting question. as you said, we can’t really know because these numbers are undisclosed and it’s probably a fair bet that it differs greatly between games.
    I don’t disagree that anyone goes F2P because it potentially generates more revenue – that’s the whole point, isn’t it. :) if it was a guaranteed success and companies were only out to exploit us however, I wonder why wouldn’t they roll F2P from the very beginning? why even launch with subs only, just to get bad PR later for having “had to switch” and conceive some shop-system half-way through? if F2P means more profits, not introducing it right away equals losses.

    The way I see it, F2P (esp. in hybrid models like LOTRO) is an attempt at getting the most out of all worlds; keep a core of subscribers, open up to less frequent players (who still use the shop from time to time), potentially attract a new crowd and make comebacks easier. in a way it’s win-win. there’s hardly a downside to the core of players, as long as the game doesn’t change design direction drastically (which imo the developer cannot afford to do in this scenario).

    But as I said in our chat too, in the end they’re all out to get our money – some just do it more openly than others. :) from that PoV I don’t have faith in anyone – I only have faith in the playerbase. I think people are handling these cash shops fine. it’s not like we aren’t bombarded 24/7 with ads and sales and whatnot in the real world, we’re pretty well equipped when it comes to handling this type of thing (not that I wanted this in games – like you I dislike obtrusive cash shop marketing). I also disagree more and more with comparisons to reallife gambling (post almost finished! heh). I think we need to be careful when alluring to “being tricked into buying stuff” in context with players purchasing online goods in F2P. not only is it assuming that gamers are puppets who don’t know what they really want, it perpetuates the stigma that paying for pixels is somehow not okay. that might not be the intended message, but it is a side-effect. I could also say subs are “tricking players” into playing regularly and all other kinds of things.

    I essentially see no problem in the games and market (that I am a fan of) wanting to make more money. I see no problem in someone knocking himself out on virtual goods if that’s what he/she wants.
    I care for the overall quality of the games I play and as long as that is not affected by payment model in a way I deem in-acceptable, I have no complaints.
    Syl´s last post: What can the MMO “console trend” do for us PC players?

    • Reply
      June 21, 2013 at 7:39 am

      I think the long-term health of a game comes down to a few things, and a strong player base is obviously one of them. And it’s pretty clear that F2P at least increases the number of players who will try a game, although I think it’s less clear whether the subjective quality of the player base is actually improved.

      That really depends on whether you define the quality of the player base in terms of dollars going into the developer’s pockets, or in terms of the value that the player base adds to the game. And value is a tricky thing to pin down, because it’s not just about money.

      I value the ability to build strong in-game relationships. I value a strong blogging community. I value sites like WowHead where players have taken the time to share information about a game, even though there is no incentive for them to do so other than their own sense of contributing to a wider community.

      So what I like about a subscription model is that it’s asking people to commit themselves to a game and identify themselves as part of that game’s community. There’s a lot of psychological strength in that kind of commitment, and it seems likely to create the type of player base that wants to contribute and engage with other community members.

      By contrast, in a F2P model players are not asked to make a commitment to be part of a game’s community, and as such they will value the community less. Monetization tends to be based on products that benefit an individual player (XP boosts, cosmetic items, etc) rather than a group. This model seems likely to create the type of player base that will be transient and selfish.

      So, decide what you want from a game, and then decide if the revenue model matches your expectations. Neither model is inherently bad.

      There are some games that work fantastically using the F2P model (I like World of Tanks as an example) because it’s easy to drop in and out of the game, and there’s no real benefit to player community development (unless you want to hit Clan battles / wars).

      On the other hand if you’re excited about a sandbox MMO (e.g., EVE, EQ Next) and they’re talking F2P and micro-transactions then you better start worrying. Because if the nature of the game is that players create the content, then you need to have a strong and committed community behind it (EVE is a great example of this being done right).

  • Reply
    Free-to-Play vs. Gambling | MMO Gypsy – Wandering online Worlds
    June 21, 2013 at 4:21 am

    […] his past experiences with EQ2 going free to play (which then also spawned another reply from Liore here). I am always looking for personal recaps like this; what’s changing for you when an MMO […]

  • Reply
    Wilhelm Arcturus
    June 21, 2013 at 7:35 am

    My personal skepticism about the F2P model always revolves motivation. In the long term, developers need to focus on what pays the bills if they want to stay in business. Failure to do so means “game over.” I think we can all agree on that.

    When a company has a monthly subscription model, the focus is on keeping people subscribed. You do that by adding more content. More dungeons, more raids, more holiday events, whatever.

    It doesn’t always work out in ways we like. There have been some pretty transparent and/or awful attempts to keep people subscribed. As an example, I am not sure anybody is in love with daily quests. And which company refused to commit to not deleting characters if people unsubscribed? Was that Square Enix? But for all that, the focus tends to be on game content that keeps people playing.

    When the cash shop pays the bills, the focus must, by necessity, be on getting people to buy stuff from it. They cannot ignore content entirely or people will stop playing, but the cash shop gets more and more attention over time as the happy time ends and easy sales dry up and the company has to come up with new things to goose revenues.

    What is irksome to me is that the obvious solution… sell content, which would be an incentive for content creation… seems to be more reviled than subscriptions and cash shop scams combined.

    DDO manages it, sort of… but they seem to mostly sell gear and such in the cash shop. The most complained about feature in LOTRO seems to be that you have to buy the quest content in higher level zones in order to keep playing. And Neverwinter has come along with the latest version of Cryptic’s Foundry, which seems to say, “We’re just going to let the users make our content while we sell other stuff.”

    So where do we go?
    Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: Meeting Up in Rift After the Big Change

  • Reply
    June 21, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    I much prefer the straight-forward, non-tricksy contract of “I give you $15, you give me 1 month of game”.
    That would certainly be nice – but the P2P games are quite happy to charge you an extra. I think there used to be sub-only games but I can remember no recent ones, certainly none of the big ones are now.

  • Reply
    Wildstar Woes | Tales of the Aggronaut
    August 21, 2013 at 3:58 am

    […] of my good friends Liore, has gone through a whole arc as a game she deeply cared about… namely Rift went free to play.  While she has softened to the idea of the Rift free to play implementation… since arguably […]

  • Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge

    %d bloggers like this: