Too Bad There’s No F2P AAA MMOs

I’ll warn you now that this post will contain some snark. So let me start with a disclaimer, which doubtless will not help: I like Keen’s blog, subscribe to it, and think he often posts good commentary and makes salient and insightful points. But unfortunately, on certain subjects his voice gets muffled by having to talk with his head in his own ass. One of those is the F2P revolution currently (slowly) sweeping through the MMO hobby.

This is the route games take to retire. AAA/High Quality/Highly Funded (you know what I mean so don’t nitpick) MMO’s are STILL not launching as F2P. F2P is the backup plan.

F2P is a seemingly successful business plan. It does, to my knowledge, often increase revenues for games that were doing poorly. However — and this is where things get a bit tricky — it’s still not good enough to be Plan A. Time and time again F2P is simply Plan B or the model for mass-produced shovelware titles. I think the trends really are starting to speak for themselves. We’re still without a AAA F2P game.

With the snark hopefully out of the way, let’s break the statement down a bit. There was indeed a time, in western perception, when variations on the free-to-play model were limited to, as Keen puts it, “mass-produced shovelware,” but that was a year or two ago. Then DDO proved that this model could work in our market, with some adaptations to make it palatable to western tastes. Those adaptations, developed by Turbine, have now been adopted, more or less, by the followers in the race to go F2P (EQ2X, PotBS and Champions Online.) With the success of this family of model, we all know we’re going to see more conversions in the future – and some entirely new games launched with the new model in mind, whether Keen believes it or not.

It’s really LotRO, the game Keen hopes will fail, that underlines the absurdity of his statement. LotRO was a “AAA” game when it launched and kept a large and loyal audience. It was one of the top handful of MMOs in the western market until the day it went to F2P, and then it moved up a place or two. Nowhere was there a whisper of LotRO doing badly. The game is good, the fans were devoted, and stats were high on every tracking service. Press releases out of Turbine emphasized the game’s continuing success. But by Keen’s logic it must have been failing, or it wouldn’t have gone free to play.

This notion can only be rooted in hidebound expectations of how one should pay for MMOs. It’s a trap I suspect we’ve all fallen into at one time or another. Change is scary, and we were mostly comfortable with the cover charge + subscription way to pay. I’m not sure why.

To be honest, Keen is in the same place I was on the subject a year or two ago, before seeing the Turbine model in action and finding that it actually does work in a non-intrusive way, lowering the entry barrier while encouraging players to choose to spend money, rather than locking them out for being reluctant to do so. And more importantly allowing players to spend money at their own pace, rather than on a schedule set by the publisher.

I get that there are reasons to be concerned about F2P, based on examples we’ve seen and heard about wherein players are hard-locked out of gameplay unless they spend money, or wherein the microtransactions themselves are priced too high, or wherein it’s possible to literally buy your way through the game. I get that the publisher needs to walk a fine line between trying to fish money out of the consumer and maintaining a fair playing field for that consumer, and that some games (Allods Online, I’m looking at you,) will choose to err on the side of profit. One could certainly make the case that not every converted title has done this successfully (witness the blunders made with EQ2X.) But we now have at least two examples of titles which, despite imperfect implementations, don’t suffer from these drawbacks.

Over the next couple of years, new subscription titles are going to get rarer and rarer. Titles which were in development when the trend became apparent in the west (maybe a year ago, when Turbine started talking about the huge surge F2P brought to DDO,) are of course still going with some variation on the traditional model; so-called “AAA” MMOs are huge projects with hundreds or thousands of people shoulders-deep in millions of lines of code. And they cost many millions of dollars of investors’ money. Those investors were told, in detail, where their capital was going before the checks got written, and how, in detail, they could expect it to be made back, along with some profit. One doesn’t turn a project like that around by suddenly deciding to use a different money model three or four years along, scrapping what’s probably tens of thousands of man-hours in coding and design work, to react to a trend that’s starting in games that the team considers of lesser stature than their own. Not to mention having to go back to your investors, hat in hand, and explain that you’d actually been wrong four years ago and this would be a much better idea, really.

In the first wave of this new paradigm it stands to reason that we’d be seeing more old titles converted to the new model than new titles launching with it; MMOs take a long while to develop. But there are big-budget titles, like Guild Wars 2, on the horizon that won’t carry a subscription fee. One might argue, as Keen does in the comments, that games like Guild Wars are not F2P, since they carry a cover change. Which is true as far as it goes, but at this point we’re splitting hairs, having painted ourselves into a corner by defining such terms solely to suit our argument, rather than by any basis they may have in reality. The genuine concerns over “F2P” lie with the nature of the microtransactions, not with whether one pays an up-front cost to play or not. I fail to see the downside, from a player perspective, of not paying a cover charge. At that point, what’s the problem? Real concerns over a microtransaction-based MMO economy or simple stodginess over a global shift to a new model we’re not comfortable with?

Even if, contrary to expectations, the F2P trend stops where it is today, with shoring up older games – even if Keen’s right, and that’s all this is good for – what’s the problem? That those older games might become more profitable and therefore survive longer? That those fans devoted to them might be able to enjoy their favorite virtual worlds for a few more years? Again, I can’t see where a rational person would have an issue, especially one who doesn’t even play any of the games in question. But then, I’m not the kind of guy who wants games I don’t approve of to go under.

Ultimately we have to ask ourselves the question: what is fair to us as consumers, and as gamers? Is the subscription option really the fairest solution? For everybody? Or most players? If your answer to that doesn’t contain a great deal of room for gray areas, positive and negative examples, and different folks’ varying playstyles, then you are viewing the issue in a stark and superficial light. The idea that Cover Charge + subscription = good and NCC + microtransactions = bad grossly oversimplifies the issue and ignores almost all of the many variables involved. It is ideology rather than opinion, and as such it’s not susceptible to the vicissitudes of reason or reality. It is, to put it bluntly, moronic.

22 responses to “Too Bad There’s No F2P AAA MMOs

  1. Excellent post. I agree 100% with your analysis and your conclusions.

    As a consumer I cannot see how I am doing anything but benefitting from the transition from subscription to mixed payment model. It puts the choice in my hands.

    There is one, and only one. reason I can see to prefer a subscription model. It’s the same reason people like to join private, “members-only” clubs. The membership fee exists not just to gain access to the facilities of the club, but to deny access to those facilities to all non-members. Subscription-based MMOs guarantee that you will be only be playing with your peer group, defined as “people who like this game enough to pay a monthly fee to play it”.

    It’s not somethign I’d pay $15 a month for. Having played for prolonged periods in both subscription and F2P environments, I can’t say I can see any material difference in the kind of players I’ve met.

  2. There is absolutely no drawbacks as a gamer or a consumer to not paying the cover charges. I have spent money to support both subscription and F2P MMO’s and I would say that I am now spoiled by the quality of NCC games that I must now think long and hard to justify ever going back and playing a sub game.

  3. As everyone may know, I so wanted LOTRO to fail. I still feel the game is sub par, and a “Single A” game…
    But, now my wish will NOT come true, and I feel opposite of Keen. Now it is Free 2 Play, it will flourish and succeed even moreso than it has. Now it WILL become a “AAA” game as well, thanks to the new flow of cash.
    If more games of quality can use this model, I think we will see the future of transactions for MMO’s, due to the fact they will see a positive shift in revenue.
    Really…who would not try an MMO they see an interest in, even once, especially if it is Free to log in.

  4. I actually was going to agree with Keen on this one until you explained yourself. I don’t know what numbers you had on LoTRO but it definately wasn’t hemorrhaging subs like DDO. Besides being able to try it for free and buy content as you saw fit, the best feature of FTP games is the ability to walk away from it for a few months w/o the hassle of unsubing and resubing

  5. One thing I find in these debates, as a late-comer to the MMO scene but an old MU* player, is that it’s interesting to me that long-term MMO players are programmed to expect to pay a subscription.

    I understand *why* the subscriptions evolved, of course, because there’s a lot more resources involved in running a game that expects thousands of players in a massive virtual world than one that expects 32 or 64 on a single small map, or one that’s more populous but text-only vs one with intense graphics. The MMO requires a lot of dedicated hardware and a huge team to operate it.

    But it was a bit of an anomaly in gaming when it appeared. MMO players are pretty much the only gamers I can think of who expect to be charged monthly fees to use a game they buy. FPS gamers not only expect to be able to use their game locally, but expect the producer of the game to maintain gaming servers forever for free, as well as enable them to host their own games. Some FPS games provide only one or two of those options, but as a general rule these are expectations. Same goes for RTS titles. I have actually wondered if this is part of the problem for APB. Its gameplay is FPS style, yet its universe is MMO-style and it asked for subscriptions. This is where APB might benefit from an F2P revamp, if done right. Some major FPS titles have proved that FPS gamers can be agreeable to microtransactions…DLC content and/or paying points for attire or weapons. So it could be a very viable option for APB to draw FPS gamers in.

    • As a relative newcomer to MMO’s but a long-time gamer myself, I know for a fact that what held me away from this genre was the subscription. My very first MMO was Planetside, in fact. Since that time I just had to accept the fact if I wanted to play this type of game I would have to pay the subs.

      Only now I don’t.

  6. It is, to put it bluntly, moronic. Pretty much sums up what I think of the majority of Keen’s writing over the past year or so. Graev still writes good stuff but Keen fell off the deep and stupid end at some point. Shame, really.

    I’ve been gaming since Pong so I’ve seen it all. I was around for the GEnie (and Compuserv) days when I routinely got billed $200+ per month for playing Air Warrior and other early online games. The $15/month subscription certainly saved me when it came around, and it was great for the first several years when there really wasn’t all that much to choose from so I was content to choose a single MMO. That is no longer the case with so many MMOs out there, and I have enough to do in my life that I consider the “subscribe/cancel/resubscribe” dance a major hassle and at this point I pretty much avoid it like the plague. I bought the lifetime to LOTRO so I can come and go as I please, never checking into to Turbine Account page.

    F2P, Freemium, or the Guild Wars model (which, honestly, is the original “normal” model for PC or console: buy the damn game once, and play all you want, and optionally buy the extra “expansions” or DLC) is great now that there are more games (more competition) and more players, especially in our current ADHD Generation. I’m not the only one who can’t be bothered with Account fiddling anymore. Just let me play what I want, when I want, and if you put out something I consider fun enough I’ll send a few dollars your way every so often.

    I’m becoming more of a console gamer these days so I’m perfectly accustomed to buying DLC, etc. so the transaction (micro or not) model doesn’t bother me that much. I’ve used it in Guild Wars several times and I prefer that, especially over the recent trend of monetizing games that don’t warrant it. Cryptic’s upcoming Neverwinter game, for example, is a (up to) 5-player game. But it will be “online only” calling home to Cryptic’s server, possibly with a subscription fee (though their recent attitude shift for Champions may change this) when all it needs is a peer-to-peer browser for matchmaking. 5 players, people. How much money are they spending on the networking (both client code and server hardware) for that? Salaries for people keeping it operational? Development time spent that could have been used elsewhere? To me, this type of mentality is holding the game hostage for player money.

  7. I was just reading the October Producer’s Letter over on LOTRO, and one statement caught my attention:

    “Give players ways they can customize how to pay and play the game, with different account levels, payment options, and content types – making sure that we offer something for every player interested in the game.”

    http://www.lotro.com/gameinfo/devdiaries/866-producers-letter-october-2010

    That, right there, is why the f2p options are working as Turbine is doing them. It offers something to the person who always subscribes, the person who never pays a penny, and the person who only buys items from the store as they strike their fancy. Any game that can *successfully* do that in a way that truly has something of value for each of those three groups has a good basis for success. In essence, what a well designed multi-pay system does is change money from a “barrier to entry” to an opportunity to add extra value to your experience.

  8. There is no issue here: I like choices and enjoy the trend towards FTP. Deciding between what games I can hold a subscription for is like choosing between children. It’s nice to be able to explore different titles, genres, and return to old games without hitting that painful “billing” barrier.

    However, my biggest concern is what FTP means to the quality of the communities they build.

    I would say that FTP games seem to be populated with a higher % of immature douche-bags, but is that really true or even fair?

    FTP communities are going to be larger and therefore the volume of douche-bags will be higher, the vocal minority overshadowing the “positive and supportive” players. On a daily basis, then, we might experience a greater frequency of douche-baggery.

    Are we sacrificing niche collaborative communities (read: gated $ communities) for the sake of a high volume (80/20 principle) mob of unwashed?

    /ponder

    Another concern I have is this: will the quality of customer service, already lacking in some games, go down because of this increase in sheer volume of players? To stay in theme: a substantial increase in /help tickets filed by douche-bags?

  9. I am still sure about LoTRO going to F2P the way it limits content to already higher level characters.
    Kind of funny how when i quit the game my champion was getting ready to do some quests in trollshaw and now that I logged back for Free all those quests are not available anymore even though i had some selected already, so no F2P for me, got to pay up to continue, right?

    Maybe this is why Keen is so pissed, he probably had many toons in many games that went F2P (Lotro, PotBs, DDO) and since those characters are prob max leveled he cannot use them for free due to the upcharges, lol.

    • Keen’s complaints has always struck me as youthful entitlement issues. A game is good enough for you to play for free but the minute you have to pony up some money, it turns into the devil? That was my take on his Allods experience, anyways. While Allods is currently not a game I am playing either, the reasons have nothing to do with its cash shop. In fact, I still have plenty of gpotatoes left in my account since I really didn’t have anything to spend it on during the time I was playing.

      With that said, the lack of a sub makes it more likely for me to get back into Allods than, say, WAR or AOC.

  10. I’ve also been around since the Pong days, but stayed away from MMORPGs until recently. I did dabble in the UO beta back in the late 1990s, Air Warrior, TEN and some stuff on AOL.

    Guild Wars still has the best business model out there and I hope they won’t get too greedy on the cash shop front with GW2. I currently subscribe to one game (Aion, yes, I really like it, even with its faults) and that is the only game I’ll continue to pay monthly for. I’d love to explore DCUO, but no way would I pay a monthly sub to do so, even if it looks like they may only have a month’s worth of content at this point. While I’m sure they’ll sell lots of boxes, I doubt they’ll keep many players past the first few months, especially on the console side. They missed a great opportunity with DCUO to use the GW model and release new content in paid expansions (which I’m sure they’ll do on top of the sub). They could have wiped out COH overnight. CO, free or otherwise, isn’t even a contender, more a character creator with a tiny bit of content to play in. Even those players I know that have pre-ordered DCUO all say they’ll play a month or two and then move on.

    I will not subscribe to another game from now on (other than Aion), no matter what. Part of that is time related. I play GW, Aion, LOTRO and FR; and will be adding GW2 to that list. I went with the yearly sub on Aion to keep the cost within my budget. Paying two subs these days is out of the question, especially with my play time so limited. More and more players I know have had enough with subs as well.The subscription model will slowly fade into the background, although not completely fade away. Most people want options. Offer the right ones, along with a good game, and you’ll prosper.

  11. I think it’s important to point out the last time DDO numbers were given by Turbine. There is a reason it’s been a while. LotRO will likely follow the same trend. Going F2P is a nice one-time boost, but at the end of the day, the game is what the game is. DDO is niche and flawed, LotRO is a nice second-tier WoW-clone.

    That said, Turbine has done a nice job adding the F2P model to those games, but part of the reason it ‘worked’ was because of the baseline game itself, not the model. For all we know, had Turbine developed a F2P MMO from scratch, it would be no different than Allods in terms of greed and poor design choices due to the model. That SOE is so incompetent as to screw EQ2 going F2P says more about SOE than anything else.

    Hoping a game is or is not F2P is not about the actual cost-per-month (in most F2P titles, if you actually like it, you pay more), but the potential harm the F2P model does to the design. Perhaps as the model evolves, less mistakes will be made, but the negativity towards F2P is, currently, well deserved as a whole.

    In other words, if I’m looking forward to an MMO, I’m going it’s not F2P.

  12. The angst is overwhelming! You guys should form a club and get together weekly to hash out your hate for others. It could be fun and therapeutic for you. Most of you have made blogging careers out of attacking other bloggers — might as well pool your collective intelligence.

    As for the topic at hand, none of you have answered my question or been capable of refuting it. This is a textbook strawman argument.

    • Hey you should be happy that people actually care about what you said about this F2P thing.
      For better or worse you have made a mark so a little criticism would not hurt.
      Instead of being all defensive, add to the discussion

  13. @Ludo: I understand that concern, and the reasoning behind it makes sense. However, I have at this point played quite a lot of F2P DDO, LotRO and EQ2X, and I have not actually observed a higher jackwad factor in any of them. I actually think the community in DDO improved with the move to minipay, as the number of players hanging around began to routinely exceed the critical mass needed for such a group-oriented game.

    @Luk: Your reasoning is unsound. You weren’t able to play for free before – how is this a loss? And you can still play for free – make a new character and work up some Turbine Points, or drop the whopping $6 for the Trollshaws content pack. Conversely, let’s say you had a max-level character in LotRO, lapsed before Mirkwood came out. Before, you would have had to resub for at least a couple of months to see all the new content, in addition to the $20 for Mirkwood itself. Now you pay your $20, can play that content basically forever, and don’t have a sub fee. Again, how is this a loss?

    Nobody is claiming that Turbine’s DDO/LotRO model is perfect. I do think it’s the best implementation of the idea so far, because it maps the money you pay to the pace at which you move through the content, which works for me.

    @Syncaine: The quality of the underlying game is exactly the kind of variable that the stated argument ignores. It’s equally invalid to claim that all minipay games are good and subscription games rotten.

    • @Arfwolf
      Since I played LoTRO from the beginning already (several times), it would be boring to grind up my toon up in levels again while paying for the same content that I had access as subscribed customer already. I would rather continue where i stopped playing, for which i have to pay now anyway, does that make sense?

      So for me it seems that F2P is offering minimum options because I do not want to start all over again.

  14. why does everyone give so much credit to DDO and lotro for going F2P?
    GW1 was F2P since 2005, one of the earliest AAA F2P MMO’s?
    DDO and LOTRO are hardly F2P as well, you have to pay for half the content in lotro, and i’m assuming turbine forced the same regime onto DDO, which was failing before it turned F2P anyway.
    at least with GW2, we wont get any game breaking cash shop items, because GW1 has proven you don’t need monthly fees to run a major MMO.

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  16. Yeah, sub titles will get rarer, but guess what? The games almost every f2p apologist uses games were designed for and made use of subscriptions, and because of that, the adaptations in the long run are lesser than true ground-up F2P games.

    When you go out, and play games designed from the ground up to be F2P, you start to see why it is a bad thing. I honestly dare people to play Fiesta, Shin Megami Tensei online, FlyFF, Aika, and other ground-up games, and then come back and tell me that you want more of them over games originally designed for a sub.

    • DBlade,

      Honestly, those games were originally made for a vastly different audience. An audience which has no compunction about playing that style of MMO. Do you honestly believe that if there was no such thing as item shops that those games would be more westernized?

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