Measuring the Success of Free-to-Play

A thread over on the LotRO forums shows off the work of some industrious Germans. My German is really rusty, but all the data we really need can be found in this graphic, which charts logins on the NA LotRO servers, and includes periods both before and after the transition to Free-to-Play. The interested and German-Literate can dig around for EU data as well. It’s there, but LotRO F2P just launched, so there’s not a ton of data yet.

The stats in the post are a bit speculative, but the bottom line appears to be that play of LotRO (as measured by logins per week) has about quadrupled from where it was before the switch. If we assume that the conventional wisdom is correct, and that LotRO was a healthy game with a subscription base of around 200,000 before, it’s looking like close to 800,000 people are playing it now.

These numbers are in line with Turbine’s revenue announcement during GDC in early October (about a month after the F2P launch,) and they look to be holding up fairly well. There’s a bit of a decline in the last couple of weeks, but it may be a statistical anomaly – and the November update that’s just around the corner should boost numbers again, even though it’s lacking any substantive content as far as I can tell. Although it does contain 250 new quests, plus the new task content, and will have a substantial impact on non-subscribers, since it’ll raise the level cap to 65, open up the rest of the world, and unlock legendary items and the rest of the epic questline for everybody. The next major content expansion (Isengard) should kick the numbers up even more.

I strongly suspect that the number of subscribers since the change has risen substantially, rather than fallen, based on the record of DDO (which tripled subscribers when it went free-to-play,) and on the fact that no reasonable person would have quit the game in protest over the change. And LotRO has a remarkably low population of knee-jerk asswipes, even judging from the forums, which are the most pleasant video game (not just MMO) forums I’ve ever visited.

It also seems to me very likely that a decent percentage of total players are spending money on Turbine Points. I don’t think you can take the statement that 53% of players have used the store quite literally – were those points acquired through actual cash expenditure or were they earned in-game or as part of the bundle of VIP perks? In other words, how big a revenue stream outside of subscribtions do they represent? We don’t know, but with subscriptions on the rise and at least some people spending money that Turbine wouldn’t otherwise have gotten, F2P LotRO is looking like a roaring success.

So yeah, F2P is full of fail.

Now, I will concede the possibility, until we see some real numbers or at least some long-term secondary data out of other converted games (EQ2X, CO, PotBS,) that nobody can do F2P right but Turbine. That’s possible, although the population on the lone EQ2X server seems large and happy enough to me. Certainly this is in line with public and commentator perceptions right now – both SOE and now Cryptic have taken a lot of flak for not measuring up to Turbine’s example. Examples from outside traditional western MMOs have a far spottier record, but I can’t say with absolute assurance that there are no quality (high-quality games with a fair minipay model, that is,) examples.

For the record, I think that the Turbine implementations in DDO and LotRO are better and fairer than the competing models in EQ2X and (insomuch as I can see so far,) Champions Online. I took a look at the Pirates of the Burning Sea F2P plan the other day and came away pretty sure I wouldn’t bother with it. But I don’t think any of those examples are fatally flawed (and even Turbine’s in not perfect.) For me, the appeal of Free-to-Play is in my ability to decide on my own commitment level, and pay accordingly, and in its explicit promise that I’ll have time to grow fond of a game at my own pace, rather than being limited to a trial period after which I will almost certainly decide that I don’t want to pay a subscription for it.

I feel kind of funny taking a position championing free-to-play titles; I see as many potential pitfalls in the idea as anybody. But facts trump feelings, impressions and opinions. And the fact is that we have at least a couple of examples of high-quality games that went to an equitable minipay model. It may be that it’s terminology that’s failing us again – we may be better-served by calling these examples Turbine-style MMOs than we are lumping them into the F2P label along with stuff like Allods Online. After all, the Turbine model is different from previous examples. But it’s also different from those that have followed it. Time will be the test – but I have a feeling that LotRO and DDO at least will be thriving games a few years down the line.

ADDENDUM: There’s also a marketing difference between Turbine and its followers; Turbine pushed out TV commercials for DDO, for Christ’s sake. Whereas nobody who wasn’t at least reading MMO news sites even heard about EQ2X. That has to be making a difference in the success of the model.

4 responses to “Measuring the Success of Free-to-Play

  1. If I use my old X-Fire calc system and the last noted numbers (X-Fire crashed this week and has had no numbers since Tuesday)…I get this
    2436 x120.05 = Almost 300k subbed players.
    So, if we “estimate” one can say 30% of those logging in either have paid or are paying for a monthly sub. That is pretty good money I think. That doesn’t even take into account one off purchasers of points or items in shops.
    This is all speculation since we have no real data…but, overall…

    Turbine has to be VERY happy.

  2. The Freeport server (EQ2X) is vibrant and busy. The continual spawning of multiple instances of all the starter zones, plus the endless “I just started, how do I…?” questions in 1-9 chat suggest that new players are still coming in. I don’t thinkthere’s any doubt that SoE have managed to launch a successful new server and make some money they wouldn’t have made otherwise. I’m playing there and loving it.

    However, Dave Georgeson aka Smokejumper, the EQ2 producer, has made it abundantly clear that the “F2P” model being used for EQ2 is intended primarily to move people onto subscriptions. Consequently, while you can’t call it a failure, it clearly isn’t a success on anything like the scale of Turbine’s F2P moves. The complete absence of any advertising outside dedicate MMO sites and the lack of a franchise known outside of MMO circles is clearly going to limit potential growth as well.

    Nevertheless, I just can’t stop playing EQ2X. I can’t even tell you why, but I have found it mesmerically compulsive since it launched. I have pretty much stopped playing all the other MMOs I was enjoying (including EQ2 Live, to which I am still subscribed) and even the final appearance of LotRO F2P-EU has not been able to shift my attention away from EQ2X. At this rate it is going to take the launch Rifts or GW2 to break EQ2X’s mysterious hold on me.

    Going to try to play some free LotRO this weekend. Getting so much out of an MMO I’ve been playing for 6 years just because of a change in the payment model can’t be good for my mental health…

  3. Juat a little addendum.

    last night I logged one of my old characters on in LotRO and had a chat with an old friend who plays on that server. I know him originally from EQ and he played EQ2 for several years before he moved to LotRO, where he found his niche.

    This is someone who knows and likes EQ2, who has played MMOs consistently for as long as I have (over a decade now), who is highly sociable and gregarious, active in guilds and with a famously lengthy friends list. He has friends who still play EQ.

    He hadn’t even heard that EQ2 had a F2P version. When I told him it came as a complete surprise. This suggests two things:

    1. SoE’s publicity for EQ2X has been pitiful.
    2. People who just play MMOs, rather than write or read about them, don’t know about any industry developments until they actually happen to them in the game they currently play. And that would probably be 90% of all the people playing MMOs.

  4. Pingback: Is F2P evil? « Sighfigh's Gaming Blog