I’ll start with a definition.
- a remedy for all disease or ills; cure-all.
- an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties
The way some MMO gamers carry on, every single MMO should be this way. If it has a bit of a wobbly start, going free-to-play will fix everything. If subscriber numbers are low, going free will be the end of the studio’s woes.
Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.
I can’t call these people fans, or hobby critics, or even armchair designers, because they’re none of those. Instead, they just recite a dogma, pointing at examples of ‘success’ as if to give credence to their mantra. But scratch the surface, and it all falls apart.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is held up as a bastion of free-to-play conversion, making regular money for EA/BioWare. But look at the content they’ve produced. Since launch, only Makeb has continued the world story - the individual class plot lines are completely untouched. Instead, we’ve had Rise of the Hypercrates: a never-ending conveyor belt of new stuff to buy. Galactic Starfighter and Galactic Strongholds exist, in part, to provide us with a need to buy even more stuff. It’s no longer a game about being a Jedi or a Sith, but about playing Sims in the Star Wars universe.
The Secret World is another one, switching for a subtler buy-to-play model. A subscription isn’t required, but content packs cost cash. The switch hasn’t turned Funcom’s fortunes around, and the pace of updates is glacial. And, as always, there’s an item shop full of costume gear for your character.
So these people bleating for a free-to-play switch in your favourite MMO are actively saying they want developers to focus on making items for a massive item shop (which they’ll then ignore), or that they want to slow updates to a crawl (which they probably won’t pay for). Sorry, but neither of those games have any appeal to me. I want regular, episodic content.
So what actually works?
Build a game around a payment model, rather than trying to shoehorn it in. If you want to go free, look at League of Legends or Planetside 2 as games designed from the ground up to be free. If you want to have a box on the shelf, look at Guild Wars 2. And, if you want to do a flexible subscription, look at EVE Online. Funnily enough, people can play for free in that mode - they just have to work for it. And even that’s too much for some people.
If a game is good, people will pay for it. They will willingly part with cash to support the studio. If a game is not good, they’ll leave. Being free or not doesn’t change that, it just reduces the friction involved with getting into the game. But hey, a trial does that just as effectively.
So the next time you see someone bleating on about how X or Y game should go free to play, ask them this: what would they actually pay for? Chances are, there’ll be bluster but not much else. They just want to mooch.