Ask Massively: Free-to-play edition

Wow. Last week's Ask Massively brought out some passionate opinions from our readers on the topic of comment moderation. This week, we hope to shatter that feedback record with our latest topic: free-to-play games.

We know it's a hot topic among MMO gamers lately, and our question this week asks the members of the Massively team to voice their opinions once and for all. No more assuming that everyone shares a brain; it's all out on the table now. Follow along after the jump to see how we answered this one.
Samael asks:
What is the base consensus on micro-transactions in games? From what I have read, everyone other than Jef seems not bothered at all by the anti-side of the argument. Are you guys at least interested in acknowledging what the negative effects of going F2P for everything and the negative side of having a store in every game? Or will you guys [toe] the industry line, "Oh F2P and micro-transactions/cash stores is the best thing since the internet was invented for MMOs"? Just would like a clear picture of where you guys stand. Thanks.
Well Sam, as we don't really have stances on anything "as a site" collectively, I figured the best thing to do to answer this question would be to ask the team itself for opinions. Not everyone responded, but I've included the names and responses from everyone who did.

Beau Hindman: Free-to-play is just an option, and nothing more. In the US, it used to represent a pretty low standard, but that hasn't been the case for a long time. We do have to distinguish between free-to-play or extended trial/velvet rope, though, for the sake of knowing how you are required to pay. Other than that, it should not be a discussion of quality. Not only are the vast majority of games free-to-play, but I believe that it is obvious that the remaining sub-only holdouts will eventually feature some form of free-to-play goodness.

Lisa Poisso: Free-to-play games are great for groups of players who regularly game together, making it more financially feasible to dabble in "fall-back" games while others are finishing other games, leveling up, or when the group is in between games as a whole. With no need to commit to a full month or more of subscription fees, you just dip in or out at your leisure, supported by cash-shop options that may help you reacclimate more quickly to a game you may not have played in a while. The F2P model is also beneficial for larger groups with members who enjoy playing with different intensity and focus levels; hardcore members can forge ahead, while more casual players can toy with a lighter commitment of both time and money. The fact that F2P options seem to encourage more free downloads/extended trials is one more bonus for families and long-standing guilds for whom changing MMOGs represents a massively multiplayer financial commitment.

Tateru Nino: Payment models are like game-console brands. They're all different, and no one model is superior across-the-board to any other -- they've each got their strengths and weaknesses. Free-to-play vs. subscription? Why stop there? Bring on the payment models of all sorts, including the ones that might end up being weird failures! The diversity is important, because most of these models won't prove to be successes or failures or good or bad until they've had a few years on the ground. It doesn't matter so much whether you love or loathe F2P or subscription gaming today... the real question is "What payment model is going to be fueling your your choice MMO game 10 years from now?" It could be something surprising. Come back in 10 years and let me know.

Jef Reahard: I'm not a fan of F2P. Despite claims of increased quality, in my opinion there is still a noticeable difference between even the best F2P titles (RoM and Mabinogi, in my opinion) and your average P2P title. Also, F2P is the latest example of the genre dilution that has taken place over the last decade as MMORPGs have gone mainstream. This is the way of things and I understand people have to make a living, but I had the most fun with these types of games when they were much smaller, much more complex, and almost completely populated by people who were heavily invested (both time and money-wise) in making them virtual worlds instead of casual diversions. All that said, as long as a few sub games remain that cater to my preferences, I'm all for choice, experimentation, yada yada. I tend to get a little testy though when I hear people say "the industry is going completely F2P" or "F2P is the future," etc.

Brianna Royce: Theoretically, F2P or microtransaction MMOs have so much potential to bring choice and competition to the market, neutralize time vs. money inequities, and smother that nagging obligation to play and get one's money's worth from a sub. In practice, very few F2P games measure up to that ideal; most such games lack quality and seem transparently contrived to trick players into overspending by way of negligently or nefariously designed content. I will not say these games haven't arranged a clever and popular scheme -- they certainly have -- but I am very, very wary. Bring on a new generation of thoughtful hybrids without all the flea-market gaudiness.

Sera Brennan: I'm for microtransaction models as long as they're done responsibly. Responsibly means enticing your players to buy your extra items by making those items worth it, not manipulating your game design in order to entice or force players to buy your content. If your content is good, it should stand on its own, regardless of how you design your game. For example, I really like the DDO philosophy of "buy the game as you go," where you can enjoy a good chunk of the game for 100% free, and if you like what you played you can pay small amounts to get access to a few new areas. That's an example of content standing on its own -- if you don't like what you've played, then there's no need to pay money to keep enjoying what you already have.

Ryan Greene: A haiku!
Free-to-play done right
Is yet a too-rare beauty
Like kittens in space

Jeremy Stratton: I've recently thought about the early years of Ragnarok Online. If anyone remembers that game, the playstyle was (and maybe still is) very similar to the playstyle found in many F2P games. It was part of a route I was thinking about taking in a future article. It was primarily killing mobs to level without the smaller in-between rewarding feeling of completing quests, a heavy almost tacked-on PvP element and very strong focus on steering the player into grouping to accomplish almost anything, and it was a pretty popular game. I think F2P is another payment model that has its ups and downs. I am interested in all the potential it has; there seems to be a lot of room to play with micro-transactions and how they can be implemented in MMOs.

Patrick Mackey: I think F2P or microtransactions are really the future. Subscriptions provide a barrier of entry. It's hard to buy a game when you know that you'll be spending $15 next month just to verify whether you like it. F2P has a lower commitment. If you decide you kind of like the game, you might stick around and see, and possibly pay for premium content. It also means you don't have to spend hours upon hours for the first month determining whether the game is good. It lets you figure things out at your own pace. Also, microtransactions are a really effective moneymaker. Most players won't spend much money, but there will always be that top 30% that spends hundreds of USD on your game. Microtransactions are a good way to benefit from those really hardcore people who want to put more into the game, because if you let them, they will. It also means that player feedback in the form of petitions and forums and such are more likely to be the voice of your paying members, rather than the silent majority common to most MMOGs. F2P is win-win as a business model.

Greg Waller: (in response to Patrick) And that is what I despise about F2P payment models (or variations on the theme). Business models be damned. I don't give two sweet patooties if a game's model guarantees X% R.O.I. What I care about is if a game guarantees Y% F.U.N.. I want games, not investor's portfolio considerations.

Shawn Schuster: As annoying as this will be, I don't have a strong opinion either way. I have self-control over my expenses, so I don't have to worry about ever spending more on a free-to-play game than I would on a sub-based game. When a game starts demanding that I pay more to progress, I stop playing and move on. My favorite part is that I can keep the game on my hard drive and pick it back up later at no cost. I don't think our current model for F2P is the future, but I believe it's something being used to test the waters. Once developers push the envelope too far (which is already happening), players will completely rebel and a new business model will be tried, but remnants from what we have now will remain.

So there you have it. A few opinions on both sides of the fence. As the final word on what is published on Massively, I have no problem with the writers voicing their opinion one way or the other. I'd like to think the variety adds spice, even if readers only see one side: the one they're against!
This article was originally published on Massively.