There's no sense in trying to deny it: The market is changing, with microtransaction-supported free-to-play games producing far more money than subscription titles. Hybrid models that give players the choice between microtransactions or a regular subscription have turned the industry on its head. When Turbine first implemented a hybrid model in Dungeons and Dragons Online, not only did profit shoot up from the free players but subscriptions rose. When the studio gave Lord of the Rings Online the same treatment, profits tripled almost overnight. The money is firmly in microtransactions, and it would be disingenuous to assume CCP won't chase that kind of financial reward. But could EVE even support a free-to-play business model, and what alternatives are there?
In this week's EVE Evolved, I ask whether it would be possible for EVE Online to adopt a free-to-play business model, and I suggest a simple alternative model that could really work.
[UPDATE: World of Darkness has not been confirmed as free-to-play, and though DUST 514 will not have a subscription fee, it will have a cover charge for initial purchase]
What makes free-to-play so successful
While the PLEX system technically lets people play for free, it actually has none of the major benefits that a free-to-play game reaps from its business model. The thing that makes free-to-play games so successful is the extremely low barrier to entry; people can just download the client and get straight into playing with no time limit and no risk. The massive money in microtransactions comes from millions of such players each investing small amounts of money here and there on minor things like cosmetic items or circumventing grindy gameplay.
EVE allows people to try the game free for up to 21 days and then asks that they pay the full subscription price to continue. After 21 days, a new player will not have made enough ISK to buy his first PLEX and will have to choose between paying full price to continue or dropping the game. That's a massive barrier to entry, and it kicks in so early that most people won't be comfortable spending that amount of money. Only those people who have been playing for long enough to be able to afford a PLEX each month can effectively play for free, so the massive influx of new players required to make microtransaction volume pick up won't ever happen under the current system.
Why EVE can never go truly free-to-play
I don't want to say EVE will never go free-to-play, but there's a fairly massive obstacle it will have to overcome to do so: alt abuse. People currently make alt characters to list extra items on the market, get extra manufacturing or research slots, passively collect research points, and most importantly, suicide-gank people while avoiding punishment. The fact that trial accounts only last 21 days and can't train certain skills limits what you can do with a throwaway account, and abusing trials for purposes like suicide-ganking is actually against the terms of service.
If EVE went free-to-play, there would be no way to reasonably police the abuse of alts. After all, how do you distinguish between 500 bots playing the game and 500 legitimate players? It may not even be possible to make all of EVE fully free-to-play; the game was created in a time before that business model, and so it wasn't taken into account when CCP was developing gameplay. Core aspects of EVE like its open-world PvP system and sandbox economy could be open to abuse if the game were free. Remember the story of Zhek Kromtor, the multiboxing pirate who terrified his victims by warping 14 Drakes or Ravens on top of them? Imagine him with 100 Drakes, and the problem becomes immediately apparent. Advanced gameplay like access to mining barges and ships that are very effective in PvP or can tackle high-level missions should be reserved for players willing to pay.
An alternative model
Several MMOs have successfully designed their own unique twist on the free-to-play model that reaps all of its rewards without the disasters that can result. Dungeons and Dragons Online and EverQuest II both have subscription options, and in both games free players have to pay separately for certain things subscribers get automatically as a package. At the risk of being lynched for suggesting a model that could be seen as "pay-to-win," I could see a variation of this work in EVE. CCP could essentially give subscribers access to everything but ask free players to pay to unlock certain ships, agents or services for the month.
This would ensure that you could explore the universe, play the game at a basic level and engage with the community for free, but you'd have to invest cash at some point to make your character really useful. You could play free forever if you used only frigates, for example, but you might have to buy a very cheap voucher to unlock access to a destroyer or cruiser of your choice for the month. You'd still need to have the relevant skills trained but would need to unlock the ship too. These vouchers would undoubtedly end up being sold by players on the open market for ISK, meaning you could choose to grind your way to accessing a ship or pay cash to take a shortcut. Ultimately, someone will have paid cash for it.
A subscription option would still be available in the form of 30-day pilot's licenses, which would unlock everything free players have to buy access to for the duration. Of course there's no real reason for a license to be 30 days in this model; it would be far more beneficial to sell them in smaller increments and let each player choose how and when to spend money on the game. If game time were charged at the same rate that it currently is, we could have week-licenses for as little as $4 and day passes for around 50 cents. Now that's a microtransaction!
Basic gameplay like level 1 missions, planetary interaction, playing the market and any Incarna gameplay that's eventually released could all be made free, providing plenty of content for players to chew through at their own pace while training skills. Once they've trained the skills to fly a bigger ship or manage a production line, there'll be just enough incentive for them to spend a little cash to upgrade. If a subscription to everything costs $17.50 per month, a monthly pass for a single ship would undoubtedly cost under a dollar. It would also be possible to sell shorter week or day passes for a fraction of that or release expensive permanent versions. Both players and CCP could get a fantastic deal out of a model like this.
free-to-play games is a characteristic low barrier to entry and the ability to engage in basic gameplay for free. While higher-level gameplay will typically require some cash investment, the fact that you can play an MMO without paying up front and choose what to spend your money on has massive appeal. The system described above is a hybrid subscription and free-to-play model designed to remove the inherent barrier to entry of a subscription. It would keep the gameplay for subscribers exactly the same as it is now while allowing people to play using an alternative microtransaction model.
I think going free-to-play would do wonders for EVE, both for new players and returning veterans. Everyone gets that nostalgic pang to go back to an old MMO now and then, but it's rare that it'll happen during one of CCP's infrequent free reactivation offers. By opening a free option for unsubscribed accounts, CCP would be letting old players can come back whenever the desire hits them, keeping the barrier to entry for returning players extremely low. Streaming clients and cloud gaming can reduce the effort threshold even further for both new and returning players, letting people get in-game within minutes.
CCP hasn't announced any plans to move EVE to a free-to-play model, but I've seen far too many subscription MMOs go that way to think it won't happen eventually. Personally, I would love to see it happen, and I think a hybrid model like the one described above would be the way to do it.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.