A few years ago, doing a list of the final few F2P holdouts would have been a ridiculous proposition, but now it's actually difficult to get to 10 of these. Each company has a different reason that it hasn't given these games more flexible payment options (FPO should replace F2P; pass it on!), and while some have addressed this publicly, others say nothing and leave us to speculate on it.
For today's Perfect Ten, we're going to look at the 10 biggest current F2P holdouts in the industry and muse about what's going on behind the scenes. Will this list be impossible to do in a few years or will subscription-only titles come back in a big way? Hey, I don't predict things; I just make lists.
Considering that Turbine's been at the vanguard of the charge to give established MMOs flexible payment options, you'd think that Asheron's Call would have joined Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online by now. Not so -- Asheron's Call remains a subscription-only game over a decade since its launch.
When we asked Turbine about this in 2010, it said that Asheron's Call's ancient code would make conversion to F2P much tougher than its newer titles. "Ten-plus years of content would be immensely more difficult to repackage and remake into the model we have for our other titles," Andy Cataldo admitted.
As we're discovering, any new MMO that launches without a F2P option these days instantly is a target for a barrage of questions from players asking "Why not?" Let's face it: From all appearances, RIFT is doing just fine financially and has little reason to cut down on those sweet subscription profits.
While Scott Hartsman has said that a RIFT F2P version would be "a large net negative" for the game, Trion has provided plenty of free play weekends and an unlimited trial up to level 20 to give players a different way to sample the game without paying.
While Turbine pioneered F2P adaptations and SOE has eagerly embraced the business model in the hopes of re-establishing itself as a genre leader, EA Mythic is stubbornly refusing to make any sort of concession in this regard (unless you count Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes, which I certainly do not). It's a studio that's been on the wane ever since 2009 and doesn't appear to have anything new on the horizon (unless you count Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes, which I certainly do not), yet the one thing that could pump some money and attention into its coffers, it's ignoring.
Personally, I don't get it. PvP-centric games are much more dependent on player population than PvE titles, so you'd think that Mythic would want to get as much new blood into DAoC as possible. Instead, the game remains a popular yet aging title that is fading into the black with each successive year.
"We are constantly looking into this. We have some thoughts, some ideas. One of the problems with Dark Age is that it is 10 years old now, so to introduce something that converts it to a F2P model is a bit hard," Kai Schober said last year. "In a PvP game, you have to be careful what people can pay for, and we don't want to turn it into pay-to-win."
Consider the facts: PlanetSide is the sole subscription-only holdout that SOE has these days once Vanguard goes F2P this summer. It's also about to be made obsolete by an MMO "remake" when the F2P PlanetSide 2 comes out. Finally, PlanetSide's not going to be part of the European ProSiebenSat.1 deal. So where does this leave PlanetSide? Will it be scrapped, will it be converted, or will it remain an archaic sub title that nobody plays?
My money is on "scrapped" because I don't see how it makes financial sense to pour any more money into PlanetSide when PS2 will look and play way better while having been built on a F2P model. I'm guessing that when PlanetSide 2 launches, SOE will announce that it's going to migrate PlanetSide players over whether they're willing or not.
Here's one holdout I don't get, and judging by the sheer number of times I've seen the F2P question posed to Mythic, I think nobody else gets either. Warhammer Online, once heralded as the second coming of MMO greatness, is now clinging to life by its fingernails... and yet cries "Get behind me, Satan!" whenever the possibility of changing its payment model comes up.
Seriously? Why wouldn't F2P help this game? Why wouldn't you see the dire position its in and throw that Hail Mary pass that saved the likes of DDO? It's as if Mythic's all but given up, scavenging parts off this MMO to cobble together Wrath of Heroes and then walking away while WAR bleeds to death in the desert.
Mythic defended its position on this in 2011 with this bit of verbal jiu-jitsu: "Yes, we could have attracted a lot of players to it [with F2P], but it's unclear how long you'll keep them. We wanted to support our game as it currently exists."
Declining subscribership aside, WoW is still in a position where it doesn't need to resort to F2P or risk losing certain income with uncertain money. We may want a F2P WoW, but personally, I can never see Blizzard bowing to popular conventions even though it's no longer the trendsetter it once was in the genre.
I'm going to be kinder to the final member of the Mythic trio in regards to F2P. Unlike Mythic's other titles, UO isn't as PvP-centric and does not rely as heavily on a large population to be fun. Plus, we're talking about one of the oldest operating graphical MMOs in existence here, so chances are if you haven't subscribed already to check it out, free-to-play probably wouldn't suck you in. Converting the housing system (players are currently limited to one house per account) could be tricky too.
Would be kinda cool, though.
Earlier this year, our own Brendan Drain tackled the issue of a free-to-play EVE Online. "I think going free-to-play would do wonders for EVE, both for new players and returning veterans," he concluded, and I agree. CCP does seem to be making concessions to freer and more accessible payment models with its other two upcoming titles, and a F2P EVE could help put back on some of those players that it shed over the past year or so.
Like RIFT, SWTOR gets asked the F2P question quite a bit, and I'm sure the devs are sick and tired of hearing it. Oh well, that's what happens when you jump into the adult swim of MMOs instead of sticking to the solo pool! While I know a lot of folks would love to see this happen, there's been no signs that it's anything BioWare wants to pursue.
BioWare's doctors made the good point that F2P and subscription models each offer different benefits for the game: "The free-to-play people can't invest to the level we can invest, and can't create something of the size and scale of something we can create."
Aha, you weren't even thinking of these games, admit it! Honestly, neither was I before doing some research for this column. I'm at a loss to understand why the Final Fantasy titles don't come up in free-to-play discussions, except that perhaps Square-Enix's overall reasoning is so alien to all of us that it's moot to expect the company to react to what's going on in the rest of the MMO world.
In any case, both of these titles still charge per month, even though one is pretty dang old and the other was one of the worst launched titles in recent memory. In fact, Final Fantasy XIV actually went from free-to-play (completely free, in fact) to charging for subscriptions. Will F2P ever make inroads with Square-Enix? I wouldn't hold your breath, or mine, for that matter.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.