Free to Play: The value of zero

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Recently I read about Min Kim, VP of Nexon America, commenting that he thinks that their new set of games might actually be looked over because of the lack of a subscription. Essentially, it is the same quandary that an artist gets into when he or she wonders how much to sell their art for. I used to be scolded by my fellow artists all the time for not charging enough for works of art, the argument being that something handed out for too low of a price is often seen as gimmicky or cheap. As Kim put it, if "someone were to pass you a gift card worth $100, and they say, 'Hey take this, it's free.' Initially you would clam up and go, 'Wait, what's the catch?'" He pointed out that many subscription based developers might have to start giving more bang for a player's buck in order to keep up with the new, higher quality games that are coming from the FTP market. It will be interesting to see if this happens or not.

But I can totally see what he means about pricing, or the lack of. My artist friends and I used to have those discussions about pricing for hours. I used to practically give the stuff away not because I thought it was bad, but because I just saw it as something I wanted people to enjoy. One of my friends told me he set his prices sort of high, and that this created a "value" for the item, something that the collector could claim that the piece was worth. If you look at the millions of dollars that some art brings, you have to wonder: is it only worth that amount because someone paid for it?

Free-to-play developers seem to be going through a lot of these growing pains, these questions about what Americans will pay for, and what they will avoid and, ironically, what they will take for free.

When you say "free," many people tend to think that this means that the free product is of lower quality. Frankly, for many years the free-to-play market has been saturated with pretty lousy games. The stereotypes of grindy, cartoony, and spammy game-play existed for a reason. Although over the last 6 or 7 years I have found the gems within the bunch, I too grew pretty tired of seeing yet another free-to-play game that existed only to make me push the same three buttons over and over.

But that has changed over the last 3 or 4 years. Games are coming into the market that, as Kim said, are giving subscription model games a run for their money. Not only that, but the fact that most of them (yes, most) can be played for absolutely nothing even until the "end-game" has put even more pressure on the subscription market. Sub market developers will have to start ramping up their quality to meet or exceed the quality of the free-to-play, or hybrid, market.

"So how would the free-to-play developers combat the issue with "free" being seen as either something for children, weaklings, non-gamers or cheapskate robots? They just have to continue making quality games."

Yet it still surprises me how many players will literally avoid a game simply because it is free-to-play. A good deal of the time those players have not even attempted to play many, if any at all, free-to-play games. Or they are basing their opinions on one or two Korean grinders that they experienced a few years ago. Not only does "free" imply that the game might be of lower quality (after all, why is it free?) but to many players it also implies some sort of style of gameplay or even some sort of lifestyle.

In fact, I am going to go out a limb here and compare the prejudice that many gamers have towards free-to-play games as some sort of snobbery, as some kind of claim that subscription games and North American games in general are more of a legitimate experience than what the free-to-play market has to offer. It can't be the cartoony graphics, being that pretty much all MMORPGs have some part of their game that is not at all realistic. It can't be the gameplay, being that both free-to-play and subscription based developers hear the same gripes like "it's too much of a grind" or "the content is repetitive." So I am wagering that there is some sort of pride in both communities, some sort of football team loyalty that really cannot be explained.

So how will the free-to-play developers combat the issue of "free" being seen as either something for children, weaklings, non-gamers or cheapskate robots? They just have to continue making quality games. If you look at the recent offerings that have "broken through" or that came closer to normalizing free-to-play, you will find games like Dungeons and Dragons Online Unlimited, Allods (yes, Allods. Despite the cash shop pricing issues, the game was and still is of high quality and is doing very well) Free Realms, Wizard 101, Mabinogi, Runescape or Fusion Fall. How did they do it? How did they weather the storm and come out as games that many NA gamers accept?

They continued to stick to their pricing structure (free or free with a choice) and continued to put out a quality product. There's really no magic to it, and no secret formula. A good game that is done well will eventually be accepted. What many NA gamers are railing against is not only the cash-shop, but also against the thought that free-to-play is a type of gaming that is full of non-stop grind fests and bot-infestations. It's much like asking a heavy metal fan to give country music a try (and I mean this "new" country. Eew.)

And you can see what kind of damage rumor or perception can do to a game. Vanguard, one of my favorite games, still suffers from the perception that it can not run on anything less than a super computer. Players might "hear" things all the time, usually meaning that they read it on a forum thread somewhere. What they heard then becomes gospel to that player, and they will tell more people.

Maybe free-to-play games are going to find their savior in the form of today's 13 year old gamers. After all, more children are gaming more than ever now and on more computers than ever before. Netbooks, mobile phones and other portable devices are ensuring that young gamers will be experiencing more game play in more areas of their life than my generation ever did.

Nexon seems to know this if last summer's GDC Austin was any indication. They seem very keyed in to the fact that the gamers that are playing MapleStory today will be graduating to other more "mature" offerings next year. Nexon wants to be there to give them the game. What better company to offer the next crop of free-to-play games to young free-to-play gamers than the company that has been making them all along? Those 13 year olds are going to be the first community that has grown up on free-to-play and that is perfectly comfortable in playing those games. The older generation will start to accept them, too, but it will take more time. After all, youngsters with tattoos used to be somewhat shocking. Now, you see them on every soccer mom at the local grocery.

So, what value does nothing have? A lot, apparently. Free-to-play games are making some serious profit, and more are coming. Min Kim does have a point, though, in wondering if the NA market will take a high quality free-to-play game and wonder "what the catch is." But something inside of me tells me that despite his questions, he knows darn well that the value of nothing can be pretty high.
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