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Free for All: How free is freemium?


Welcome to Free for All, a weekly column highlighting the world of Free to Play/Freemium games! The new generation of free-to-play games are not only of the same quality as many "standard" MMOs, but they give players a chance to try them out before they ever spend a dime (if they choose to). I am going to try to make sense out of the masses with this column, so wish me luck and thanks for reading!

Freemium is one of those rare hybrid terms that is used to describe some games in the MMO market. Yet, what does it mean? I prefer to use the term "velvet rope", because it places a good picture in your head as to how the game might work.

I decided to examine what the term means, and what it might say to a potential player. The best way for me to do this is to look at some "freemium" games that not only do it well, but are some of the most successful games out there, regardless of subscription model.

1) Free Realms
: SOE's hit currently has around 9 million accounts (how many unique players is to be seen, though) and shows no signs of stopping. They recently went through a membership change, essentially taking away most free access in exchange for an "unlimited trial" that allows a player to play each job until level 5 (with 15 jobs that's pretty good!) and to explore most areas of the game. Membership is cheap (around 5 dollars), as with most "velvet rope" games, but even without it you can still spend in-game currency on many cool items. You also get a free living area to decorate, (larger ones can be paid for with membership) and can hang out and party just like a paid member.

2) Runescape: While membership buys you more, the free account gives you plenty to do. Essentially, Runescape tempts you to sign up with membership (which is, again, very cheap at around 5 dollars) by letting you own a house, unlock new areas and skills, have more exclusive quests and to play in full-screen mode. This is considered the "you have some good stuff, but how would you like MORE?" model.

3) Wizard101: Another "unlimited trial" type game, but it takes it a bit further. For about 5 dollars a month (catch the theme?) you gain access to all areas of the world, access to PvP, lands and castles to decorate, a wider chat experience and access to the message boards. A good part of memberships (subscriptions), especially in "kids' games", is designed to help adults that play gain access to more communication tools. In Wizard101, a very successful "kids' game", chat filters and payments are something to be handled by adults, so their subscription style reflects that.

4) Fusion Fall: Another "velvet rope" type of game, this neat browser-based game gives you plenty of access and things to do, yet adds on more character slots, access to more "nanos" (think in-game pets with special abilities) and full access to the entire map with membership. A step above an "unlimited free trial" game, you can exist in the free account world for quite a while and have an incredible time. Again, access is cheap -- around 6 dollars a month. Rumor has it that the game will be completely free sometime in the near future, though.

Why is this business model a good one to go with as a developer? In my opinion, it allows players plenty of time to get hooked into the product. We all know someone who, within hours of downloading a certain pay-to-play trial, rushes to the website to subscribe. Now imagine if you were able to build up a character, establish relationships in-game, and explore a good portion of the world right away. How fast would you sign up to experience more?

Some players seem to think that this is a bait-and-switch -- a chance for greedy developers to get you sucked into their game, only to ask for money in the end. This is, in essence, the same as a 14 day trial of your favorite MMO, minus the time limit. WAR recently switched to what is essentially a "velvet rope" model, allowing players to play through all of the the Tier 1 content for free, forever. It's a great way to experience the game and a great way for developers to encourage you to buy it once you hit the end of the trial.

Ryzom used to allow players to play for free, forever, on their "trial island", as long as they understood that at a certain point mobs and activities would no longer give XP (the level cap was around 50, if I remember correctly.) I loved this unlimited free trial and knew many players who stayed on the island to help out, role-play, and explore.

There really is no difference in allowing your players free unlimited access to a limited amount of content, and allowing your players that same limited access to a heftier amount of content, with the option to add on. The "velvet rope" is a great way to hook the player, without making them feel rushed. Often, after playing through a 14 day trial and being faced with the purchase of a digital copy of the game (50 dollars) as well as with a monthly fee (15 dollars) and paying for any expansions (instead of getting them for free which is the practice in most velvet rope games), I decide to take my time and money elsewhere.

But if that trial had been unlimited, I would have had even more time to build my character, to forge relationships and to explore the world. Essentially, I could play to the same limit but on my schedule. This allows players who work many hours, have children or are generally busy to enjoy the game with the option to buy.

So, if you look at most popular "freemium" games, you will see a very successful pricing option. But, is it truly "free" or just a subscription game under a different title? It is a little of both, it seems -- somewhere squarely in the middle. And developers are noticing! In an older interview, Kingsisle's Todd Coleman gave some insight into how this model works for Wizard101:

"Free-to-play is a very different model from retail boxes, WoW may be an exception to this, but you come out and day 1, you get all these sales. And that is effectively the highest number users you're going to have, because the next day, you start losing and you bleed and you bleed and you bleed and, eventually, you put an expansion pack out and then hope that pops up a whole new curve like the last one, only a little higher or at least equal to it.

So, you're fighting a war of attrition the entire time. FTP is not like that, at least it hasn't been for us. Every day we get more people coming in, and the game is sticking up or keeping a pretty good chunk of them. So our loyal fan base of subscribers grows, our number of people spending micro payments and buying areas one by one by one, that's growing. And then the number of peak players grows and then the number of free trial players grows. And then, we still have people that signed on back in September when we first launched that are just deciding now to become subscribers. I mean, it's crazy. It's a very, very different model.

Instead of that kind of peak and drop off, it's a growth curve that just goes up and up and up and up and up. So, it's very, very different from my experience."

As you can see, the freemium model supports a constant flow of new players, instead of just trying to retain older players. New players become loyal customers, word of mouth grows, and that brings in -- you guessed it -- more new players.

In the end, I believe freemium (or "velvet rope") games are downright brilliant.

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