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Free for All: Explaining the free-to-play hold-outs


Well, it's official. Free-to-play is not the wave of the future; it is the payment model of today. Games left and right are transforming themselves into free-to-play versions, and the never-ending stream of free-to-play games from foreign lands (a wave that started many years ago) is continuing at its usual breakneck pace. It's quite the understatement to say that we have almost too many choices in the market today. Developers have to fight harder than ever before (yes, even the big ones) for your time and money.

But there are a few old-school holdouts that still refuse to offer some kind of free access, games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call. Why is that? What could they possibly achieve by ignoring the latest trend in payment models, and why does the payment model even matter?

Click past the cut and let's discuss it.

Grumpy Old Men
I've been thinking a lot about this subject for quite some time. That means that I take extra long dog walks and mull it over. (Writers: Dog walks are great for mental rough drafts.) While I would like to think that we have reached beyond the point of considering payment models as though they are some kind of religious belief or political affiliation, the truth is that many players still have very strong feelings about how they pay for their favorite titles. I definitely have my preferences (I'm a free client, cash-shop on the top type of guy; no tier models for me, thanks), but I enjoy games from all types of payment plans.

I think I've come up with a few good reasons why some games continue to stick with the classic $15 (or less) payment model. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

They have an older playerbase. OK, so this reason is not going to stick for every title, of course. Heck, I would wager that the average age of the gamers in a game like Darkfall is 25. As far as the OGs of the North American MMO world are concerned, the playerbases probably skew a bit older. I tend to think of myself as someone from that "older" gamer bracket, and I am 37. I once heard Linda "Brasse" Carlson, Sony Online Entertainment Community Relations Director, talk at GDC Online about how difficult it was to get the EverQuest playerbase to join up on Facebook. After trying many different ways, SOE finally offered free experience potions if the game received enough "likes." Sure enough, the team eventually reached its goal. Many older players, and many older people, tend to think of social media as silly or unnecessary, and it's possible that they view free-to-play as some sort of new-fangled movement. They might have the subscription amount fixed in their budget as well (we older people tend to budget for things), and they rely on those numbers to survive.

"Adjusting their pocketbooks and daily gaming schedules to include trips to the virtual store to pick up experience potions just doesn't sit well with them."

If it's not broken... A player of any age can grow used to playing, and paying, in all sorts of ways. Some players might log in to do their "chores" every night, while another player might only log in on the weekend after 8 p.m. These players play how they want; they have played and paid that way for a long time. So why change the situation? For some, it's simply a matter of habit. Adjusting their pocketbooks and daily gaming schedules to include trips to the virtual store to pick up experience potions just doesn't sit well with them. These are the players who still use the classic Ultima Online client. While many of them claim that the "enhanced" client is ugly and prevents them from enjoying the game, I bet it is more of a case of pride for them. They use the classic client, they pay their monthly fee, and that's the way they like it.

Free-to-play is like a political movement. As odd as it might sound to an outsider (try explaining this to your mother and you'll see just how silly it is), many players see free-to-play as a sort of liberal movement or acceptance of a lazy gamer lifestyle. I feel the same resistance when I make jokes about monster gaming rigs or the pointless hamster wheel of raiding; some gamers just do not like your kind, you lazy freeloaders! To these players, free-to-play represents everything that is wrong with gaming today. Corporate greed, cheap or shoddy development, the nickel-and-diming of the playerbase -- all these things stem from free-to-play. Unfortunately many of these players do not seem to know the difference between true free-to-play and freemium, velvet-rope models, unlimited trials, or any of the other payment models that are out there. All they know is that anything outside of a subscription is alien, untrustworthy and cheap.

The developers see no need for it. I'd like to point out that it is very possible that many of the subscription payment model games are run by developers who simply see no need for change. Imagine knowing (roughly) how many players you have and how many of them will more than likely pay you every month. Free-to-play can be unpredictable and is actually quite difficult to maintain successfully. If your game is free and offers a cash-shop, what happens if your items don't sell one month? What about other free-to-play games? The general rule is that with a low barrier to entry comes a low barrier to exit. A subscription can be safe, predictable and still quite profitable. Many players are claiming games like RIFT and Star Wars the Old Republic will show just how successful the subscription can still be, but I say give it a while longer and we'll see. I could be wrong, of course. It's also important to remember that the developers listen to their playerbases, and if the players don't want free-to-play, then neither do the developers.

There are many other possible reasons why some games offer only a subscription option. While it would seem that the payment model doesn't effect game mechanics or in-game culture, it does. It truly does. How players pay for their hobby is probably one of the most influential factors in game development today, and it's far, far, far from a perfect science. Many developers, especially here in the USA, are just beginning to wrap their heads around different payment models, and they will continue to offer different ones as time goes along.

It will be interesting to see who survives with the subscription-only model. To be honest, I hope they all do. Fifteen bucks or so a month is still a great deal, especially for many of the games I mentioned. There's nothing wrong with a little variety in the market!

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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