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The Game Archaeologist: Will classic MMOs survive without free-to-play?


It's amazing to me how quickly the industry has shifted to where we don't just welcome free-to-play as a business model in MMOs -- we downright expect it. Take a look in the comments of any new MMO that dares to launch with a subscription-only model: People will be tripping over each other in an attempt to predict just when said game will break down and admit that it needs F2P. Whether or not BioWare's admission that it's looking into F2P for Star Wars: The Old Republic surprised you or not, it's a sign that no game is immune to the allure, dollar signs, and downright necessity of the popularity and flexibility of this model.

I think this brings a pressing question to bear in the field of classic MMOs: Will they survive without free-to-play? It's a pretty important question for a few reasons. One, a surprising majority of remaining sub-only MMOs are older ones; two, people now expect free in games they try; and three, players aren't exactly flocking to classic MMOs anyway.

This week I want to explore the conundrum that these games are in and why some players may have blinders on when it comes to the fate of their favorite games.

The Game Archaeologist Will classic MMOs survive without freetoplay
The question of converting

For what it's worth, I don't think that anybody from studios that run these classic titles has his head in the sand regarding this issue. Free-to-play is pretty much impossible to ignore at this point. But these devs have a problem: Their games were structured around and have run for years with a subscription-only business model, and conversion would cost both money and time on behalf of the company.

I'm no business expert, but I think the bottom line has to be whether or not it would be financially worth it to do so. Adopting a straight free-to-play or a hybrid model isn't like changing a line of code; there's a ton to do to make it happen, from deciding how it'll be structured to marketing it to getting into the game's code all over the place. Some studios may glance enviously at F2P and wish they could do it, but the team is too small, the dollars stretched too tight, and the suits are too unwilling to make the leap.

The Game Archaeologist Will classic MMOs survive without freetoplay
The question of possibility

Turbine's an interesting case study for this topic. Dungeons and Dragons Online was a substantial risk for the studio, as converting a sub-only title to a F2P model hadn't really been done before quite the same way before. Yet without it, DDO would've most likely died, and so it was a gamble to either cut losses or try for something greater. Turbine made out on this like a bandit, and Lord of the Rings Online followed shortly thereafter.

Yet despite how fully Turbine embraced F2P, it didn't bother with Asheron's Call, the patriarch of the studio. How come? When I asked Turbine about this back in 2010, I was told that the game is too complex and old to adapt. AC was examined and found lacking as a F2P candidate, and subscription-only it will remain.

On the flip side, you have Sony Online Entertainment, which converted EverQuest earlier this year to F2P and is about to do the same for Vanguard. Vanguard, the game that has to have a player population down in the double digits, is being given new life as a F2P title. What gives? What makes these games worthy of the procedure?

While the bottom line with SOE is financial, I see that studio as more willing to prop up its smaller titles in exchange for a diverse library (which is pretty much its strongest suit these days). The studio had already established its F2P adaptation process and structure, so shifting it over to these older games wasn't like starting from scratch. Plus, it's not like every old game was thrust into F2P; EverQuest Online Adventures was axed because its population was far too small to justify it and the system it ran on was nearing obsoletion.

The Game Archaeologist Will classic MMOs survive without freetoplay
The question of the future

Of course, I hear some of you right now: "Leave my game alone! We don't need F2P; we're doing just fine!"

Are you, though?

Let me ask you this: What is drawing new players to your classic MMO of choice? Word of mouth and the occasional curiosity-seeker only goes so far, and most of these titles are far past the days of releasing expansions for additional publicity and profit. So what's bringing new players in? The answer is, of course, nothing. And when you have very little in terms of influx but a statistical surety of outgoing players, the population and revenue is going to continually slide downhill, leaving little hope for the game's future.

I'm not trying to be mean here. You all know that I root for these titles like crazy (after all, why else would I write this column?), but facts are facts. Without anything pulling new players -- and their revenue -- into the games, these MMOs are living on borrowed time, even moreso than other games. It's just a hard sell to ask a new player to plunk down a subscription fee for an older game.

I understand that there's some reluctance to embrace a new business model. Your game's small, tight-knit community is one of the things you love best about it. You feel protective of it and don't want to see a bunch of slack-jawed tourists stampede in. But if making that move will give your title a fighting chance to live a lot longer, isn't it worth some adjustment on your part?

Free-to-play conversions can be an exciting time for older MMOs. It gives them a burst of high profile in the media (just ask EverQuest), and if the established community is welcoming, it can be a blast to show all of these new souls what makes this game so lovable. Plus, there's something energetic about seeing servers and chat channels fill up with fresh blood. Seeing the game through a newbie's perspective can often revitalize your own interest.

If we want to see these games endure, they're going to need to adapt, and the community is going to need to adapt alongside of it.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

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