Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

The Soapbox: Free-to-play wasn't our idea


Free-to-play is surging. In just a few short years, free-to-play has become the go-to mechanism through which studios broaden audiences, entice players, and build revenue. No other method of monetization has proven to be so lucrative and effective with such consistency, whether it be a monthly subscription fee, a one-time purchase price, or some combination of the two.

Free-to-play's growth has created a world in which non-free games are the exception, not the rule. Of the most popular MMOs and online games as of my typing these words, the vast majority are free-to-play. Games that are bold enough to buck the trend and launch with a sub fee are met with derision and suspicion from the online gaming community; the many thousands of words dedicated to ZeniMax Online's decision to require a subscription for The Elder Scrolls Online are likely the most recent and high-profile examples of this trend in action.

When players complain about a game launching with a subscription, their opinions are often countered by a self-appointed gaming elite who believe that things were better in the good old days, when games cost money and poor people didn't ruin everything by demanding free stuff. The argument summarized is something like, "I am sick and tired of lazy, entitled gamers wanting everything for free."

There's just one problem: Lazy, entitled gamers didn't invent free-to-play. Studios did.

Billions, not millions

As our own Eliot Lefebvre laid out in last week's Soapbox, game companies are businesses that exist to make money. Everything they do, whether it be crafting an expansion to an existing game or making a funny joke in a forum thread, is designed to keep you playing and keep you paying. Free-to-play as a business model didn't come from a bunch of gamers sitting around trying to work out ways to take advantage of developers and get something for nothing, it came from savvy executives who spend every waking moment of their lives searching for the most efficient method to separate gamers from their money.

Simply put, free-to-play brings in the bucks in ways that are often unmatched by other payment models. The MMO and online niches are replete with stories of struggling studios that reversed their fortunes by transitioning their games to F2P. Turbine reported that switching The Lord of the Rings Online into the free-to-play bracket resulted in the tripling of its profits. SOE's EverQuest saw a 150% increase in unique logins after dumping its payment barriers. Titles like TERA, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Aion might not even exist without the use of free-to-play as an emergency financial parachute.

These decisions weren't made because a bunch of whiny gamers demanded access to content without wanting to pay for it. They were made because going free-to-play is good business sense for a studio that's hemorrhaging money and has no alternative for turning the tides. Every game played represents a choice by the consumer, and the great majority of online game consumers are not willing to pay $15 a month for every game they play. Launching with a subscription is effectively making a bet that players will give up on the subscription games they already play and divert those monthly payments into an unproven title. Frankly, it hasn't worked a single time in any long-term capacity since World of Warcraft launched in 2004.

The gaming "elite"

In any closed community, there is a tendency for certain community members to seek ways in which to assign themselves special statuses. These statuses are universally structured to establish superiority over other community members. As it relates to this Soapbox, certain players for some reason like to dump free-to-play fans into a subordinate role identified by inferred commonalities: free-to-play players are casual, free-to-play players are lazy, free-to-play players are entitled, free-to-play players are children, etc.

League of Legends
This method of reasoning avoids what is almost certainly the most important truth of free-to-play design: It is a decision made by the developer or publisher in the hopes that it will result in a higher return on investment. Free-to-play isn't implemented by "lesser" gamers or freeloaders looking to ruin everyone's good time; it is implemented by people who make the games because those people think it will result in the highest possible revenue. Countering a criticism of the sub model by complaining about people who prefer free-to-play games is like arguing that Wal-Mart is a bad company because some people like shopping there. In other words, it misses the point.

Free-to-play is not a perfect payment model. It has many pitfalls and problems, and is far from the perfect and most gamer-friendly method of monetizing any given title. But criticism of the model is only valid if it relates to the model itself -- price gouging, content quality, pay-to-win, and grindy game design are all excellent places to jump off if the goal is poking holes in F2P as a design theory. What is not valid, however, is making assumptions about people who prefer the free-to-play model and using those assumptions to assail free-to-play as a monetization structure.

The real picture

Gamers, whether free-to-play friendly or subscription-for-life diehards, are nothing but dollar signs to games publishers. Free-to-play wasn't created in some compassionate gamer's garage to even the playing field and spread socialized gameplay to the masses; it was assembled in a profit factory by team of nickel-and-diming suits who make unimaginable sums of money for ensuring a publisher's shareholders stay happy when the end of the quarter rolls around.

Arguing against free-to-play games by insulting or demeaning free-to-play gamers doesn't result in any sort of meaningful dialogue. It's not a valid criticism of F2P as a payment model, nor does it offer any sort of thoughtful critique on the state of the games industry or the current hard lean taking place in the online gaming niche. Instead, it serves to divide consumers, leaving them to argue with one another about meaningless perceived differences while publishers continue to rake them all over the coals.

There are plenty of quantifiable and demonstrable issues with free-to-play. From a consumer's point of view, it could be better or worse than a subscription or buy-to-play monetization scheme depending on any number of factors. However, we'll never be able to effectively compare and contrast monetization methods if we insist on inventing personality types to go along with them. Free-to-play exists because somewhere, somehow, a developer or publisher realized it was a more effective method of bilking customers out of cash. Blaming its popularity on some imagined "lazy gamer" archetype is a self-serving act that makes certain community members feel good about themselves while contributing absolutely nothing of value to the conversation.

It is impossible to change the opinion of an opponent if the counter-argument is that the opponent is the problem.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr