Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 26, 2011
Everquest 3 will be Free2Play

While I was just recently discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of the Free2Play and monthly subscription business models, it seems that some people can't bury the monthly subscription model fast enough. Thus John Smedley proclaimed his belief that Star Wars: The Old Republic "is going to be the last large scale MMO to use the traditional subscription business model. Why do I think that? Simply put, the world is moving on from this model and over time people aren’t going to accept this method."

I do believe Smed is misinterpreting some things here. SWTOR had nearly half a million pre-orders in North America alone before they even announced a release date. If you *know* that people are going to clamor to be able to play your game, charging them $50 up front and a monthly subscription is just good business sense. Obviously there isn't a huge number of games like this. But I would be really, really surprised if Blizzard's Titan would launch as Free2Play. It is exactly the "large scale MMO" games which will remain monthly subscription in the future.

Thus the only conclusion that I can draw from his statement is that John Smedley believes that the future games of SOE will not have that sort of critical size to support a monthly subscription business model. Expect any future SOE games to be Free2Play right from the start. Which might not be such a bad thing, I do think that designing games to be Free2Play from the start leads to better results than releasing them as monthly subscription and then switching to a different business model after a year.

Smed's comment that subs are dead when at least 80% of western MMO players are playing sub-based games from their competitors sounded more like an admission of defeat than any real insight. It's not that games companies can't make money on sub MMOs it's that SOE can't make money on sub MMOs.

I agree that it's a clear indication that EQ3 will be free to play. But it's not a business model SOE has done especially well with. They split the Eq2 community with the bizarre f2p implementation and they reneged on Free Realms being Free. As someone snarkily said on Shut Up We're Talking it's Five-Bucks-a-Month Realms now.

Still it will be enough to get me to take a look but I'll go in with the attitude that I'll explore as much as I can for free first then only play anything if it's a really good game.
I don't care how any MMO company funds its games. I just care whether I find them enjoyable to play or not. I don't care how much or how little money they make, so long as its sufficient to keep one server up indefinitely.

If EQNext is sub-based I'll pay the sub. If it's Freemium, I'll save some money. I'll be playing it either way. On the other hand, if Titan or SW:ToR launched as completely F2P titles it wouldn't make me any more likely to play either of them, which is not very likely at all. That's because I am very strongly interested in Everquest and hardly interested at all in Star Wars or anything Blizzard have ever produced.

The only way that the payment model would come into the equation would be if I genuinely couldn't afford to pay the monthly sub. And if that was the case then I probably couldn't afford the PC to play it on either.
I'm interested to see if we end up looking at a pure free to play model or if there's still an entry fee (buying a retail box or paying for the initial game). Then again, as high street stores start pushing PC games into increasingly smaller shelf units maybe box shipping is a dying model in itself.
"I do think that designing games to be Free2Play from the start leads to better results than releasing them as monthly subscription and then switching to a different business model after a year."

I have to point out, the first big Free2Play success was DDO. Before that, not charging a monthly subscription was a crazy idea.

Most of the games which switch models today just aren't very good in the first place. Starting out Free2Play wouldn't have made them any better.

I cannot think of one example where I have ever thought, "if this game wasn't designed as Free2Play, it wouldn't have this awesome feature!" Usually quite the opposite, in fact, it wouldn't have these horrible features.

Even World of Tanks. The best you can say is they have designed it very well so that the microtransactions do not hinder the experience, but not add to it. A subscription model WoT would be at least as good.
A subscription model WoT would be at least as good.

No, it wouldn't. One of the key advantages to do lobby-based arena games Free2Play is that other players serve as "content". The more players you have, the faster your battles start. World of Tanks has 5 million players, and hundreds of thousands of concurrent users. If it had been monthly subscription, you would only get between 5% and 10% of that number, and matchmaking would take considerably longer.

Furthermore a subscription WoT would probably have a lot of people unsubscribed after several months. If you pay a subscription, playing a game only once in a while feels like a waste of money. In the Free2Play model any usage frequency is good.
Okay, maybe I should have said "a subscription based WoT would have been designed at least as well." While I agree it is not at all realistic, a subscription based WoT which held 5 million subscribers would be just as good.

There are certainly benefits to the Free2Play model. I just don't see any benefits to designing around a Free2Play model.
Don't you think that for example a LotRO designed from scratch to be Free2Play would have been better than what we have now?

*All* games are designed with their business model in mind. A subscription-based game lives from people playing for the longest time possible, thus is often designed around artificial long grinds. But keeping a players attention just by enough to keep him from unsubscribing is much easier than keeping him really interested in the game. In a Free2Play model revenue from each player is basically a function of how engaged they are. Thus for a successful Free2Play game (and I admit there are a lot of duds), the game needs to keep the players' interest fresh all the time, which makes for a better game.
I don't have a lot of faith in SOE here. I love EQ2 and play it. But of all the free to play games in all the world, the single worst implementation is the EQ2 abomination.
I don't agree. I think if a game is good, people will play it, at least enough people to keep the subscription system afloat.

Take a look at Eve Online. It has been a subscription-based game since launch. I don't think Tranquility (the only server) has seen more than 1,000,000 subscription. Even the current numbers are many times what the game used to have back in 2003-2006.

I think the current trend will continue for a while:

1. Launch an MMO.
2. Charge subscription.
3. Realize X months down the line (where X is directly correlated to the number of months the game spent in development) that your subscription number will not keep the company afloat.
4. Introduce a cash shop. Keep subscription open.
5. Re-launch as an F2P title, keep subscription option You Site Open My idea..
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I can agree that the subscription model does have its own downsides. Although it could be argued that the Free2Play model potentially encourages even longer grinds, which they can sell you ways to speed up.

I think the Guild Wars, or perhaps DDO, model seems to lend itself to the best design style. It is the new content that they are selling you, which means they have to continually be producing content of a quality that you will want to buy. They don't want you to quit the game, but they also don't have any direct reason to keep you grinding for hundreds of hours.
I mostly agree with this. Nice balanced point of view, Tobold.

The AAA companies right now, however, are trying to figure out how to combine monthly subs and microtransactions. This is what we are going to see from Titan at least, and probably SW:TOR, too. At least in the beginning.
F2P maximizes the value from the company perspective by allowing everyone to play and pay at the price that suits them.

Subs cut off the bottom of the market; everyone who doesn't want to pay 15/mo for your game is gone. Everyone who is willing to pay 100/mo for your game only has to pay 15/mo. You are losing money on both ends. Since the cost of an additional player, particularly your average casual player, is close to zero, you don't lose very much at all by allowing them to play a truncated version of the game.
Tobold says: "I do think that designing games to be Free2Play from the start leads to better results than releasing them as monthly subscription and then switching to a different business model after a year".

Better profit results, maybe. But I doubt they lead to better games. Isn't it likely that many games designed from the start to be F2P pay little attention to quality and content? Games designed to be subscription-based can't do that.
"F2P maximizes the value from the company perspective by allowing everyone to play and pay at the price that suits them."

Your model is too simplistic, IMO. Certainly the factors you mention come into play, but subs have advantages too. Lots of people like to get the payment over with and may even pay a 6-month sub and then hardly play for months. If the game was F2P those people would have paid little or nothing.
Isn't it likely that many games designed from the start to be F2P pay little attention to quality and content?

I would say it is extremely unlikely, because if you designed a Free2Play game like that, nobody would ever reach the point where they wanted to pay.

The business model most likely to be designed to low quality and content is the "pay once for the box" type, where the game company has your money before you find out the game is shit.
Gerry, there's nothing stopping you from, say, buying 25000 gold in Wot, which would be enough to buy a premium account for one year.
Of course there will be good FTP games and bad FTP games.

Personally I think the traditional MMO model has severe drawbacks, both because of technical limitations and the need to ensure there is always another carrot for players to chase in a time consuming manner. I can see why the sub model would be attractive to that type of consumer; it limits their expense. A guy who plays 30 hours a week is paying 12.5 cents per hour at 15/mo. A guy who plays 5 hours a week is paying .75 cents an hour. So for the kind of guy who hangs out here, the sub model guarantees an incredibly cheap entertainment experience.

But most people are the guy paying .75 cents an hour and subsidizing the people here. For them a game where you pay when and if you want to is very attractive, because it reverses that dynamic. The guy who plays WOT 120 hours needs a lot more gold than a guy who plays 20. Everyone pays according to how much they consume. I think that's why there's a lot of resistance to the model; people know that if they actually had to pay based on how much they played (while it is possible to play WOT 120 hours for free, even a little bit of cash would make the experience far far more productive in terms of advancing) they'd pay a lot more. FTP threatens the free ride they've been getting for a decade.

I see FTP as the model that encourages companies to build games that are accessible and convenient, where the sub model encourages treadmilling, like rep grinds, endless raid tiers, and the logistical grinding to make sure you can afford to do the raids.
The market of people willing to pay subscriptions is maxxed out. The only way to increase potential number of players is move away from subscription model.

SoE is moving DCUO to free to play next month. How well that does will be a strong indicator of if SoE ever releases a full subscription based mmog ever again.

SoE is just moving down the path that works for them. Subscription based model has just not worked for them recently. At the same time they have had continued success in extracting increased revenue from existing games with items shops.

SoE is just embracing what works for them.
I think you miss the point. I think the larger point is that even the AAA games would make more money if they were F2P than if they were subscription based. This seems to be a very difficult thing for the average MMO gamer to comprehend but every F2P game to date thus far has proven this true, including big games such as Maple Story which as a player base equal to WoW (if not larger).

I think more than anything it is a growing recognition by MMO companies on how to make money.

There is a book called "Free" out there that is actually quite good. Go read it, it is worth it.

The basic point is that you generally will get a greater number of people playing your game for free than you would for not, and even though most won't on average pay the same per month as a sub would, you still end up ahead when you total everyone into that.

(I have a friend btw who totally hates the FTP model who actually paid for a free game because it was a game he enjoyed so much that he thought the company deserved his money. This actually reminds me of Radiohead's "In Rainbows" album which did better when it was free than when they sold it in the store, the record industry really didn't like that).
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