Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Free isn't free

If you are a very literal minded person, you might wonder why MMORPGs that failed to attract a sufficient number of subscribers then go "free to play". Surely free is less than a subscription, so the game should make even less money, shouldn't it? Well, free isn't free, and a move to Free2Play can triple revenues.

One of these very literal people is Keen, who is stating that we're willing to pay for value, so we don't need "free" MMORPGs. Like anybody with an interest in economics, I very much agree that people are willing to pay for value. Keen says: "Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.". Right, but what exactly do game companies charge for, and under what circumstances will that dissuade people from playing?

Subscription games charge for access to the game after the usual first free month. Meaning you bought a game for full price, and then they charge you extra for actually playing it after one month. It is pretty easy to see how that can dissuade players, who feel they should have the right to play a game they paid full price for. "Access to the game", paid for by month, also doesn't have the same value to every potential customer. Obviously if you play few hours per month, that monthly access might look rather expensive. If you disagree with that, try to think of the reverse case: What if the game charged you for access by hour? In that case the person playing a lot would find access more expensive than the person playing very little.

In a Free2Play game, access to the game is given away for free. But that is where free ends. If that is all you need, that is obviously a great value proposition. But if you want a larger inventory space, more characters, sparkly ponies, and other virtual goods in the game, you will need to pay. To somebody who plays not very much, that could well still look like a great value for money. In the subscription game he could very well have to pay WITHOUT getting the virtual goods he wants, because they are locked behind a time wall, for example by requiring a certain time investment into raiding.

Free isn't free. It is pay what you want for whatever from the shop that you want. That dissuades a lot less people than the paying for access business model. MMORPG players aren't cheapskates, they know what they want, and are willing to pay for value. Which is why we are discussing when the 2014 crop of subscription games is going Free2Play. Most people decided that just access to the game wasn't value enough to pay for.

Having played all of the various models, I far prefer B2P over the subscription or F2P models.

Subscription models tend to put pressure on the play sessions. I'd probably still be dinking around in WoD once a week if I didn't need to shell out $15 for it.

F2P models tend to distort game design in ways I find annoying. I always wind up sitting down after an hour or so of play and calculating how much it would cost to get to a competitive level. Pretty much always a bad deal.

I get that an MMO costs more to run than single console B2P games. However, if they have to charge more, I'd prefer a pricing model where I would have the option to buy a quarterly content patch (zone + dungeon + new raid).
I think there are two changes from the 90s that sometimes do not get reflected in 2015 discussions:

1) "Every" game, f2p, b2p, hybrid, has a cash shop. What exactly is the difference between a "f2p" game with a cash shop and a "b2p" game with a cash shop, other than the initial cost?

2) Players are far less monogamous. If there are only two MMOs and I am going to play exactly one for 12 months/year, then $15/month is truly a bargain. If I am playing several, intermittently throughout the year, then I really prefer any monetization over $15/month. ($15/month with a $150 lifetime for games I really like is fine though.) I just don't want to have to do the "am I getting enough value from MMO#3" or want to play #2 and can't because I am unsubbed or worst of all "I don't really want to log into #1 but I am spending ..."

tl;dr: anything but $15/month

One thing I have noted recently is that 10 years ago, $15 a month was a fraction of what you would pay for a month's worth of regular games. Today, with Steam sales and much cheaper games like mobile games, you actually could work within a budget of $15 a month for regular games.
The situations seem more complex than a lot of the internet discussions. I.e., if I can buy any pet/mount from SWTOR's cash shop with ingame currency but for the 14 months, i.e. US$210, that WoW did not have any new content for subscribers, they added things to the cash shop that could not be acquired by [legal] in-game efforts. It is counterintuitive that the $15/month game is the one locking items behind RL$-only walls.

Today's complication is

We've gotten an official announcement from Blizzard saying that Veteran Edition is coming with patch 6.1 as a way for players who have ever had a subscription to log on, chat (with restrictions) and play (also with restrictions) even after their subscription has lapsed. This version of the game will have all of the restrictions the Starter Edition has, but let you check in with the game (and your friends) without paying for subscription time.

"The Times They Are A-Changin'"
Worth mentioning: The other benefit to F2P is that diehard fans who love the game and invest lots of time and effort in it can (and usually are) willing to pay more than the standard subscription fee, but if the only payment method an MMO has is subscription, then they can't get at all that extra money. F2P allows people to spend as much as they want to. (And as most industry-savvy folks know, this gives rise to the biggest spenders known as 'whales' who for many games - especially mobile - provide anywhere up to 90% of the total revenue.)
I honestly don't understand why there can't be a hybrid model that supports both playstyles(the time rich, or money rich).

Let the money rich player pay for items in the item shop to support their playtime. Let me pay my subscription and be able to earn that same item through questing, raiding, or some other in-game mechanic.

I know the technology exists to make this why isnt it being done?
Chris, I like your thinking. But I see one problem to be overcome. If a raid-useful item is sold in the cash-shop, and is also available through questing, raiding or some other in-game mechanic, competitive raiders _must_ buy it from the cash shop, so that they can devote the time they spend in-game to improving other aspects of their character. If they don't, they are not as competitive as they could be.

It doesn't matter that they will reach that level later. Later is too late. Time is of the essence if they are to keep their raid slot against somebody who has spent the same amount of time in-game, and also bought the item in the cash shop.

A similar argument applies to PvP, of course, or any other competitive element of the game (pet-battles, for instance).
@Dàchéng: It surprises me that you see this effect so clearly for the raider, but can't understand that a non-raider pet collector or mount collector might think exactly the same.

Your division into toy and game is artificial, and basically just another way of saying that you're playing the "real" game and people with different goals are not.

In my opinion somebody who spends money in a game with an item shop, whether that is a mount in WoW, a hat in TF2, or a champion in LoL, feels he "needs" that item. And this need is as strong as that of the raider who "needs" to buy that epic to stay competitive. People always buy what is of value to them, it is just that what is of value to somebody can differ very much from one person to the next.
I don't know if it really maps very well onto the problems of the MMORPG world, but on reading that last line "what is of value to somebody can differ very much from one person to the next" it struck me: you can't have a society without shared values.
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