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Is Free a Good Thing for MMOs?

/ Jul 2nd, 2011 No Comments

In the past year we’ve seen a glutton of MMORPG games go free to play, with the hopes of gaining users and keeping their games afloat. While I am always for free things in life, I might have finally found something where free doesn’t mean I’m happy. With so many MMORPGs going to a free model, is the industry better off?

What really prompted me to write this article was when Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft would be free to play up to level 20 with major restrictions. I actually think this model is a decent idea, akin to a free trial, which they already offered.  However, a lot of games are moving to a hybrid model where most of the game is free to play but accessing certain zones or features requires the nominal subscription fee.  I’m not sure this is really in the best interest of the gaming industry, but I fully admit to sitting on the fence with this development and having not really made up my mind.

Pros for Free to Play

Uhhh yeah – DUH. Free.  Free is a good thing. That’s a major pro. I don’t have to shell out $50 just to buy the box and then install it, only to play the game for a month and then figure out if I want to keep paying $10-$15 per month to keep playing.  That’s a great thing for a consumer to enjoy and moving past that, the idea that I can play forever for free makes it great in this day and age where we are still suffering financially in a global economy.  Games that are free to play will have their numbers inflated in the short term for sure, exposing some good (but underrated) games to a new crowd.

Cons for Free to Play

Here’s where I might start to be a little unpopular around the gamers.  I think for free to play games there’s a huge incentive to dumb down content and make the games significantly less cool and fun than they should be. I don’t mind paying a premium to make sure cool new content comes out all the time and that I get a fully featured game.  I also like the fact that I am playing alongside dedicated gamers fully invested into a game, rather than hanging out with a bunch of people online that don’t give a damn because they have nothing truly invested in the game or their character.  If we look back into the history of video games, how many truly awesome games have there been released that were free?  Very few, if any off the top of my head. I’m a big believer that if you reward someone for their hard work, they typically continue to have an incentive to work hard, or just keep their job. I don’t think we’ve seen the free to play MMO model actually work financially in the long term (3-5 years).  So, while it might seem great on the surface, it makes a lot more sense to think that a game that requires a subscription fee will produce a better product and be sustainable into the future, while all your time at a free to play MMO might be in vain because it’ll simply vanish in a year’s time because there was no revenue coming in to sustain the infrastructure of the game or new content.

So Which Model Works Best?

I think it’s all a matter of perspective. For big-scope games like WoW or Rift or the upcoming SWTOR, the paid model has to be the way to go to sustain the needs of the community – new content, new features and huge scope.  For smaller MMOs, I think you might be able to get away with a free to play model and offer players the ability to buy items/features in-game.  That model has worked wonders for Zynga certainly, but the Facebook game model may not translate over to isolated games unaffiliated with 600 million potential visitors.

Can I Make Up my Mind?

Ugh – no. I had hoped with this editorial to figure out where I sit with this emerging sector of the gaming industry. While people are looking at Zynga and thinking they can replicate their success in the MMO space, I have serious reservations about the sustainability of that model in this space.  While I speak for myself and say that I’m willing to pay for a premium for MMO games, I can understand that the younger gamers and financially misfortunate would justifiably disagree.  I guess time will tell if the free to play model is actually financially feasible for companies in the long term and if the content will keep gamers happy to actually spend some money in-game and keep coming back to play.

Sean W. Gibson

Sean W. Gibson

Founder, Featured Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
Sean Gibson has been the owner and Executive Editor of Gaming Illustrated for over eleven years. His roles include acting as CEO and President of Gaming Illustrated, LLC and also includes being a reviewer, previewer and interviewer. Sean's opinions on this site do not reflect those of his full-time employer.
Sean W. Gibson
Sean W. Gibson


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