I thought it was about time I weighed in on the whole free-to-play vs. pay-to-play issue that has been doing the rounds for some time now.
Games were (and still predominantly, are) pay-to-play, in that you purchase the game and then play it, along with paying a monthly subscription fee for MMOs. Some games, such as Modern Warfare 2 and World of Warcraft, have benefitted heavily from this system, since in the former case Activision chose to jack up the PC price from $50 to $60 just because they could (despite the fact that PC games have traditionally been sold at the $50 rate for AAA titles for years now), and in the latter, Blizzard (also owned by Activision) was able to charge $15 a month to around 10 million people for seven years.
By anyone's estimation, that's a large pile of cold, hard cash.
The free-to-play movement is fast gaining traction though. Original titles such as League of Legends, as well as games that originally began as paid but have now transitioned to F2P, such as Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online (both developed by Turbine), Funcom's Age of Conan and Cryptic's Champions Online, have all seen their revenues increased significantly almost immediately following their F2P metamorphoses. Even Valve are getting in on it, by converting Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play game.
Originally I looked down on the free-to-play movement, equating a F2P game with something of lesser quality and aimed at the more casual gamer. Not to say that this isn't true, but it's increasingly becoming the exception, rather than the rule. I myself have played League of Legends for approximately 18 months and the game was of such high a quality that I had no qualms about spending ~$40 in its cash shop over my lifetime of play. I know of many other people who have sunk money into LOTRO or Champions Online, for the same reason.
That being said, there are a couple of caveats that I will not budge from, in order to separate a true free-to-play title from being a simple cash grab that just charges $0 for your first hit. These are:
- Do not sell power. Items in your cash shop should be mostly aesthetic (flashy armour, new hairstyles) or grant a character more utility (faster levelling, more character slots).
- Do not cripple people who choose not to pay.
I want to mention Allods Online as a particular example of how not to implement a free-to-play system in your game. At launch, Allods' cash shop was both ridiculously overpriced and also close to essential if you were anything other than the most casual of casual players.
A 24 slot backpack (8 slots more than the default of 16) at launch cost the equivalent of $20. Overpriced = check.
Allods also had an insane death system when the game was first released. Basically, upon death you would lose 25% of your stats for up to two hours (depending on level). But wait! You could get around this by buying “perfume” in the Allods shop, which would remove the stat debuff from you for the low, low price of around $50 a month for the average player. Quite the steal, right?
The developers (Astrum Nival) and the US publisher (Gala-Net) made significant changes to the cash shop just a couple of weeks later following the predictable backlash, taking such actions as slashing the price of most items and even making “perfume” available at no charge, but the damage was done and Allods Online has become the cautionary tale of how not to launch your free-to-play game.
While Sony continue to say nothing on PlanetSide 2's business model, there do seem to be leanings that some kind of cash shop plus an optional subscription plan will be in the offing. Having great success with Free Realms may have emboldened SOE to pursue this system in PS2, which should at least give it a solid launch userbase if nothing else. I will have no problem giving SOE $10-15 a month for an optional PlanetSide 2 subscription should the game turn out to be even remotely close to what they are promising.
And so there we go. Pay-to-play remains the dominant model but the plucky young free-to-play is fast riding its coattails. In five years time will most games have shifted to the F2P model or is pay-to-play going to make a resounding comeback? Stay tuned.