The headline blares that “Devs are backing away from Free-to-Play” with a significant majority of the respondents opting for Buy-to-Play (US: 83%, UK: 88%) vs the common alternative models of Free-to-Play or Subscription. That’s the overall figure for all genres, however, including first-person shooters (FPS) and MOBAs. The MMORPG specific data are slightly less clearcut in the US, although still pretty dominated by Buy-to-Play (70%); Free-to-Play is next most popular (20%) and Subscription least with 10%. Interestingly in the UK Buy-to-Play is even less dominant with 57%, Subscription came in second with 38% and Free-to-Play last with only 5%.
The purpose and target audience of the report are somewhat outside the general focus of this blog so I’m cautious in drawing any conclusions from this data. It appears that, at least among those surveyed, there’s a difference in attitudes between these the two highlighted countries. I wonder, however, whether the general MMO-related tastes of esports enthusiasts might be different or skewed compared to a wider sample? For example, action MMOs might be more popular (both as games played and games watched) so some MMOs like LOTRO (F2P) or FFXIV (Sub) might not be as popular among the gamers surveyed. This might distort the stats from an imagined wider set if esports MMO games favour one payment model over the others.
Another anecdotal reason for differences in attitudes to payment models could be the reputation of the companies running those games in each region. Many MMORPGs, especially Asian-made MMOs that get released in the Americas & Europe, are run by different companies in different regions. I would suspect that Aion EU has a rather more polarising reputation than Aion NA for example given significant differences in the F2P model used in those two regions. I believe Tera has a similar issue to Aion in terms of differing F2P models and service levels. Other games have historically had this regional disparity issue as well; I remember distinctly the polarised opinions on Codemaster’s EU service for LOTRO and DDO before Turbine took both games back under direct control.
This reminds me of the discussions over Black Desert Online’s somewhat controversial variations of payment model between regions. The game is F2P in several markets but is B2P in NA and Europe. According to this survey data it seems that Daum has done its homework and is pitching the game to the preferences of their potential audience. That doesn’t stop the complaints over the “cost of entry” or accusations of pay-to-win items in the cash shop.
If the data are even vaguely representative of a wider MMORPG audience then it is certainly interesting that F2P is not the most popular option. Why then are so many games apparently struggling? Is B2P the most attractive and most sustainable model financially in the longer term? There’s not enough examples yet to really say for sure; Guild Wars 2 seems to have fluctuated in visibility and popularity and the more recent change in leadership do hint that things haven’t been going so well since the Heart of Thorns expansion.
There’s certainly a push from multiple studios in the West to encourage players back into subscribing by revamping their subscription benefits (TSW, Wildstar) and/or offering subscriber only content (SWTOR, EQ2).
So is Buy-2-Play in this incarnation just the latest fad, one free of the taint of “nickle-and-dime” F2P models, or does it have more longevity? Will studios really be able to tempt players back to subscription gaming (or even subscription + paid expansions) in the F2P/B2P era?