The outspoken development director for SoE’s Everquest games, David Georgeson, has talked up the Free to Play (F2P) model again in a recent interview with IGN.
I have had a generally positive experience of the wave of F2P conversions and releases over the last few years. I like his point about the cost of games (the base retail cost, not including discounting post-launch):
paying $60 up front to take a gamble on whether the game is good or not
The thing is I have almost never been that desperate to play games that I would pay full price for it. Yes, maybe for early WoW expansions or the SWTOR release, it was a must buy ready for launch day. But single player games going further back I generally bought on discount from a store or Amazon. I used to buy a lot of games (especially console ones) only after they were put into the budget range.
The response to this that I’ve already seen in the article’s comments is that “free trials + sub works just fine” to avoid buying games you won’t like. That doesn’t actually work that well for me. I can remember doing the free trial of Warhammer Online and being frustrated that it was so short and that it had a low level lock (level 10?). How could I realistically judge the game based just on the first tier and in a couple of weeks with limited and unpredictable free time. A month of trial is a bit better but even then it can be tight if I have a crunch at work or deadlines for study to meet.
Free to play has allowed me to try a lot of MMOs that I would otherwise not have even looked at (including Aion, Tera, and my current favourite Neverwinter). Back when MMOs were sub-only I only ever had one or max two going at a time, so trying a new game was a pretty big commitment. The idea of getting friends to commit just to try a new game was even harder!
Nowadays I’m happy to try new games, there are plenty of duds on the market but also some real gems. You could counter that this freedom has lead to the “3-monther” trend in communities that invade a new game at launch and vanish shortly afterwards. But surely this at least means those games are getting a much bigger potential audience than they would otherwise have had.
It also makes coming back to a game much easier, as per my recent Neverwinter experience. This can have the added knock-on effect of starter zones in games never quite dying out in the way they do in subscription MMOs. My memories of LOTRO’s early zones are coloured by the lack of players to group with when I was first experiencing the already mature game at that time (late 2009).
Georgeson also states that F2P pushes the developers to produce better games:
With free-to-play you get to go in, take a look at it and find out. It’s entirely our responsibility to make sure you’re entertained.
I sort of agree with this, in so far as the freedom to come and go means there’s plenty of competition for your time and cash-shop purchases. With subscription MMOs the expectation was more about long-termism perhaps. I always felt I had to get my “money’s worth” out of sub games which can lead to putting up with boring or grindy gameplay simply to get to the “good stuff” beyond. With no sub-pressure to play if I find gameplay in a F2P game boring I skip it or stop playing.
However there’s another element to this Mr Georgeson doesn’t address. There’s the accusation, or suspicion at least that having a cash shop driving development can also distort the type of content that is developed. If sparkle ponies are making a lot of money then do the developers focus on creating more sparkly mounts (sparkle spider anyone?) and not on say, a new raid tier. I’ve not seen much evidence of this in the games I’ve played so far, but I do worry that as a story-focused casual gamer, story content may well be neglected because it is time-consuming to produce and not necessarily easy to monetise.