Payment model data and evolution

Gamasutra has an article about payment models based on some research of esports gamers. Here’s a link to the article and a link directly to the research report.

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%.


Source: Gamasutra 2016

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?

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10 Responses to Payment model data and evolution

  1. bhagpuss says:

    The apparent love for B2P really mystifies me. If the model really meant that you bought a game and then played it for as long as you wanted, in full, with no restrictions, then the attractions would be obvious but that’s nothing like what we are getting. B2P in the case of BDO or GW2, to give two well-known examples of MMOs using the payment model, means paying a box fee to gain access to a game that then runs primarily off cash shop sales and/or paid DLC. How that would be substantively different, let alone worse, if the games dropped the box fee beats me.

    I suspect the affection for B2P stems from a very longstanding quasi-xenophobic attitude towards the imagined F2P hordes. It allows players who would once have backed subscriptions for the same reason to feel that there is some kind of a wall between them and the ignorant masses. That’s a sense of security , spurious though it may be, that many find worth a single payment of forty or fifty dollars, apparently.

    As a sidebar, it was interesting to see Trinium Wars give up the fight to stay B2P this week. Even with a box fee down in single figures apparently they couldn’t persuade many people to open their wallets. Of course it may be that no-one will want to play that game even now it has gone F2P but being B2P certainly didn’t win it any brownie points.

    • Well, it’s all anecdotal, but my personal experience has been that F2P communities generally are worse than their B2P cousins. I don’t think it’s that free attracts a lesser caliber of player. It’s just that in a free game you can’t effectively moderate the community. Ban someone, and they’ll just come straight back. They might also do that in a B2P game, but they’ll be a lot less inclined to if it costs them money.

      Mind you, WoW’s community is pretty horrific, so I guess it’s not exactly black and white.

      B2P cash shops also, as a rule, tend to be less predatory and less in your face compared to those in F2P games. If they’re not earning money from box sales, they need to make up that deficit somehow.

      As for Trinium Wars, they could pay people to play and still struggle to find enough players. 😛

      • Sylow says:

        Yea. It’s curious, because I basically agree to both of you here. Indeed B2P is kind of a myth for me. No matter which B2P game i recently looked at, it always comes with a cash shop.

        Sure cash shops come in different flavours, some have stat-boost-underwear and other things which give you a significant combat advantage and are far in pay to win country for me. Others sell bag slots like any F2P game, along with gliders, gliders and more gliders. Boosts for extra XP and other convenience stuff sometime also feels odd to me, but at least it’s not breaking the game, just giving you the option between “grind some more” and “pay for speed”. [But that’s as far as i go into cash shop here. ]

        So on paper, B2P really doesn’t have a big advantage to me, if it still comes with a cash shop. But it’s also true that my experience on the community is mostly better in B2P games. It seems like the “entry fee” and thus the risk of loosing money for severe misbehavior is an incentive for people to generally maintain a certain level of manners.

        Mind you, in the rare case that i join PvP stuff in GW2, i also sometimes read some rude stuff, but it’s far from the toxicity of other games. I even found it more irritating to realize that i basically never experienced toxicity in Overwatch and that my “can we now for a change try to all meet and attack together” was perhaps the worst i read there.

        As the game is all about PvP, i still haven’t figured out why the community there was so well behaved. Perhaps they didn’t have the time to use the chat, perhaps the game is still too new and the competitive mindset has not set in so much yet, but also perhaps the risk of loosing a paid account due to bad manners is enough to get people to restrain themselves. I can’t tell.

  2. I think in our little corner of the world, B2P, or perhaps it should be B2CS (buy to cash shop) seemed to stem in part from a few early access successes where people seemed willing to throw money at things that were barely even playable. The elephant in the room is Star Citizen, which has brought in over $100 million yet isn’t a finished product by any stretch of the imagination. And then there was SOE and all the money it made off of H1Z1 in early access.
    So I think it might be less about developers embracing a new model as much as a fear that they might be leaving money on the table. There were cynics (not me) back as far as the SWTOR conversion that thought it had all been planned, that EA wanted to milk as much money as possible out of those who would play before opening the doors to the cheapskates.

  3. Personally I’ve always felt B2P was the best model, so this doesn’t much surprise me. I think the push towards free to play was less about a preference for the model itself and more of a rejection of the traditional subscription, which I dislike. Judging from the data and the trajectory of the industry as a whole, I’m not alone in disdaining subscriptions. Switching to free was sort of an over-correction, the pedulum swinging completely the other way.

    B2P has a lot of things going for it, not the least being simplicity and familiarity. B2P was the norm for all gaming until the days of MMOs and MOBAs, and in retrospect trying such wildly different business models for online games doesn’t seem so wise. Obviously they needed regular cash flow to sustain operation, but it’s becoming clear subscriptions weren’t the way to do that, and F2P may not be ideal either.

    My only minor concern if F2P goes out of fashion is that it makes trying new games a lot more difficult. For some reason developers seem really hesitant to offer free trials for B2P games. I guess they figure the box price isn’t too high a barrier to entry and people will just buy the game if they want to play, but not all of us have enough disposable income for that.

    • Coppertoper says:

      Was going to comment something similar. People are rejcting the sub model because it sort of forces you to get your money’s worth, whereas btp is the door fee that allows access even if you take a 3 month break. WoW is btp and sub – how many people have paid the sub fee without logging in for weeks on end? There is a mental thing going on here with those of us who came into the mmo genre when this was the only option. I for one don’t want to pay for something that costs both an entry fee and a monthly fee when I may not even play the game after the first month due to whatever, but want to junp in on a whim 2 months later. BTP really appeals to me for that reason, and even feels like a deal. BDO and GW2 are outstanding examples of this. So mich content for free that you almost feel oblivated after a couple hundred hrs to pitch in a few bucks on the cash shop.

  4. Pasduil says:

    The problem with all such research is that you first have to ask “Who was actually sampled?” and “How does that sample compare with the population you’re actually interested in?”

    In this case the data was ” voluntarily provided from gamers across a network of game news and reviews sites”, people who are described as “avid gamers” and “esports fans”, and who according the data they submitted mostly play more than 5 times a week.

    Basically there is reason to suppose these are about as hardcore players as you are likely to find. They play a lot, go to news / review sites, and can be bothered to fill in a survey.

    Or to put it another way, they are pretty much the opposite of casual MMO players who are the ones that typically like F2P. And for all we know who make up the vast majority of total players, but it so happens that they are never going to be picked up by such survey methods.

    I’m afraid this kind of survey is not good for proving a heck of a lot about anything much.

  5. Mac says:

    Star Wars Galaxies, pre-NGE.
    This is what style of MMO most of us desire. It was the best example of an open world, complex, social-community building game out there.
    It was subscription. You paid for the game and expansions. You worked hard to earn in-game specialty items or titles or even just to become a Jedi.
    And it was worth it.
    We’ve not seen a better model before, or since. And every MMO afterward seems to drift further away from what the MMO wants.
    I may be nostalgic… but with good reason.
    We need to return to the SWG pre-NGE model.
    Make an incredible game and players Will pay a subscription.

    • Sylow says:

      Unfortunately it is not. Mind you, I was there, I enjoyed pre-NGE SWG a lot. I was there when we did the “funeral” for our guilds creature handlers companions, where I also lay down my Squad Leader badge, before we closed doors and left the game.

      At the same time, it’s not hard to tell why SWG despite being Star Wars and everything, including having flyable spaceships (Wing Commander style, not the weak sauce of SWtoR) and other cool features, was not a huge success: it was much too complex for the normal player. Crafting required more than “3 iron and 3 wood make an axe”, any successful crafting career required to also have connections to other crafters and to work together, etc.

      For those of us who liked it, it was awesome, but for most players it was unwieldy and hard to access. For I think that was still the crucial part of WoW: being easily accessible for everybody, any john doe and his dog could get into the game and play through it up to the raidgame, without having to have any actual abilities or, god beware, having to interact with other players.

      We can keep dreaming about anything like pre-NGE SWG, but realistically any game with similar qualities would only cater to a tiny community and would be shunned by most gamers. 😦

  6. Telwyn says:

    Thanks to all for the interesting comments. I guess B2P mystifies me somewhat as it’s no guarantee of a better community (I found BDO’s general chat to be pretty awful at times), I think combined with actual game mechanics to encourage better behaviour then maybe that works (e.g. GW2’s many coop-oriented systems like the XP for res’ing players).

    As mentioned by several of you the B2P+cash shop just seems to be a new way for companies to extract maximum money from us. I did really like GW1’s DLC/expansion + service model but games have moved way beyond that now.

    @Mac & Sylow. I did try SWG soon after it first launched, it is ‘technically’ my first MMO but I never got past the first month. It was so arcane and seemed so time-intensive for so little value (then as now I view content as the value I, personally, want from a games developer).

    Although F2P seems to be less in vogue now, amongst bloggers and comment websites at least, I still see the low/no cost to entry as being important. Free trials for MMOs have generally been woefully short and given the time needed to even see the potential of a character or the game I rarely got a good sense from a week or two. I’ll admit that personally I haven’t got much problem with buying the game to try it (I did with BDO after all) but others I play with aren’t so happy to invest up-front so B2P as a model may deter me from trying games if I intend to play them with my usual group.

    It seems, sadly, that milking as much money from customers up-front seems to be the norm now rather than actually engaging players longer-term. A good, longish, free-trial followed by B2P would be a great model but I guess that might lose the company revenue from those willing to splash the cash on a whim…

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