The end of pay-to-play
The attentive observer of the online games market has noticed that more and more AAA MMOs have announced their switch to the Free-to-play model. This is not a new development, it’s just a sudden acceleration of a long-term trend that reached the tipping point.
The biggest F2P MMO in Europe, Metin2, was originally launched in 2006 as a subscrition game, and quickly repositioned as Free-to-play when it failed to gain traction. Since then, switching a struggling game to free-to-play has been a popular tactic, but for some games it did little to renew interest and bring a new audience, most of the time when it was too late already to adapt the whole game design and the way to run operations to the new model. That’s what happened to games like The Chronicles of Spellborn, which unsuccessfully switched to a not-quite-F2P model after an unsuccessful launch. The game just announced its definitive closure.
For some other games, like Turbine’s Dungeon and Dragons Online, it did bring a second youth and new players. Encouraged by the success of the tactic (or discouraged by its subscribers numbers), Turbine has since announced that its flagship MMO, Lord of the Rings Online, will switch to a Free to Play model at the end of the year. SOE has also announced recently that EverQuest2 was going free to play too. EverQuest 2 has been around since 2004 and isn’t getting any younger, so it’s probably an attempt from SOE to keep its existing base and attract ex-players.
Because, if everybody agrees that subscription is a barrier to entry, it’s also often overlooked as a barrier to re-entry, which is the main problem that declining games are facing.
We are curious to see how many more announcements there will be in the coming months, as the less pay-to-play MMOs remain, the more difficult it is for each one to keep the model. Games like Lineage 2 and City of Heroes at NCsoft could certainly be considering it, but even more recent games who did not meet the expected level of success like Warhammer Online or Age of Conan could be tempted.
The difficulty resides in finding the investment and expertise to develop the game around a new business model, while forgoing the existing revenue streams, which can be a huge gamble. This is also a difficult community management exercise, as first most people express discontent at having paid for something that is now free (a problem every company has when lowering the price of a product), and then if it is successful in growing the game’s audience, the reaction from the initial community can be very negative at the afflux of freeriders coming in. Not only are they n00bs, but non-paying ones at that!
It’s interesting to note that some recent or not even in Beta yet indie subscription games have also announced their switch to free to play. The thing is, given the state of the AAA (understand “subscription-based”) MMO market in the West (which is flattening according to a brand new report by Strategy Analytics), it’s going to be very difficult for new games to be in a position to demand a subscription from players. The only games in position to keep the pay-to-play model will probably be the very niche games, where subscription is not the biggest barrier to entry and whose players are price inelastic (I doubt EVE Online would get much more players if it was free), and uber blockbusters which can command this premium (Star Wars Old Republic will probably still launch pay-to-play). Even the biggest blockbusters might have trouble staying P2P, and those of the future might not be . The free to play offering is now so diverse and qualitative that it’s difficult to see what other type of game can now successfully launch pay to play. Attention is precious and the online model is games paying to acquire users, not the other way round.
We’re still noticing a lot of contempt in the generalist video games media for free-to-play games, when they are just not realizing that they are becoming the norm, and that the trend is accelerating. These media will go the same way of the pay-to-play games if they don’t get educated about free to play soon.
Tags: Age of Conan, Alganon, Black Prophecy, Business Model, City of Heroes, DDO, Eve Online, EverQuest 2, free to play, Game Industry, Lineage 2, LOTRO, Metin2, Star Wars : Old Republic, Warhammer Online