Debate: Free To Play vs. Pay To Play

A debate has been raging on what kind of MMOs are best – Free to Play or Pay to Play. On February 24th, I was given the honor of sitting in on Xfire’s Debate Club as we spoke and debated about which MMOs are the best between those two choices. Before one can even begin debating over such a thing, the definitions of “Free to Play” and “Pay to Play” need to be established. I can see conflicting definitions being given for these, though, as I could almost find a third type of MMO to add to these.

Free 2 Play – When I think of this type, I figure it’s one of those games that you can find on the internet, download a client, and just jump in and play, no strings attached. But I also wonder where the fine line is drawn between this and a game such as Guild Wars, where you pay to purchase the game, but playing from then on is subscription-free. Technically, this is where I find a third catagory could be added, although, the only title I could think to come up with for this would be “Pay 2 Buy“. Getting even more technical, Guild Wars is actually a CORPG, so while it is an online role playing game just like any of the others, it CAN be played, and beaten, by playing on your own. The one issue with that though is that you still require an internet connection, as Guild Wars is still an online game no matter how you play it. Wikipedia agrees: “Free-to-play… refers to any game that has an option of allowing its players to play without paying.”.

Pay 2 Play – This type of MMO is obvious, as most of the major mainstream MMOs use this methodology to maintain their game. Pay to play basically refers to the fact that the player must pay a monthly subscription fee in order to continue to access the game. Many popular MMOs such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online have adopted this technique, and have been very successful in doing so. Usually this subscription is around $15 per month, and rarely do you see a game deviate from this, as it has become such a norm in the gaming world. Once again, Wikipedia agrees: “[Pay to Play] refers to MMORPG games, where players must pay to maintain a playing account…”.

On the main page of the debate, Xfire provided some sample questions that I thought I would begin by answering. These are pretty simple and non-complex questions, but are still interesting questions that can bring in some heavy debate depending on the player.

  • Free sounds good, but what are the trade-offs?

Of course, free sounds good to anyone, but does that mean you’re going to get the best product? Many will argue that you can still get a great game even if you don’t have to pay for it. First off, I’ll admit, I don’t play any of the free games, so I don’t have a whole ton of experience with them, but that’s just because I’ve seen such a similar aspect in most, if not all of them. Many of the free games that I’ve seen are adventure games, in which you create a character, adventure in the world, kill monsters, etc. They don’t have as much of a budget as a pay-to-play game can afford with the income that they will make, so they are forced to start out with a limited amount of assests. One thing that I’ve noticed though, that tends to upset me when it comes to free-to-play games, is the fact that they have to use microtransactions to make their money. While players can decide just to not pay for anything, there are some MMOs that will give you better gear, or a leg up on other players, just for spending some real money on an item that they are selling. Especially if this is an adventure-type game, and there is PvP involved, this can greatly skew and ruin the gameplay factor for those players who decide not to spend the money on any of the premium items. After all of this though, it’s these microtransactions that help drive the game and keep it alive in the first place. There are some free-to-play games that, if made by a big enough company, will already have a sustaining budget put into place before hand, but others, especially start-ups, will require a member base who are willing to pay for this extra content. Since players are not paying to play the game in the first place, they require some kind of income in order to continue service, in most cases. Unfortunately, they are still running on a specific budget, as much of their income must stay in upkeep of the servers, followed afterwards by making improvements and additions to the current state of the game.

  • Does quality or quantity matter more?

First of all, it’s good to clarify what they could mean by this. I am going to assume that by quantity, they mean the amount of content and/or the amount of expansions that they create for their game. I would believe that the definition of quality is quite straight forward. Many people would probably argue that if you’re paying to play a game, then it had better have the best of both worlds, quantity and quality. I tend to agree with that, but at the same time, must over on one point. If a game, either free or subscription, doesn’t have quality to it, then it won’t be worth playing even if you don’t have to pay for it. The difference is that a subscription-based game gains more income, and therefore has more resources to create more for the game. Of course, there are loopholes to every aspect of game design. Just because a game is free doesn’t necessarily mean that it suffers from a lack of income. Many companies, to get started, get funding from an external source, who are willing to invest their money upon this game in order to hopefully pull a profit in the future. And using the microtransactions stated above, it can aid them in reaching that goal. None the less, the main point remains: without a quality game, players will not play the game. While expansions to the game could help in improving that, it shouldn’t be a game developers goal to make the game better, or even playable, in the future, but rather to do it right the first time.

  • Is one business model more sustainable than the other?

I believe most will agree with me when I say that companies gain more income with the pay-to-play model than the free-to-play model, but that’s also a double-edged sword. And even the double-edged sword is double-edge on each side. Before I try to confuse you anymore than I may have already confused myself, let’s look further into this. With the current state of the economy, people are more reluctant to spend their money for leisure items, for example video games. On that same note, people have been known to not leave the house as much because they don’t want to spend as much money going out, so instead, sales for movies and video games has gone up significantly in the past year. This can easily include MMOs which you pay per month for, as it’s cheaper than going out and purchasing a single-player game off the shelf which could only have a life of one week of play time. Free-to-play games aren’t affected by this either way, except for the fact that there is a possibility that there will be more people converting over to them to save themselves even more money, but still get their same sense of enjoyment that they get out of video games. Yet in most cases, free-to-play games are more geared towards a different audience than subscription-based games are. Looking at the demographic for a game such as RuneScape, they aim for children and young teens, aged 12-15+. Kids this age aren’t able to pay for a game anyways, unless they have parents who are willing to cough up some money for them, so they won’t affect the market difference anyways. But if the game is more aimed towards people of that age, chances are the more hardcore game player won’t be interested in leaving their pay-to-play game, even if it does cost them $15 a month, and if they do, it’s doubtful they would start playing a free game because of it.

  • With Free 2 Play games becoming such a driving force, where do you see MMOs going in general?

This question makes me think for a second, because I guess I just don’t see how free-to-play MMOs are changing anything in the MMO market today. As I said before, I tend not to pay much attention to the free MMOs, for many reasons. I don’t have the time to get myself into another MMO in the first place, as well as I’m not interested in all of the microtransactions that could take place in order to experience more of the game. Looking at most of the free MMOs, I see them being the typical fantasy-based, create-a-character, go adventure, slay monsters, get loot, PvP, same old same old. You just don’t see many different kinds of MMOs out there, unless you delve into the pay-to-play range. While not all of them were necessarily successful, games like Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, EVE Online, and more unique MMOs have come out of companies looking for something more to bring to the table, but since these are all risks, and as I said, not all of them were necessarily successful, they at least made enough back to be able to say that they tried. I feel that game developers for the free-based games are a little more skeptical of breaking off from the norm, as they fear that they won’t be able to reach enough of a market to make their investment worth it. Also, if you have an idea as gradious at that point, then why not bring it up to a level where you would be able to make more of a profit in the first place. It’s pretty obvious that the MMO market right now is cornered to the select few that everyone knows about, such as Runescape and World of Warcraft, so it’s an interesting thought when another MMO hits the market. Sadly, nothing has been able to make quite the dent that they would be looking for, and so the market stays as stagnant as it always has been in the past.

During the debate there were some interesting questions brought up as well. I want to highlight a few in the following section.

  • It seems as though fantasy MMO’s are a dime a dozen, can any of you tell the difference between them?

While most of the guests said that they could tell a difference, one of the main points that they brought up that was the biggest difference of them all was the community, and I happen to agree, but not just as a difference between fantasy MMOs. I feel that the community of an MMO really helps make the game, because without a good strong, caring community, you don’t have a game. And every game has a different type of community that they strive for. I find that EVE Online has one of the more unique types of communities out there right now. Not only does EVE Online have a fully functional forum system, a very deep and intuitive Corporation system, and an in-working and growing wiki system, but they also try to get their community involved in many other ways. CCP Games, developers of EVE Online, have teams of players that they have which serve many different functions within the world of EVE Online, and not just in gameplay. One team is focused on helping new players out to help in learning the game, while another is used to create the in-game lore and press releases that you see every day when you log in. I find that this is a very unique way of keeping the players themselves immersed in the world and creating a more unique community that new players may want to join. Then again, this is getting off of the question of fantasy MMOs, but, I’ve found that the community of any MMO is a little bit more important than it’s genre you’re looking at.

  • Currently all of the top F2P games are made in Asia. Do you think that this hinders their perceived quality?

The resounding answer was no within the guests of the debate, but also they brought up another issue with these games. Localization with these games has been a big issue with bringing these games over from Asia to the Western audience, but also, these developers are looking to make games that are just plain and simple different than what players over here are looking for. Players in the Eastern region play their MMOs differently than we do over in the West, and the developers of these free-to-play games aren’t looking to appease to us, they are just looking to give us a chance to play their game as well, and if it clicks over here, then they gain another audience group to play their game, and hopefully increase their income. But again, their focus is not on players over in the Western regions, so when players like us look at the quality of the games, we consider them to be something less than what we may be interested in playing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the game isn’t good, or isn’t popular, it just isn’t something that’s catching in our region of the world. Which brings me also to think and wonder if more of the free-to-play games are, in general, aimed towards players in Asia altogether. Personally, I feel that, overall, online gaming is a bit more popular in the Asian region to begin with, whether it be in the MMO fashion, or in just the multiplayer spectrum, such as with RTS’.

  • What do Pay 2 Play games have that makes them worth the $15 a month?

This just seems obvious to me, but it’s also obvious that developers of free-to-play games disagree. With subscription-based games, developers have more of an idea how much income they’re planning on bringing in. Yes, players can decide to stop paying for the game after their monthly cycle is up, but at that point the money is already into the account and can be projected towards a future content release. On the other hand, the amount of players in a free-to-play game cannot necessarily project the amount of income that they could make if each player decides that they want to pay for extra content for their game. There is more of a choice when it comes to free-to-play games for the player on if they are willing to pay anything, and if the player is tight on funds, they can easily decide to not pay for any extra features in the game and still be able to play the game. Following up with earlier though, to my observation, pay-to-play games have a much higher rate of expansions or new features and content compared to free-to-play games, as they must wait longer to get the funds needed to produce newer content. As the MMO market shifts though, this trend could easily change, but at the current moment, it looks much more like pay-to-play games have the upper hand.

  • With WoW being the market leader in Pay 2 Play MMOs, with no intention of budging from the top, are companies changing their strategies when it comes to monetizing their games?

It’s interesting, because, as stated in the debate, the leading industry standard in the monthly rates for pay-to-play MMOs is $15 a month, which was started by World of Warcraft, and pretty much kept throughout most, if not all new MMOs, because it’s a rate that people know by now. But many games now are also working with new ideas to try and make it easier on players, though, I would really be interested in seeing how many people actually go for it. Using Lord of the Rings Online as the example, they’ve started a new system in which a player can spend $299 in order to purchase a lifetime membership to their game. Basically, it’s as straight forward as it sounds. You pay this one time fee, and you never have to pay to play the game ever again, for as long as the game exists of course. As I said before, I’d be interested to see how many people actually go for this idea. While it’s something new that not many companies are trying right now, it’s a hefty fee to be paying straight up, and would require you to play at least two years of the game to make it worth your money, if you use their 12-month subscription price. For myself, I couldn’t see myself spending that kind of money for any kind of game like that. If I wanted a game that I could play online for that amount of time, I would look into purchasing an FPS of some sort that has a free online multiplayer mode. Still, it’s something different, and I wonder if it’s something successful or not. No matter, the option is there, and it isn’t hurting the income of them even if no one is using it, and more than likely, those that do decide to use that option won’t be playing for two years straight, or at least, one would assume they wouldn’t.

  • Right now F2P games skew a bit younger with the demographic. Why do you think this is? Do you think that as time goes on the users play F2P now will continue playing F2P as they get older, or will they migrate to Pay 2 Play games?

Finding the main answer to this is simple: the younger game players do not have access to a credit card as easily as someone who is older. As they get older though, their options will open up, and if they want to continue to pursue the hardcore MMO playing, then they will upgrade themselves to the pay-to-play model in the future. But I highly doubt that as the player gets older that they will continue to play the free-to-play games, as usually they are geared towards those with a tighter income or harder way of using it than those with the means to pay for something a little more easily. Also, thinking back to earlier, finding the right free-to-play game to hit the older demographic isn’t as widely found as it is for the younger ones. None the less, there will always be those who will stay with their free-to-play MMOs simply because of the fact that, well, who doesn’t like the idea of “free”?

  • Which model is better suited to last the test of time in gaming trends?
  • Is there any business model for games out there that you think could work better than F2P or Subscription?

I’ve grouped these two together because they kind of go hand-in-hand with each other. I’ll start by saying, though, that there is no way of knowing which business model will be better suited to last longer. While there is a better chance that games with a pay-to-play model have more of a risk because if the players stop paying, their primary source of incomes becomes compromised, as long as they continue to provide new content for players to keep wanting to play, then I see no issue with this coming into play. On the other hand, with free-to-play games, I see this as an easier market to get in to for developers. Most of the time the free-to-play MMOs do not contain as much content as the pay-to-play games do, at least for the non-paying players, so they develop their games on a different scale than the bigger publishers. This really shows us that each model can be successful in their own way, but only if the developer correctly markets their game towards the right audience. Moving on to the second question though brings back the idea of the lifetime accounts, or alternative ways of payment. Major retailers can carry game-time cards, and some such as Target carry a wide variety of them for more of the free-to-play games that have items you can purchase within them. A few of the guests in the debate also mentioned cell phones being used to pay for items as well. I can see how creating a mobile-specific method could be of use, but I just don’t see how that would be any different from just going online and submitting your payment there. Either way you do it, you’d have to be using your credit card, unless you’re planning on having the player purchase game-time cards and entering the code on to your cell phone. That method does work, but usually if the person has a cell phone, and is playing an MMO, then it’s more than likely that they will have an internet connection as well, rendering this to be more of a useless step in my opinion. Other than the current models out there, the only other way I could see publishers trying to change up the market would be to charge less (i.e. $10/month) in order to bring more players in, but once again, that would hinder the company’s income slightly, unless they have planned their budget well in advance.

Overall, the main question could be concluded by asking which is better: Free To Play or Pay To Play. I’m not going to answer that question because, well, both of them have their own unique and excellent characteristics about them.  Personally, I play pay-to-play, and will continue to play them for the near future, but I can’t deny that I’ve dabbled in the free-to-play spectrum, as some of them are actually quite interesting. Do you have opinions about anything you’ve read today? If so, please do not hesitate to register for the Weasel Report and leave a comment in the comments section. And do check back as myself, and hopefully others, will be posting their opinions as well. I’d like to have some good discussions about this, as I did on debate night, so I hope to speak with you all soon. Until then, thank you for reading, and have a great evening!

Linked below are the official transcripts from the debate:
Main Floor Transcript
Open Debate Transcript – I am Weasel (nweasel)

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