The Free-2-Play Myth?
Neil Kewn (Murxidon), OnRPG Journalist
Maybe it’s just me, but being a thirteen year old without a credit card was excruciating. MMORPGs were spewing out left right and centre and my inability to cough up the subscription charges left me out in the cold. Six years ago, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the exciting titles everyone seemed to be hyping. The MMO boom was well underway, and I vaguely remember posting a “free MMORPG alternatives” thread on the OnRPG boards. Unfortunately, I soon realised that despite the enticing F2P tagline, adventuring into an online world for free does carry a price.
I began my online gaming fascination with RuneScape, a browser based MMORPG by Jagex. It is now the most popular free MMORPG in the world, with approximately ten million active accounts. I couldn’t afford to pay £10 a month on video game subscriptions (not much has changed five years on), so I was pretty ecstatic when I discovered that I could play one of these new-fangled persistent world things without coughing up a dime.
Naturally, browser based games do have their limitations. After trudging along the murky polygon rapture for two years, I decided to make the transition to desktop-based 3D games that had a little more resemblance to the pay-2-play behemoths that I craved, at least in terms of graphical ability.
It’s just like WoW!
Knight Online was my first fully 3D MMORPG that didn’t involve a web browser. First impressions were good; it certainly looked like those P2P games I sought after. I click on an enemy, hit an action bar button, a few seconds later it comically fell to the ground. I could loot it, equip what had dropped and move onto the next unfortunate creature. I remember spending hours of my seemingly endless spare time on that game, levelling my Warrior to something respectable in the process.
Premium Power Ups – Better than a cash shop?
I never once questioned why I was getting a fully 3D fantasy world to meddle in without paying a price of admission. It was only until I returned to the game several months later that I noticed an option for “Premium Power Ups” on the game’s homepage. This service allowed players to use real money for certain in game advantages, including a 400% experience increase, a 100% increase in the amount of coin dropped, a discount on item repairs, preferred server access and special premium items.
The Item Shop
Free MMORPGs usually rely on some form of premium service to sustain an income. Whether it is the aforementioned “Power Ups” or the more commonly seen Item Stores, these virtual shopping malls allow players to spend real money on virtual items, as opposed to the traditional method of spending in game money on virtual items.
Item stores have one fundamental flaw, though. Players who don’t upgrade their items by forking out cash for the improved counterparts are left behind. Players may spend hours building up and improving their gear, but there will always be someone who has a significantly better headpiece or polearm because they paid for that privilege. Not only does it undermine the whole concept of grinding for items, it creates a two-tier community. Is it this class system that will prevent free MMORPGs from surpassing Pay-2-Play ones in terms of popularity?
Tempting, I must admit
Free MMOs that implement item shops are hardly flat lining, but they’re not showing exponential growth either. I’ve known gamers to skip free MMOs altogether purely on the basis they don’t wish to deal with a cash shop, which isn’t a good sign considering a lot of them rely on the humble store as their primary source of income.
Of course, it would be foolish to believe that MMOs could survive without constant funding (there are some exceptions), but should MMO developers be looking at incorporating different money making strategies if they wish to encourage a stable player base?
Adopt a system that is proven to work
As an avid player of RuneScape, I watched the game explode in terms of size and popularity. In my eyes, it’s one of the few games I actually consider to be a free MMORPG. Not because they don’t offer an item shop or power ups, but because the premium experience is kept mostly separate from the free one.
The members feature, as it is known, multiplies the content and feature set of the game tenfold, but players will have no real handicap if they choose not to upgrade. The reason for this is the inclusion of a “barrier” that is kept between free and paying players. The servers in the game are split between the two player types. “Free worlds”” are open to all players, whilst “Member worlds” are restricted to paying clientele. Members are allowed to visit specific free worlds and interact with free players, trade specific items and chat to them.
RuneScape’s World select screen – F2P and members are separated
Could splitting the game work in other MMORPGs, too? It’s no secret that gamers love a freebie, so giving them a sizable portion of the game with an incentive to upgrade (but not necessarily being detrimental if they choose not to) could bring balance to a cash shop MMO.
Making things work
Not all item shops are “bad”, though. Some games choose to offer items that do not improve players standing in game, instead providing aesthetic enhancements or small gameplay boosts that hold no long term affects. MapleStory was heavily criticised for introducing a cash shop to supplement income, but it has seemingly turned out well for publishers Nexon. Most purchases expire after a set number of days, reducing the overall impact on the game and keeping players relatively balanced.
This isn’t the case for every free MMORPG though. The constant battle to keep such a huge undertaking profitable may push the quality of the game down, and it is fair to say that the balance issues that come associated with many item shop funded games can upset game play mechanics by isolating players. The micro-transaction payment system has been touted as the future of gaming, but players have yet to adopt. Until then, keeping buy-2-use items that are superior to those found in game may keep revenue up, but will it eventually drive players numbers down?