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Free-to-play: It's what Western MMO players are coming to expect

Free-to-play: It's what Western MMO players are coming to expect Exclusive

November 14, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Even with the massive shift from subscription-based online business models to free-to-play, it seems that some developers still want to believe they can make subscriptions work. These studios have the tendency to give in, and make the switch to free-to-play.

Nowadays, game developers are finding that -- whether they like it or not -- free-to-play has proliferated enough that players expect MMOs to use the free-to-play business model.

Recently, Gamasutra spoke to Craig Morrison, creative director at Funcom Montreal, the studio behind Age of Conan. That game launched in 2008, but a couple years later adopted a free-to-play model, with a subscription option.

Morrison was thoughtful about the topic of the shift of Western MMOs to free-to-play, but he expressed obvious unease with it. In the end, it seems, he doesn't yet want to give up that subscription business model... even if he can see things changing.

"I think you can definitely see Western games being designed to start at the gates as free-to-play games, because that's what the market will expect. That's what the users will want, from an accessibility point of view," says Morrison.

The current trend is to "go free-to-play" -- subscription games launch, then are modified to free-to-play titles as their subscribers begin to quit in significant numbers. EA and BioWare took the faltering Star Wars: The Old Republic free-to-play less than a year after its launch.

But Morrison sees a potential endgame to this: Now that players have the expectation that games will eventually make the free-to-play shift, they might hold off and simply wait. This, in turn, will accelerate the business model's adoption.

Morrison worries that the struggles of Funcom's subscription-based The Secret World might even stem from this expectation. "Eventually it only stands to reason that people's thought process is 'Oh, well, I'll wait till it's free-to-play,' and that's not something we want as game developers. You don't want players to be going, 'I really want to play that game! ... But I'm going to wait.'"

It's a bit ironic that Morrison has trepidation about the shift, though, as Funcom is one company that helped pioneer the trend.

"We've already moved Age of Conan to free-to-play; Anarchy Online was the first game -- the first Western game -- to go free-to-play, way back in 2005," he notes.

Even premium games that have so far resisted the shift, like Blizzard's indomitable World of Warcraft, have made concessions to the need to bring in new players with unlimited free trials.

Morrison sees the days of the limited seven or 10-day trial "disappearing fast. That will no longer be a model which clicks with the players; they'll more be looking for, 'We expect a free-to-play offering.'" Players now expect "a large amount of content for a considerable amount of time on a free-to-play basis," he says.

Of course, there's an upside to that, he says: "If they see the added value in moving into a hybrid, or a subscription, or buying something through a virtual store, then they will. I don't think players are averse to spending money if they think they're getting added value."

He notes that the games that have converted, rather than been built from the ground up for free-to-play, still try to get players into subscriptions. "They're really not" free-to-play games, he says. "They're using a hybrid model, where the free-to-play is a trial and then what they really want is the users to move on to whatever they've called what used to be a subscription."

"Whether it's premium time or coins -- EverQuest has silver, gold, and platinum memberships; Lord of the Rings has something similar; Age of Conan has tiers. We're really all still subscriptions at the core of that, so they're really hybrid systems."

Still, Morrison clings to the concept of a future for premium subscription MMOs.

"I think we see subscription and free-to-play as tools. And tools can be used well, they can be used badly... It depends on the game. We don't categorically go, 'Subscriptions are dead; there will never be subscriptions anymore,' or, 'Free-to-play is the only way to monetize your games.' I think it depends on the game and it depends on your project."

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