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My Thoughts on the Evolution of F2P

The topic of RMT has been huge the last couple of years. When I first started blogging in June of ’08, F2P was almost universally derided by the subscription-game crowd. It was tied with notions of poor quality and a “buy now” herd mentality driven by manipulative game design. I don’t know how true any of that is.

The reason I don’t know is that, honestly, I’d heard so many bad things about the model that I’d pretty much written it off. Why bother trying out a game that would come off shoddier than what I was playing anyways? There were intriguing games, to be sure, but the numerous comments from other players (“if this game gets a cash shop, I’ll quit!!1!”) pushed me away from the style of MMO.

Then, something amazing happened and DDO went from Death’s Door to a cash-shop driven free-to-play success. Here was a game that had previously been your standard $15 a month MMO, flush with beautiful graphics and high quality systems, turned into what most MMO players previously despised. And the magical part was that, when they were made to try it for themselves, people loved it! DDO single handledly changed the community’s acceptance of the F2P model as a viable system.

Now, more and more games are pushing towards this model, and the internet is no longer filled with people saying how doomed they all are. Well, to be fair, those people are still there, there’s just lots of supporters now too.

The Makings of a Good CS

The whole thing has caused me to re-evaluate my feelings on the F2P model, as compared with your standard subscription. At this point, it’s not reasonable to hold out. F2P is here to stay and will only grow in popularity.  And, really, I’m alright with that. That is, as long as a few key areas are maintained:

  • Cash shop items should never give an unfair advantage. While I prefer them to be cosmetic only, the rule of thumb is that, if your game has competitive raiding, or PVP as the main end-game, cash shops items should not make one character more powerful than the other. Unless, of course, those items aren’t able to be used in raids or PvP. If someone wants an XP pot, that doesn’t effect me.
  • Players shouldn’t be forced to buy items. Separation is the absolute key if you want to lure P2P players into a F2P game. They need to be able to ignore it and not feel gimped. Players should be able lured into the cash shop instead of pointed there.
  • Microtransactions should be micro, larger purchases are just transactions. You know, I think the term “microtransaction” is a little bit too big for today’s market. $25 is not micro. Nor is $15. Or $10. When I think micro, I think $5 or less. If you want to sell something bigger, make it un-necessary, and please put it in a section of the store clearly labeled differently than the $.30 clearance items. Any game changing content should be very reasonably priced, otherwise players will feel “forced” to buy it.

If both of those points were maintained, I think I’d be able to really enjoy a cash shop game. Hell, if they were maintained, I almost wouldn’t mind if WoW went full F2P with cash shop support.

I’m proud to say that I own a Lil’ K.T. and that I gave my friend a Pandaren Monk for his birthday. These, price not withstanding, are great examples of the stuff great cash shops are made of. They’re not necessary, they’re just cool. So, I want them.

How Important is LotRO Really?

LotRO’s going free-to-play, raises a lot of concerns for players because we don’t have any concrete details yet. Turbine has told us that my first two points are important in their design, but, until we see concrete facts, it’s hard to alay that fear. I firmly believe, however, that, if done right, the decision to go free-to-play could be a game changer for the entire MMO market.

There seems to be a lot of disgreement about how important this change is to the wider MMO market. Like many people have already mentioned, the game really won’t change that much for subscribers– at the outset, anyways. But, there’s a difference between player experience and public perception. LotRO is one of the only post-WoW era games to be considered a success. If they come out a year from now and announce a player base of 5 million people, it’s going to make some waves. Even Blizzard will take note of that, as you can bet they’re taking note right now.

Even though the gameplay might be the same for existing players, if the non-players decide that it’s a success because of going F2P, that’s how it’ll go down in history: the cash shop made the game.

The Insurmountable Hill?

All of this fails to overcome the model’s biggest hurdle in my mind: equality. In the western world, people value being on the same keel as other players. Cash shops, from the minute you enter character creation, introduce the inequality that, to many, define them. I value a standardized game experience. I like to know that I’m getting the same starting product as everyone else. With a F2P game, where is that standard? Do you need that item or two to get the best experience?

For me, one of the biggest reasons I support the subscription model is it gives some vestige of equality. Time will always be a factor, but, so long as there are 24 hours in the day, I have the same opportunity to achieve as any other player. In a F2P, it’s determined by your income and time, a double whammy that, for this player, gives me a heap of apprehension anytime a cash shop game catches his eye.

Conclusion

In the end, I can honestly say that I’m much more optimistic about the F2P playing field than I was before. Games like DDO, Guild Wars 2, All Points Bulletin, Free Realms, Tiger Woods Online, and Lego Universe are really coming along to show us that quality and business model don’t have to be inverse. It’s all about execution.

I, for one, feel a bit like I’ve missed out these last few years. If I had gotten over this hill before, how many more games might I have come to call home? Even if they’re just weekday diversions, there’s still value in that. Enough for a sub? Maybe not. Enough for a visit now and again? You bet.

Especially when they’re not proxied 😉

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