Free to Play Foibles

Since Rift is going F2P in June, quite a few people have voiced some concerns over the business model and the long term ramifications.  I think Wilhelm has the most sober approach to it all.  There are quite a few items I would like to discuss here that I think many people have either overlooked or simply not really thought much about.

A subscription game has a relatively assured income model.  You have X players you get X money.  As long as the playerbase is happy, you’re going to bring in money.  This part I don’t really get about RIFT since the quality has always been there but without Hartman at the helm, we all pretty much figured this was going to happen.  WoW makes about $50 million a month and can amortize/invest into future content development.  The thing about themeparks is that the developers determine the content and the players consume it.  Given WoW’s development cycle, you’re paying about $60-$100 per patch and then another $60 per expansion pack.  Take any other themepark F2P game and you can pay much, much less for content – sometimes nothing.  Sandboxes do not have this problem (hence UO still be subscription) and PvP games are pretty close to this.  This is rather clear if you take a step back from the actual game.

Where people tend to trip up a bit is two-fold.  First, a company needs to make money and people have to spend money.  I know, simple.  The thing about making money is that you have to consistently make it.  If you’re selling unlocks for an account, things that last forever, then after a while, people won’t be buying them if they’ve been there for a long time.  You need new players to buy that sort of stuff.  In order to make cash, you need to sell consumables.  In a level-based, gear-based system, what is consumable?  New content is one, but the price tag to develop it is high and you’re not sure to get the money back.  Character customizations work but again, unless you’re overwriting what was there before, you’re not going to have long term success.  Devs have yet to figure out this problem, instead they all rely on lockboxes, which is more or less gambling.

This is where it gets tricky.  As a general rule, people are stupid.  A person is smart, certainly.  Groups of people, in small enough quantities can show smarts – hence guilds.  Large groups, as is evident in any political circle, are as dumb as bricks – if not simply lemmings.  Neverwinter’s spam of who is successfully unlocking mounts in their gambling boxes invariably makes other people think “I can win too”.  Even the lottery is a tax on the stupid as you have a better chance to be hit by lightning twice before winning the lottery once.  People still buy dozens of tickets a week.

So you end up in the situation where developers have yet to find a consumable item that doesn’t make players feel like they are getting gouged (which is why we pay subscriptions right?) and resort to the lowest common denominator.  Which the public happily provides.

A third point that I need to bring up is the comparison to F2P in the Asian market.  The majority of those games are P2W, clearly.  And the majority only stay on the market for 12-18 months.  This is the polar opposite of the western F2P market.  For some reason I can’t yet figure out, our side of the ocean wants free games for years and years and years.  If you’re too cheap to pay 10$ a month for a F2P game, you shouldn’t complain that they are offering items to people who will.  If you’re unable to find things to buy at that price point, which I personally find issue with, then there’s simply a problem with the financial model of the game (*cough* SWTOR *cough*).

While I might think that RIFT could have continued for another 10 years with a subscription model, apparently they were getting enough feedback that F2P games were eating into their profits.  WoW is no different I’m sure.  Someone will have to make the tough decision of either guaranteed income and to weather the F2P storm while the market evolves or to jump into a pool of cannibalistic fish who will do everything to destroy their competition.

Is Free to Play here to stay?  Yes.  Is the current market deployment sustainable? No.  Did the exact same thing happen to subscriptions over the past 5 years?  Hell yes.

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