here’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while. The other day, I pointed to Vallter’s new blog, specifically this post and it made me think. We all know Wargaming is a big promoter of the free-to-play game model. But is F2P really the ultimate future of all MMO games? Or are there instances, where subscription model (such as there is in World of Warcraft for example) is better?
If you are interested in this issue, go check the arguments Vallter proposes. They are valid, but they are not in my opinion complete. Let me tell you why.
F2P has seen some stunning successes over the last year, World of Tanks possibly being the greatest one. Here, we have a game with millions of players (even if we count out the various multiaccounts, people who play once per year and such) running on F2P principles. However, there were also cases (many cases) where F2P went bad. Really bad. The most obvious “mutation” of F2P games is pay to win (P2W), where games sometimes unintentionally, sometimes completely intentionally lure players into playing for success. Some of these games are pretty straightforward (War Thunder has some pay to win elements), some do it hiddenly and are really insidious. But the effect is the same: “free” to play sounds nice, but in real life, there is no such thing as free lunch.
The other category of F2P failures are subscription washouts: both Star Trek Online and The Old Republic (both decent MMO’s) started as subscription based and later moved to F2P model. This was a “virtue of necessity”. STO – at some point – had atrocious ground combat and was always kinda small, felt really like a game made by an independent studio. TOR on the other hand had HUGE plans. Hours of spoken dialogues and such. I played both of them shortly (just to try it out), didn’t like it too much, moved on, but whatever I might think of it, the hype around it was enormous and the game was very expensive to produce. Months after the game going live, subscription numbers dropped significantly and it too adopted basically a F2P model.
Both of those games have one thing in common: F2P was not their first choice and they adopted it only after they got in trouble of not fulfilling (producer) expectations. One might wonder, whether it really is a “better” model (since both games moved to it), or a last-ditch attempt to get many more players into the game (which in fact happened in TOR case and is NOT a positive thing for older players, I’ll talk about it a bit later).
The peculiarities of F2P
It’s actually really simple. Free to play is based on the principle that a small portion of players carries the costs of the entire gime, while the majority (estimated 70-80 percent in WoT case) pays nothing and plays for free. On the other hand, subscription model spreads the costs amongst everyone. Thus, F2P relies on huge numbers of players. In order to at least pay for itself, you can’t have a “very small” F2P game (relatively speaking), whereas subscription MMO can survive and linger on with very low numbers (Age of Conan).
With that being said, F2P is very bad for MMORPG and other “hardcore” type games. This is what I was writing about with TOR. Compare World of Warcraft and WoT. In WoT, you have 7-10 minute (on average) gaming sessions and (however frustrating 15:0 losses might be), there are practically no consequences for such a loss. You lose some credits and that’s it. If the team is especially bad, such fail battle can last only a few minutes. And you can die early on, returning to garage and going out with some other vehicle. No problem. Under such conditions, you can afford situations, where 10 out of 15 people on your team are complete idiots. That’s the real price for playing for free: everyone can play, which mean everyone does play, even people, who would normally not touch a computer game with a 10 ft. pole. Thus, idiots in the game are not a F2P system error: they are its feature (and disadvantage). That by the way makes all the “teach players to play better” initiatives from forum players completely pointless – even if he wanted to learn, you can’t teach a person who plays two battles per month when there’s nothing on TV anything. Perhaps I called them unfairly “idiots”, when in fact, those people aren’t stupid. They just don’t care – which is completely legitimate in F2P concept. A 40-year old man, who has a tiring job won’t be interested in reading up on penetration tables and such.
However, what is a flaw in MMO’s like World of Tanks with short battles is completely fatal in MMORPG games, unless they are ridiculously casual, making them action games and not RPG’s. In the “old days”, World of Warcraft (vanilla and then first expansion) was not a game for everyone. Sure, it became insanely popular, but that was because by the time it was introduced, there was no Facebook or Twitter and it served as a first sort-of social connection web between people (and it served very well). Some players were casual of course, just roaming the vast WoW landscape, “looking for adventure”. Some turned hardcore PvP (not unlike WoT’s unicums, those too had their “elite” unique attitudes). But the majority of progress (obtaining better gear) was done by crawling dungeons (or, in WoW slang, “instances”). Now comes the really different part.
However idiotic team you have in WoT, there is always a chance that something will happena and you will “turn the tide”: for example the bigger team having even worse morons, just lining up in front of your guns. I think we all had such a battle, where enemies kept appearing before your hulldown tank destroyer and you keep telling yourself “how can they be so stupid?” – and you win, for example by single-handedly killing 7-8 such “tomatoes”.
On the other hand, having an idiot in a level 60 or 70 instance was completely fatal. The entire event (instance) for 5 people sometimes took hours to complete and ONE moron could screw it up completely for four others. Pretty much all the bosses at that point required some sort of special tactics (you had to read up on, otherwise, you had no idea what to expect, unless you did that fight before), took sometimes multiple attempts (each attempt costing not only time, but shitload of money too in equipment repair (equipment got damaged every time you died), making even some victorious runs unprofitable) – if you had a bad healer for example, you would die. A tank (as in, meathshield) that can’t tie enemies to itself by creating so called “aggro”? You die, because enemies will kill your DPS and healer. And so on.
And it got even worse. MMORPG’s are based on continuous and forced progress. Unless you played in one area all the time (which goes against all the principles of having fun, exploration etc.), you simply progressed. In World of Tanks, a player can voluntarily stop on (or even return to) tier 5, but in WOW, everyone progressed – whatever you did, however bad you got, given enough time you not only had the option to play on higher levels, you were forced to by the game.
To level up a character to level 60 took some considerable time, so – in combination with the subscription model – very few real idiots made it to the top level and out of those, even fewer ran instances, creating a player “ecosystem” that worked, because low-level instances were sort of forgiving, teaching you slowly the principles of cooperation by making bosses more and more difficult. If you couldn’t cooperate, you eventually had to give up, because dying over and over was not fun. It was a barrier: either you learn, or you won’t get ANYTHING: in a 5 man group, everyone had to pull its weight. DPS that does 0 DPS? Kicked. Tank not tanking? Kicked. Healer not healing? Kicked from group. Or everyone else leaving.
Needless to say, there is no such barrier in WoT, or F2P inherently. Where subscription based game gives you a choice to do or die, WoT needs you even if you are a really bad player: the matchmaker has to fill every tier with SOME players. That’s why there is no “skill barrier” anywhere (“learn or die”) of course, the game simply needs everyone (unlike World of Warcraft, where the game technically didn’t care whether 10 or 10 thousand people were running the instance). If I was to return to TOR, what I’ve read happened was that when the game went F2P, a huge influx of casuals caused some of the high-tier group instances unplayable without a guild. Same thing would happen to World of Warcraft definitely.
This is why subscription system is better for games, that require dedication and understanding, such as MMORPG’s. This is probably the reason why (despite general F2P success) the upcoming Elder Scrolls MMORPG will be subscription-based.
Pay to Win
Just shortly about P2W. It’s easy to fall into the P2W trap – after all, even Wargaming – who normally yells F2P everywhere – implemented gold ammo. Yes, sure, we know it’s available for credits now too, but let’s face it: paying for premium account and running gold ammo for converted gold will allow you to shoot gold ammo indefinitely and everywhere, while a non-paying player doesn’t have that chance. There is no way around it. Gold ammo is pay to win, however you look at it, because with enough money, you can buy a significant advantage, especially on mid-to-high tiers.
It’s a trap easily fallen into in F2P model. A game, based on subscription doesn’t have to solve this issue: it gets money from players directly. But a F2P game has to offer something for real money. But what? Here, the boundary is kinda blurred. Each developer must decide, what to offer and whether it really is pay to win or not. And if it is – is it too much? Is a LITTLE better sword enough to give someone an edge? Is it economically interesting? Is there an incentive to buy it? And so on and so forth. Overall, setting up a F2P economy model is quite complicated and Wargaming has done a good job so far. There is very little pay to win in WoT (while technically possible to constantly run gold ammo, it’s so expensive very few players choose that option, contrary to popular belief).
Personally, I prefer paying for subscription to F2P. That way, I pay and I don’t have to worry about anything else. Which brings us to the third issue with F2P
You’re a customer!
Now, I don’t want to bring up any legal stuff and whatnot here, it’s boring. But simply put: subscription MMO is paying for the game as a service (product). F2P is paying for services WITHIN a game, not the game itself.
It’s quite a common argument in some forum sections to see stuff like “Wargaming, why don’t you give us old players some advantages? I already paid XXXX Euro for this game!”
No. You haven’t paid for the game. You paid for something within the game. Premium account? You got it. Gold? Sure. Tanks in giftshop? Here you are. But you do NOT pay for the game, which – if Wargaming screws something up badly – puts you in no position to argue. You can’t unsubscribe and they already have your money. You have nothing to leverage them with, unlike a subscription payer, who can simply unsubscribe and there goes the main income for the producers.
MMORPG games are based on long-term character development, unlike WoT. Yes, you can grind new tanks, but you can just as well stick to tier 5. In order to develop something for months and months, you need a sense of security. Not security itself (the position of a subscriber is not exactly strong either), but the sense of it and that is something F2P can (from its very definition) NEVER offer you, because technically, you are not paying anything, whereas in subscription MMO, you are a customer and your position is stronger, even on legal grounds (this is more complicated than this, maybe I’ll get to this topic in the future).
As written above, the three major flaws of F2P are:
- a “horde of noobs” playerbase
- pay to win always ready to pounce
- less security
The first flaw makes F2P unviable for hardcore MMORPG’s, second can create potential problems everywhere and the third is also tied more like to hardcore games. As I wrote above, I prefer subscription games. I guess I am oldschool that way. Maybe F2P is really the future, but in general, I’d like to have more classic MMORPG like WoW was/is. Let’s see how the Elder Scrolls MMO turns out.