With the recent hubbub around Microsoft’s inane approach to copyright / sharing games on the XBOX One, a title that fills the greatest fanboys with dismay, there’s also been another revival of the “how free-to-play MMOs destroyeth the genre”-discussion in the blogosphere, thanks to Trion’s recent announcement. That one seems to return on a regular basis, like “casual vs. hardcore” or gamification.
And I just realized how these two topics share a connection, or rather a blind spot among their most fervent critics. When it comes to the big copyright debate for digital media in this age of global sharing, the market has been divided for a while now between those who realize that piracy isn’t actually this “big deal” and that free distribution or “pay-what-you-like” models can be used to your advantage – and those who wax hysterical about hypothetically lost revenue. Usually they do so with little proof, a bit like the guys still claiming that sex sells in video games and we totally can’t have interesting female leads in games (also, female gamers are still in the stark minority!….).
So, it takes the voices of smart and insightful non-sales people with some first-hand experience, people like international best-selling author Neil Gaiman, to state the obvious: that copying and sharing does not happen at any conceivable loss to the artist / production company. And that on the contrary, it seems to drive sales up rather than down. I’ve been sharing his video for a while now as it never seems to lose significance and I heartily recommend watching it –
Gaiman’s description applies 100% to my personal experiences. An early napsterer myself (when it was still a shiny beacon of an incoming new age), all this access to free media did for me is let me discover a ton of new artists that I then went to research and order music from. For a while, it was heaven unleashed. Of course I did also download some titles that I never bought later – and never would’ve known about or bought anyway. There was never a minus, only a potential for plus – as in money going into the creative or entertainment industry. I don’t download free stuff with the intention to “steal”, although anyone is free to call it that; what I like is getting sneak peeks, demos and first impressions. Want to make me a fan that buys all your stuff? Give some of it away. I can’t help that I live in an age where I am bombarded with so many offers and choices that I don’t open my wallet right away any longer. It’s the smart companies who react to changing times.
I keep reading about how F2P games are somehow a seal for lesser quality or an admission of failure whenever MMOs go F2P or decide to be from the get-go. Yet, not once have I actually read a conclusive,objective article on why that should be. Why does Rift go from awesome game to disappointment just because it changed payment model? Will its community struggle because of the introduction of F2P – or did it not much rather struggle already and hence the new direction? What does it say about us as players if we make payment models the deciding factor?
Which inevitably brings me to GW2’s continued growth and another article I read on MMORPG.com about becoming an involuntary “F2P-convert”. Chris makes the important distinction between F2P and B2P MMOs and points out rightfully that for games like LOTRO or SWTOR, which were not designed to be free, reverting to F2P was/is a life saver. And hence also and especially for their faithful communities. I think this cannot be stressed enough, along with the fact that there are cash shops and cash shops. There are in fact very few popular MMOs out there offering anything close to a pay-to-win experience. I don’t know what games people are talking about in context with “just buy all your raid gear in the store”? I’ve yet to play such a game (and see how much it truly affects me…). In GW2 the gemstore is such a laughable matter, it might as well not exist.
What the article fails to cover in my opinion is that F2P, much like free sharing does in the piracy debate, creates easier access and therefore more opportunities for games like SWTOR or LOTRO (and certainly also new titles) to sell more subscriptions. That was the original argument pro F2P models: see what you get before you pay for it. Was that really such a bad idea? To me it seems many MMOs simply fail to implement hybrid models where both a limited F2P experience and the usual premium or sub-experience is worthwhile.
I find LOTRO a prime example of this business model. Chris mentions LOTRO in context of F2Ps forcing you to buy individual content; that’s not how I see it. What I see is a rather successful approach to compromising, establishing different ways of playing while strongly suggesting free players may subscribe sometime. That’s what happened to me exactly: I have just renewed my LOTRO sub once more. I would never have considered playing it, had it not been F2P however. Turbine has won me over by letting me play their game and then convincing me that it’s worth paying for. Just as if I had napstered LOTRO, I went to buy it later. Yeah, that surprised me too.
I really wish this aspect was highlighted more in the F2P context, that it’s not a zero-sum game. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find data on account split for active LOTRO accounts, or more importantly on how many players have been shifting between payment models. I’m however convinced that there are many players like myself who only started to pay for (another) sub because they were able to access the MMO for free. And that to me seems wasted potential (of plus when there’s no financial minus involved) for those titles stubbornly clinging to subs only, unless they’re called World of Warcraft and can afford not to care. While I still watch Wildstar from a distance, it makes me hopeful hearing about the hybrid payment model they’re aiming for, although details remain to be seen. And why not, after all? It may convince me to subscribe to their game more than anything else would.