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The Free-To-Play Movement

Column by columinst Jerrod on 02 Aug 2011. Please click to view other columns.

 The Free-To-Play Movement

Written By: Jerrod Bacon


Recently, big name MMO games like City of Heroes / Villains, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and even World of Warcraft have gone free-to-play. This movement means that these games switched from their monthly subscriptions to either an item mall or membership format where you need to pay for game access. Without adding anything to their games, these companies still found a way to increase both interest in their games and player count within those games. This shift in format, to some, is revolutionary; I see it as logical.


These games are making strategic moves to ensure they remain at the top of the charts; there is nothing revolutionary about wanting to make a profit. What the average gamer does not realize is that over the last five to ten years there was a change of preference amongst gamers. When World of Warcraft and City of Heroes first came out, the preference was for monthly subscriptions. Now, formatting has been shifted to accommodate the new preference. These games are expanding their free trials to a free-to-play model, which is even more of an incentive to play the games’ full versions. It is hard to explore what an MMO has to offer a gamer in a week of free game play, so why not offer the base game and charge for the expansions? These companies have realized that their games are as good as they believe and can survive off a free basic game.


Like their estranged cousin Champions Online, City of Heroes / Villains has opted for the membership subscriptions format. To get access to in game things such as Super Groups (Clans), Bases and other features the game has to offer, players will have to join a membership at a monthly fee. The reason Paragon Studios would do this [instead of the same choice Blizzard Entertainment made with World of Warcraft] is because they are not as big of a company, and Champions Online has proven a Superhero MMO can survive on a membership format. There isn’t as much for players to explore, so they offer certain features to the game. This tactic, like Blizzard’s, is to expand the free trial duration without offering the entire game for free.


Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a unique twist from the other two games, instead of expanding the free trial period like the other games, FunCom decided to use the item mall. The item mall is currently the preferred gaming method of gamers, so the move could be to attract as many people as possible to their game. The other side of me believes it is because FunCom still intends on creating expansions, as any game should, and this is a way to capitalize on possible profit. You give people the game, and get them use to the item mall, then come out with the expansions and updates through the item mall, where players can purchase the individual items or the entire package. People love options. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures may have opted for the easy choice, but they may also be the ones who come out with the biggest update or expansion because of their new profits.


Any game that has a strong enough following, which these games do, can shift into a free-to-play model with either an item mall or membership without worrying about a backlash from the community. Let’s remember, it’s easy to make the community happy, but it’s even easier to make decisions that guarantee the company more money.