Imagine a world online where you can slay dragons, explore vast new worlds, meet new friends with a variety of awesome costumes and get-ups and ride all types of vehicles and animals. You can even fly through the air, dig deep under the ground or explore cities under the sea. Of course, all your adventures are met with possible rewards like stacks of gold coins, magical equipment, magical weapons and a high status among your peers. Where does this world exist? Welcome to the world of massively multiplayer online role playing games or MMORPGs.
Roleplaying Games before the Internet
Before the Internet, role playing games were strictly a local affair. You played Baldur’s Gate, Forgotten Realms, Pool of Radiance, and other hot RPG titles from your computer. The problem is you are just interacting with whatever story line and what ever limited world your game installation brings to the table.
The Rise of Online Multiplayer Games
That all changed when the role playing game Ultima launched an online version where multiple players can meet and interact with each other online. It was quite a revolution in a graphical multiplayer role playing games. Mind you, there were multiplayer games before, but theye were not graphical. Games like Arena and other MUD or multiple user dungeons were all text-based games. Sure, you are playing with people from all over the world, but it is all in text. Things clearly dramatically changed when you would see other characters in vivid color and you could see the game world rendered on your computer.
The Age of World of Warcraft
Fast forward a few years and we are now in the age of World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft took the realtime strategy fantasy game Warcraft series and made an online multiplayer game out of it. They expanded the Warcraft game world into this really exotic and expansive game world that is so huge that it takes several weeks, if not months, at a slow pace to fully explore. It really is something else in the evolution of massively multiplayer online role playing games. Special emphasis needs to be placed on the word massively in massive multiplayer online role playing games. We are talking about several thousands of people sharing the same server and it is not just one server. You can play on several dozens servers and you can create a character on one server and another character on another server. There is almost no limit as to how much you want to play.
MMORPG Post-World of Warcraft?
It truly is the beginning of a vast lush online world and it could be a world of its own and World of Warcraft is the golden standard in regard to MMORPGs. Several years after World of Warcraft was launched, there were many other competing titles that seek to get a slice of the massive MMORPGs player pie. It is a very big market. World of Warcraft alone has over 10 million subscribers. Think about that. These are ten million subscribers each paying a monthly fee. We are talking about a huge cash cow for Activision, which is World of Warcraft’s parent company and this financial bonanza has not been lost on its competitors. Many competitors have come up with competing titles. However, none could come close to the size of World of Warcraft’s massive subscriber base. None of them have the massive reach and the massive brand of World of Warcraft. Still, there are many games coming online and many more to come because it is a huge market.
The Battle of MMORPG Business Models: Free or Paid Subscription
The market for massively multiplayer online role playing games really splits into two camps: the traditional paid subscriber model, which World of Warcraft uses and the free to play (F2P) model. Both business models have their advantages and disadvantages from the user’s perspective. This guide steps you through the advantages and disadvantages of these models, so you can make an informed choice. Playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game is a big investment of your time. Somebody would a normal schedule would take some time to level up from level 1 all the way to the top level. Before putting in all that time and effort, you may want to read this guide and look at the specific business models that the game you are thinking of playing employs and make an informed decision. You would not want to be in a position where you play game and then all of a sudden because of its business model you feel that you have just waited all the time that you put in. Use this guide to give you the information to be guided accordingly.
The Paid Subscription Model
As stated earlier, there are two basic model-the free to play and there is the paid subscription model. The paid subscription model’s poster child, of course is, World of Warcraft. However, there are other games that use this model, most notably the recently launched science-fiction themed Star Wars: The Old Republic. The bottom line is that they charge you a monthly subscription regardless of how much you play the game. Even if you only have one character that you only log into a couple of times a month to play or you have many characters across many servers and you play all the time, you get charged the same amount of money. Think of it as paying your cable bill. Regardless of how much you watch CNN or Fox News, you are still going to pay the monthly cable bill.
The Paid Subscriber Model’s Advantages & Disadvantages
There is much to recommend for this service because MMORPGs need a lot of content to stay fresh and to stay relevant. There is a lot of competition in the marketplace and not just from other MMORPGs but also from single player games, other types of games and other forms of entertainment. There are only 24 hours in a day and there is a constant battle regarding where you are going to invest your entertainment time. There are many other entertainment options competing for your time. Simply put, a paid subscription MMORPG game like World of Warcraft has the resources that it needs to make sure that there is enough new content that its players need to keep the game fresh and to keep you engaged to make it worth your while to play World of Warcraft instead of listening to music, going out to the movies, playing other games or checking out other MMORPGs. They have more resources to play with so they can update the content more. It does not have to be an actual expansion of the game. It could just be content patches that are released to beef up the game’s content.
More Resources for Technical Support and Bug Fixes
Since paid subscription games have a lot more resources, they can handle customer support issues faster and in a greater depth. Also they can address bugs and technical glitches more effectively. While free to play games also handle customer support issues and technical issues, since there is less money on the table, it may take them longer or they may tend to prioritize to put out the bigger fires first and then worry about the smaller annoyances later. That is one of the great advantages of using a paid subscription game because since you are paying, you are expecting to get your money’s worth. You cannot use that same argument when you are dealing with a free to play game. You are playing the game for free and therefore you are not really in a position to complain. They will get to the problem when they get to the problem. Compare that when playing World of Warcraft and there is a sense of entitlement that goes along with paying your monthly fee. Think about this key advantage. This is actually more important than the content upgrades. While the content upgrades and content updates are great, the biggest impact to your immediate enjoyment of the game is whether the game works as advertised. That can only be made possible through quick technical support, bug hunting, bug fixing and smooth customer support.
Paid subscription games update their systems faster. There might be a server issue. There might be dramatic changes to the software that needs to be addressed. When you are paying for a game, there are more resources and the providers are under more pressure to act quickly. Updates, frequent patches and content downloads are part of the equation. That is not the case when you are in a free to play situation as discussed below.
Disadvantages of Paid Subscriptions
The downside to paid subscriptions is of course the fact that you have to pay a monthly fee. Most players of MMORPG tend to be college students or those who live with their parents and while the fee is reasonably small, it is still a cost. They may not have the luxury of blowing that money to playing games. Also related to this is if you are paying money, there is some mental expectation that you want to get your money’s worth. People who pay tend to want to play more. You feel tied or obligated to the subscription-based game. This impacts your free time and also there is a lot of opportunity costs involved. You could be doing something else that could be more profitable. You could be studying, conducting business or working. There is some sort of tradeoff involved that arises from the mental obligation of getting your money’s worth.
Game Gold and Item Farming
Another disadvantage of the paid subscription model is game item farming. There are many “gold farmers” in China who specialize in World of Warcraft. Because labor costs are much lower in China, they can supply European and American players with game gold at attractive rates. What these gold farmers do is that they retrieve materials, sell it in the auction house and get gold. Players in the United States, Canada, Australia or wherever that do not wish to put in the time to generate game gold would then use this game item miners to get them the gold and they pay in real world cash.
The “unfairness” of gold farming
Why is this a problem? It is a big problem in the sense that it throws off the game balance because if somebody puts in the time to play the game, they should get rewarded for putting in that time. Why should somebody who does not really play but wants to get a level 60 character immediately just pay somebody for a character that is already at that level, or more frequently do not really want to hassle with actually playing or enjoying game but just want to get enough gold to have nifty equipment so they can battle other players. That clearly is a reflection of a shortcut mentality. Regardless of what you feel about this issue, it is a major issue among people who play MMORPGs religiously. Many would consider it a big disadvantage of paid games. As will be discussed below, because of the particular way free to play games are positioned, this is less of a problem for those types of games.
Smaller Base Means Smaller Game
There are games that have a small subscription base. For example, one of the pioneers of the massively multiplayer online role playing game genre, Ultima Online, is a shadow of its former self when it comes to subscriber base. It used to boast of quite a huge subscriber base. Now it has dwindled to a relatively small amount of monthly players much of whom are based in Japan. The problem when you are playing a game with a small base is that it might make the game small as well. In essence because there are fewer resources, the game could not be upgraded or expanded as much as it could if it had a large base. It can easily be caught in a downward spiral because of a smaller base, there is less updates and because there is less updates, there is less subscribers and so on and so forth. The only thing that is keeping some of these smaller paid games is the brand loyalty of the people playing them. Still, there are really not enough new subscribers to expand the game’s base.
Free to Play Advantages and Disadvantages
The number of Free to play games is growing by leaps and bounds. Many games started off on a paid subscription model like World of Warcraft. However, many of them could not compete with the massive scale of World of Warcraft and many went the free route because they wanted to expand their user base. While this is sure to quickly expand the game’s base, the increased number of players does not necessarily address the disadvantages that come with the free to play territory.
Here are some free to play massively multiplayer online role playing games on the market: Runes of Magic, Megaten, Jade Dynasty, World of Tanks, Eden Eternal, Perfect World, War of the Immortals, RuneScape (F2P), and many others.
Grabbing Market Share
Why are there so many free to play games coming online? The answer is simple. There is a huge amount of money to be made in the MMORPG market. All a game needs to do is get a large enough user base and bank on the fact that a certain percentage of that user base will actually buy items or buy game gold or any other consumable items in the game to get an advantage or to improve their experience. It truly is a numbers game. The problem with this business model, in addition to the disadvantages that we will discuss below regarding the actual mechanics on operations of the game, is the saturation of competition. If you are going to compete in the fantasy MMORPG space, there are so many others in that genre. Thus, it is very important that developers and game publishers look for different niches or different genres to differentiate themselves from the competition. If executed right, the free to play model is actually quite sustainable. It is simply just a question of scale. World of Warcraft is actually offering a limited free to play version where you can play World of Warcraft up to a certain level for free. World of Warcraft is feeling a lot of pressure from free to play titles. In fact, its subscriber base has been losing millions of subscribers in the past several business quarters. While things have improved very recently, the steep drop over the past few quarters is quite alarming especially if you are an Activision share holder.
What are the advantages of the free to play model? It is free, of course.
The biggest advantage of free to play games is that it is free. There is no cost on your end to play the game besides your internet connection and your PC. While some F2P games require that you buy the software and play for free, with many other F2P titles, you just need to download the software, install it, create an account and start playing. Closely related to this advantage is that you avoid the mentality of having to recoup your investment. Since you did not invest any money, you are fully mentally free from having to invest a lot of time in the game. There is no investment to recoup and therefore you can play as little or as much as you want.
An advantage that can become a disadvantage
This is a big disadvantage to the free to play model actually because many players could just load the game and get a free sample and stop playing. There is an immense turnover rate because there is no initial period where you are feeling that you have to recoup your investment, whether it is $20 or whatever amount. Just like with any game, it takes a while for new players to fully acclimate themselves with the game controls, with the game mechanics and with the game world in general. If you are a developer of a free to play MMORPG, you want to have the player invest enough time until they reach a point they are hooked on the game. Free to play game gives the player the luxury of deciding within a few minutes if they want to continue playing the game. The problem with this is it sometimes takes a few hours, if not days, to actually get a full feel for the game and mentally commit to it. The free advantage is a double edge sword. It can actually be a disadvantage. Also players could be cheating themselves because if they only play the game for an hour and did not really fully explore it or bother to adequately familiarize themselves with the controls and the game world, they might be missing out on a game that they would actually enjoy for the long term. This is also a reflection of brand power. World of Warcraft is a massive brand. Many people would automatically assume, because of the branding power of World of Warcraft, that it is worth spending a few hours on and by that time they are hooked into the charms of the game. There is no such dynamic in place when it comes to fee to play titles.
Another advantage of the free to play model is since you are not paying a monthly subscription fee that rebills every month or you pay the lump sum for a fixed period like one year, you can sample the game as much as you want. You can play the game based on your schedule. Even if you play only like one hour in the beginning, you can come back a few months later and play the game some more and then later on you can pick it up again. It is fully casual and certainly quite flexible when it comes to scheduling.
No Mental Ties to Recovering your Subscription Fee
With F2P, you do not have this dynamic when you are paying a monthly recurring bill because mentally you want to recoup that investment as described above. More importantly, it is an investment that is gone once the month rolls by. Like a gym membership that you subscribe to, you do not get any value when you do not go to the gym. You do not recover the amount of money that was spent in the past for the times that you did not go to the gym. The same applies to free paid games. You do not get that time that you paid for back. In a sense, you are in a wager against the game provider because they make their money regardless of whether you show up or not. This issue is completely vaporized by the free to play model because you can play a game, stop, do other things in your personal life and when you have more time resume your game play. It is completely casual, completely flexible and you do not have to worry about recovering lost time that you already paid for.
Disadvantages of Free to Play Games
There is no such thing as an activity that has no disadvantages. Everything has a tradeoff. There are always costs and benefits to almost all human activities and free to play games are no exception.
Less Incentive for Content Upgrades
The key disadvantage with free to play titles is that there is less money that can go to expanding the content of the game as quickly as it should. If the game was charging a monthly subscription fee, its game world could be expanding and content base could be expanding faster. The hard reality is that content costs money. Content costs money to program. Content costs money to write. It definitely costs money to debug. These are core investments that a game provider must make. However, if it is on a free to play model and there is no large fixed revenue stream every month that can be allocated to growing the game as opposed to maintaining the game and paying the company owner’s profits, there is a serious problem here because the loser in this scenario is the player.
Not in a position to complain
Sure you get to play the game for free, but what is the point of playing the game when you have explored it already, did all the quests, acquired all the magic items or special equipment and you pretty much worn the game out? You are out of luck because you are in no position to petition, insist or demand that the publisher or developer expand the content for the game. You get what you pay for-it is free. The user really has no say in the matter. This could be quite a frustrating issue and could be a deal breaker especially if you are looking for a deeply engaging game that evolves as you develop in the game. This is a serious point to keep in mind.
The systematic costs of game expansion
There are a few very popular free to play games that very seldom update. This is a serious issue for free to play game updates. The more they expand their game world, the more expensive it is for them to maintain it. It can easily turn into a vicious money-losing cycle for them if they do not play their cards right. This is the reason why a few of them are quite reluctant to upgrade or expand their games. This is very understandable because it is not just a question of making sure that your players are happy. It is also a question of whether you can afford the expansions especially if your free to play game is just making enough money to cover expenses and the salaries of the development team and hardware infrastructure cost. A decently size MMORPG can be quite expensive to maintain in terms of hardware and hosting. This is the reason why some free to play games initially go through a stage of quick and rapid game world and game content expansion and then all of a sudden the updates would slow down to a trickle or none at all.
Patches and Fixes Might Take Longer
Another disadvantage of the free to play model is closely related to the issue of absolutely having less money on the table compared to paid subscription model games. This of course is the issue of technical fixes and game patches. MMORPG games are complicated pieces of software. They usually involve hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lines and codes. Something that fragile can and often do break and it takes money to fix. Because these types of games do not have a fixed monthly income that they can allocate to fixes and patches, sometimes these patches and fixes might take longer than if the game was running on a subscription model. Users might complain but at the end of the day, they are playing a free game. They are really not in a position to demand that a bug that they saw or a glitch in the game be addressed.
Competitive pressure instead of player complaints
Many free to play games are quite prompt in fixing bugs and patching up glitches. The reason is they are actively seeking to expand their base and they cannot expand their base of users if their game brand develops a reputation for being buggy. Players of free to play games can at least gain some sort of assurance from this fact: in a competitive market, while there is less resources for a dedicated bug hunting team and a rapid patch and fix program unlike World of Warcraft, competitive forces push free to play game developers to issue patches and fixes sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, to many hardcore game players, this might not be soon enough, but as mentioned above they are not legitimately in a position to complain.
Freeloaders Hogging Server Resources
Closely related to the advantage of the game being free is the fact that you are going to have to expect that more people would want to play the game because it is free. Just like any system where there are many freeloaders, they take up a lot of resources. A divide between ‘contributors’ and ‘leeches’ quickly evolves.
Community Contributors versus Leeches
If you are playing a free to play game and you really like it a lot and you have contributed much to the community, you begin to feel entitled that you are actually a contributing member of that game. You make that community richer with your presence and also probably with your promotion through your Facebook wall or through your tweets or forum posts, etc. You consider yourself an upstanding positively contributing member of that game’s online community. This is fine and good. However, keep in mind that not all game players will be like you. For every gamer that adds positive value to a free to play game, there are many more freeloaders. They are just there to play the game for free, enjoy it, contribute nothing in return, log out, and then log back in later.
Freeloading impact scales up with more free players
While the freeloading problem is not an issue for free to play games that have small to midsize populations, it can be a huge issue for very popular games. How big of an issue? We are talking crashed servers, we are talking about very slow connections and we are talking about slow processing. Since there are so many people playing the game, taking up resources at the same time, it can weight down the game’s software. Also related to this issue is if there is such a heavy resource stress on a particular game software, bugs and glitches have a higher likelihood of showing up and this spoils the fun for everybody. It can easily turn into an unpleasant experience since there are so many people playing for free.
Game Shop/Game Items Cost Money If You Want to Get an Advantage
There are a few free to play games that require players who want special equipment or special gear to pay for these rare items. On an ideal basis, there is nothing wrong with this. Bear in mind that the game is free to play, but it costs money to host the game. It costs money to monitor the game. It costs money to fix software issues. It costs money to moderate the users. A free to play game must not be blamed if they want to make some money somehow, somewhere. You just have to be a complete and total parasite to insist that they lose money catering to your gaming needs considering that many of these games run on multiple servers and some have quite sizable networks and those cost a lot of money. Many of these game shop and game item based free to play games charge you money if you want to get that special sword or if you want to access that special spell.
The problem of Positioning: Pay to Win versus Decent Paid Enhancements
The biggest disadvantage to this is that of positioning. If the free to play game is asking people to pay up for items that they cannot otherwise get, this runs the danger of throwing the game’s balance out of whack. For example, if all the top swords in a particular game world can only inflict a damage of 100 hit points and the game shop has a special sword that if you pay $50 for it allows you to inflict damage of 1000 hit points, can you imagine the impact that would do to game balance and to the enjoyment of the players? While it is perfectly reasonable to expect that people paying real money should get some sort of advantage is just a question of how much of an advantage.
Pay To Win: Splitting Players into First- and Second-class citizens
Many of these free to play games that use the game shop or game item business model run a serious risk of creating a population that has first class citizens and second class citizens. Nobody wants to feel like they are second class citizens. This might actually hurt the development company in addition to hurting the egos of the nonpaying players because less people would want to play. Players would get discouraged because they would see that the first class players are getting an unfair advantage and the end result is that the base of players become smaller and smaller.
Pay to Win might discourage impulse buying
Why is this a problem since these people are not paying anyway? They are not paying now, but they may pay later. That is the beauty of the free to play model. They are working on impulse. Even if you are a free player and you have been playing this game for months, who knows, by impulse you might want to buy that sword that you have been pining for a long time. Developers might be shooting themselves in the foot by tweaking the game advantage too heavily in the favor of players that are willing to pay. Many critics of this type of business model label it pay to win. If you are a developer or if you are a player, you would not want the game that you love to play or the game that you developed to get a reputation for being a play to win game. You’re your game is labeled play to win, if you are a player people would think that you are a spoiled kid that just paid to win. On the other hand, if you are a developer, people would think that your game is unfair, thus there is less incentive for people to play it. Either way, game balance is crucial and that is why development companies must tweak game balance very carefully.
The Bottom Line of Choosing an MMORPG
The paid subscription model is not going to go away. It just has so many strategic advantages in terms of a pool of money to expand content, to ensure a smooth gaming experience and to address technical issues and customer support issues. These are crucial advantages. While the free to play games may eventually reach the scale of World of Warcraft, they do so at a steep price because as discussed above, to generate revenue from free to play model, a game has to have a huge installed base of free players. This is because only a certain percentage of those would actually pay for game items or game consumables. It is a numbers game. What happens is the game provider system would have to service the needs of a huge amount of free players just so they can get the money of the small percentage that is willing to pay money. There is a great amount of hardware and software cost involved. This model is fairly new and it is still going through its initial stages and we really have not seen it in its fully developed phase yet. It may not be a scalable model. It may not be a sustainable model.
Still, it has a lot of advantages as far as the players are concerned in regard to flexibility and not getting stuck with a particular game you paid for. Use the information listed above to make an informed choice regarding which game you plan to invest your time in. Study the advantages and disadvantages closely, not just in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to you, but also in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to the provider of the game. If there is too much disadvantage for the game provider, you may be looking at a game that you have grown to love and all of a sudden it disappears because the game’s cost is no longer sustainable at a future date.