World of Warcraft Free Online: A Good Idea?

World of Warcraft Free Online: A Good Idea?

Need a vacation, but low on funds? Consider Azeroth, where you can befriend walking cows and pillage in the name of the Horde. Best of all, it won’t cost you a dime: World of Warcraft is the latest subscriber-based game to switch to the free-to-play formula.

There is a catch, though: World of Warcraft is free until you hit level 20. If you want to break out and go beyond, you have to pay up.

IndustryGamers asked some of the industry’s best-known analysts why they believe World of Warcraft introduced a partial free-to-play option. Opinions are mixed: Michael Pachter from Wedbrush Securities believes that Blizzard is taking a preemptive swipe at Star Wars: The Old Republic, another big massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in the wings. “It’s a great hook to attract new subscribers,” Pachter said. “People new to MMOs will have to think about whether to buy Star Wars or WoW, it’s actually a brilliant strategic move.”

But David Cole of DFC Intelligence simply thinks that World of Warcraft has reached its saturation point, and the new partial free-to-play model is meant to bring in new blood. “The competition I think is once you reach a certain level of success it gets very hard to find new people willing to try it,” Cole said. “The free trial has so many restrictions you imagine anyone interested will upgrade.”

Indeed, what Blizzard has essentially done is tweak its old trial model in just such a way that it can recruit new players without compromising its subscriber-based world. Previously, newcomers could sample World of Warcraft for a free fortnight–an adequate span of time for a dedicated player to work up to level 30 or above, if he or she wanted to put the time in. With Blizzard’s new model, however, newcomers can take as much time as they need to get attached to their character, explore Azeroth, make friends, and get a good sense of what World of Warcraft has to offer. Whereas a 14-day time limit might make a new player feel overwhelmed, simply letting him or her play up until level 20 on his or her own time is likelier to make for a dedicated player who will pay to advance. By contrast, a typical 14-day trial might be interrupted by a busy period at work or school, or a family emergency, and the player never gets a chance to connect to the game. A detached player equals a lost subscription.

Blizzard’s new trial model technically isn’t “free-to-play” in the traditional sense, but it’s not likely a virtual world the size of Azeroth could support itself through microtransactions alone. Still, Blizzard’s strategy is a smart compromise that will undoubtedly attract a score of new players, plus the big, bold declaration of “Free-to-Play!!!” is a real attention-grabber. Folks just have to make sure they take a look at the fine print before they assume the whole shebang will cost them zero dollars.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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