5 Biggest Killers of Free-to-Play MMOs

5 Biggest Killers of Free-to-Play MMOs

Sony Online’s massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) DC Universe Online switched to the free-to-play model at the end of October. Not surprisingly, the game’s business and player base has since exploded.

“We are over 1000% of our pre-F2P concurrent numbers,” Tweeted John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), on the social blogging service early in November. Smedley also acknowledged that the surge of players has brought on a slew of technical problems, and said that SOE is working on its servers to improve matters.

Despite traffic-related issues, Smedley says SOE is happy with the surge in players, and says that DC Universe Online should have been free-to-play from day one. In a September column written for Gamesindustry.biz, Smedley predicted that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be the last North American MMOG to fall back on the subscription-based pay model.

It’s true that MMOGs are falling back on the free-to-play formula at a record pace, but part of that is because the fierce competition in the market makes it necessary. On paper, the free-to-play model sounds like a surefire money-maker: entice people into playing your game by offering it for free, then find ways to tempt those players into paying for big and small packages of content via digital microtransactions. Going free-to-play ensures a surge of players, which, in turn (should) ensure a monetary flow.

When a developer balances the free-to-play ingredients perfectly and adds a dash of luck, magic happens. But it’s far easier for a game to crumble under its own weight and fade away. Here’s five reasons why an increased user base for a free-to-play game doesn’t necessarily equal success.

The vast majority of players in a free-to-play (FTP) game are happy with the free product — Stats vary from game to game, but generally, most of the player characters that you see running around in an MMOG aren’t paying players. They’re enjoying the free portions of the game, and are typically happy to stay there.

In time, a certain percentage of those free players will pony up some money for exclusive items, weapons, and stages–but when they’ll do it, and how much they’ll pay is up in the air. Chances are better that those free players will get tired of the game and move on without ever having spent a dime.

Free players need to be enticed into paying for content–but withholding too much free content discourages them — Again, developers of free-to-play games have to maintain a delicate balance. If a game gives away too much at the starting gun, people will play without having a reason to pay for any content. But if a game locks down too much of its world until the player pays up, that player will tire of the game in record time and skip off to one of hundreds of competitors.

Many companies are too “small” to support the free-to-play model — Sony Online Entertainment is a big honkin’ company: it can afford to make DC Universe Online a free-to-play game. That’s not the case for most MMOGs, especially games that are an initial offering from a start-up company. It takes considerable back-up revenue to run and support a free-to-play MMOG, so we won’t see the subscription formula vanish entirely for some time, at least as far as smaller companies go.

Granted, some small game studios manage to succeed with their free-to-play MMOG, but it’s a tremendous risk with all-or-nothing stakes.

Kid-friendly games rely on parent spending — Many MMOGs are developed with a young audience – specifically, kids – in mind. This makes sense, as children arguably have the most time to spend on gaming, and are still developing likes and dislikes associated with the pastime (whereas an adult will be more rigid about sticking to certain genres). However, kids lack large amounts of spending money, and most of them certainly lack a credit card, which is the most popular method of purchasing in-game content. In other words, microtransactions have to be done through mom and dad, and for obvious reasons, parents want to limit the amount of time and money their children spend online. An in-game purchase might happen when Tommy brings home a good report card, or for Jane’s birthday. That’s a pretty slow spending rate when you hold it up against adult players, who have command of their own finances and credit cards. In fact, a lack of spending from its young userbase is forcing the LEGO Universe MMOG to shut its doors in January 2012.

The busier a free-to-play MMOG is, the more resources it drains — Finally, we come down to a simple equation, one that SOE is painfully familiar with thanks to DC Universe Online’s switch to free-to-play: the more people you have playing your game, the harder your servers have to work. When you have a bunch of free players running around your virtual world, the hope is that they’ll eventually pony up some cash. But chances are better that they won’t spend nearly enough to make up what they gobble in bandwidth. Servers break down, overload, and overheat, and they’re not gracious enough to fix themselves for free.

Moreover, free-to-play games need a community, customer support, and moderators to handle public speaking in open servers and forums. This goes triple for kid-oriented MMOGs, most of which promise a safe, child-friendly environment that must be monitored by competent sentries at all hours, every day. It takes money to protect the flock from wolves.

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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