Free-To-Play Doesn’t Mean Dead (If You Do It Right)


If you follow MMORPGs long enough, you’ll notice that people tend to have abysmally low hopes for a game if it advertises itself as free-to-play. The pessimism skyrockets if the game in question drops its subscription in favor of a free-to-play model, regardless of which version the devs choose to go with.

I can understand the caution, really – “free” is nice and all, but it often comes in the form of “free, but we’ll milk the hell out of our cash shop until the in-game economy’s gone to shit.” Or, “free, but we’re pissy about it. Want to take off your hat? That’ll be five bucks, please.” There’s also the always-hated “free, but there’s a suspiciously high number of stuff to make you awesome. On a budget? Sorry, bud.”

Let’s compare The Lord of the Rings Online to Star Wars: The Old Republic. One is an aging but successful game that still has a dedicated playerbase, with few complaints from the peanut gallery as to whether or not their free-to-play model holds up well. SWTOR has a strong playerbase, but it’s pretty much an accepted fact that their free-to-play model is about as bitter and confrontational as an old man who’s been cut off at the bar. The only way to get any real relief is to shell out that $15 subscription fee to keep it happy and out of your face.  The irritating part of all this is the fact that most older (released between 2005-2008) free-to-play MMOs tend to gravitate towards SWTOR’s more aggressive brand of F2P, with no intention of changing with the times. Some newer games (notably, ArcheAge) go for a model that’s more like a free trial, gently but insistently nudging the player toward the subscription.


However, the pirates might actually be worth the sub.

The thing that people fear the most when a game goes free-to-play is whether or not the game’s choice of ‘free’ falls under the ‘actually free’ or ‘pay-to-win’ category. Given MMO history, the devs tend to gravitate more towards the latter in a somewhat desperate move to squeeze more money out of the playerbase. Unsurprisingly, most people aren’t exactly pleased with the idea that some guy who regularly shells out $20 a week for cash shop upgrades is doing better than the people who work for their stuff. There’s charging for convenience, and then there’s just rewarding people who have money to spare, neither of which is generally handled well in the MMO genre. As a result, there’s going to be a significantly high number of people leaving the game after getting fed up with the fact that they’re working for less than they’re receiving.

A free game might also indicate lower quality, which isn’t always the case. Games with no subscription fees do attract bots and asshats, which also end up driving people away  eventually (even though you’ll find the same asshats in a game with a sub). A previously subscription-based game going free-to-play might also indicate a lack of player interest and the need to make more money, which, of course, translates to “dying game”. Add less frequent content updates to the mix, and you just might have a game that few people are going to be willing to put up with for the long haul.

swtorThis is pretty much why The Elder Scrolls Online attracted the town criers once again, with topics popping up about whether or not the game was “dead” once Zenimax made the announcement to go free-to-play. But the overall reception was pretty positive – the subscription fee had been the biggest obstacle for most, and it’s entirely possible that the free-to-play model might draw even more players.

Additionally, their incredibly forgiving free-to-play model has a lot to do with the positive response. Similar to LOTRO, Tamriel Unlimited‘s new model doesn’t value cash shop over in-game goodies, and their convenience items are strictly convenience. There’s nothing you can get in the cash shop that you can’t grab in-game, which eliminates that uncomfortable prejudice against players who have a bit more money to spare. Unless someone comes up with something better in the near future, this is currently the best version of the free-to-play model that game companies are currently using.

Free-to-play doesn’t mean dead-and-dying, so check out the game for yourself before you listen to the naysayers. If the game is cared for well enough by the devs to draw and maintain interest, and if the free-to-play model is done right, you won’t have to worry about a lack of a playerbase.


About Deborah Crocker

Deborah is a 22 year old semi-hermit currently plodding through her senior year of college and getting her feet wet in game journalism. She has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with high fantasy, video games, novels, and Elder Scrolls. When she’s not in front of a screen, she enjoys singing and a bit of beading. She’s also currently on the hunt for the restaurant with the best cheeseburger.

Recommended for you

  • Jeagan Fires

    This is a decent article, but there is one thing that I disagree on. SWTOR is by and far my favorite version of f2p, because the unlocks you can pay real money for? They give you items which are tradeable/sellable. I played back when it originally launched for about three months. So what, $45 total? And when I get back, there were a bunch of limits on money, crafting, all that. But guess what? I saved up my credits, and bought ALL of the unlocks on the auction house. So now I have all of the benefits of subbing (minus the bonus XPs and unlimited credit carrying) for free forever. If paying money yourself was the literal only way to get the unlocks, I understand the frustration. But they basically made it a way for people in the game to pay real money for credits (which happens in all MMOs anyways), but they added it in such a way that anyone can fully unlock the game with a small amount of patience and auction-watching. People with money provide the unlocks, people without provide the credits. Win-Win, I believe is the term?

    • Sharpe

      I’m going to second this, and add a nice little addendum. Recently some friends that I play other games with considered starting playing an MMO – we decided the LOTRO would be good, because we all enjoy the lore around the world. And it was fun – until we realized that all the F2P players were ‘gated’ and that as a ‘paying’ player (and I have been since Launch) I was having a considerably easier time playing the game. My friends who game (unlike me) are broke, and had not the money to shell out to unlock things like a Horse Riding Skill.

      So, we switched to SWTOR. In SWTOR, I have the money, and a lovely shop where I can do things like purchase six tokens to unlock Guild Bank Access and drop in the mail to anyone that joins. Things like the credit limit? Perfectly handled because when my players look like they are going to exceed it they dump their money in the Guild Bank (this is another win-win). But really, the only thing you DON’T get in the F2P model of SWTOR are the ‘extras’. You can’t do Warzones – but you can still openworld PVP. Unlike LOTRO which gates each region of it’s world behind a ‘quest unlock pack’ SWTOR is playable beginning to end as a F2P player if you just want to work your way through the story.

      As was pointed out before, it is much much easier to unlock the game in SWTOR then it is in LOTRO, and you can do the entire thing without real money. While LOTRO promises the same model (you can earn turbine points in game to use in the store) in practicality, it would take a decade to earn enough points in game (with substandard gear, and without faster horses, or quick travel tokens that are only available via the store) to unlock anything of substantial use.

      The real test comes from trying to join a Raid, though. When I tried to do that in LOTRO with my character who is at the Level Cap, I was very quickly told what to go buy in the store to make sure my character was ‘being played correctly’ as they not so politely put it. Meanwhile in SWTOR all I have to do is visit the fleet to get at least one if not two invites to groups. There is very little you can purchase in the SWTOR store that will give you any kind of in game advantage – it’s almost entirely cosmetics and ‘extra’s that aren’t really necessary in the game world.

      This is a far, far, superior model to LOTRO’s, though I am not sure how sustainable it will be over time.