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.
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.
This 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.