It’s safe to say that 2010 has lacked a breakout MMO hit — although, to be fair, very little was on the table to begin with. The industry and waiting fans were already looking to 2011 and beyond by the time April rolled around, and whatever did manage to launch this year felt a bit lackluster.
Star Trek Online? Decent, but thin in content and still struggling to beef up. Allods Online? Highly anticipated, then shot itself in the foot with insane item store prices and bad PR. Global Agenda? Hard to justify paying this over, say, Team Fortress 2 and the like. APB? Canceled about ten seconds after it launched. Final Fantasy XIV? Decided to go the “obtuse difficulty” route and netted less-than-kind reviews because of it. LEGO Universe has a good shot at taking home some dough, but even that’s been somewhat overshadowed by the inexplicable rise of Minecraft.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the MMO genre is dead — there’s a metric ton of games prepping for launch, and many of them look highly promising. In fact, one of the reasons we haven’t seen as many big-name MMOs launch this year is because the companies are holding off on releasing them in order to make them as good as they can be.
So oddly enough, 2010’s becoming known for something entirely different, if not unexpected: the rise of free-to-play MMO conversions. Last year, DDO showed that it could not only be done, but be highly popular and open an MMO up to an even greater audience. People like “free”, even if it’s not truly free. People also like options, which is what many of these F2P plans offer.
When you think about it, it was inevitable that sooner or later, the industry would start doing some serious experimentation with pricing structures. The standard $15/month sub is growing long in the tooth, partially due to inflation, partially due to players becoming more MMO polygamists than monogamists, and partially due to comparisons with other subs of the same price. Subs are great for certain types of gamers — namely, ones that pour a lot of time into a single game — but kind of work against folks who want to sample different titles and perhaps only play a night or two a week.
And throughout all of 2010, “free-to-play” has become the key buzzword. More MMOs are launching with F2P and freemium (take your pick of lingo) than ever before, and many big-name games started the process of adopting a F2P option with their title. LOTRO, Pirates of the Burning Sea, EverQuest 2, and now Champions Online. It’s gotten to the point where you can see devs of subscription-based MMOs wince at the deluge of “So are you guys going to offer F2P?” queries that abound.
This type of F2P is really the new trial, or if you want to get really old-school, the new shareware version of the game. Do you remember shareware? In an attempt to hook players on a game, companies would release part of it (perhaps the first X levels or first episode) for free and encourage people to copy the disks and share it around. Players could sample it as long as they’d like, and if they were really smitten, would pony up for the rest of it. These F2P MMOs remind me a lot of that — they want the barrier of entry to be minimal and attractive, and by removing the time limit, there’s no pressure to buy at the end of a two-week period. It’s more of a delicate seduction instead of a high-pressure sales pitch.
Looking at Champions Online, I don’t think a lot of us are surprised at this move. I think it’s not the best way they could have done it — limiting free players to “archtypes” removes one of the best reasons to play this game, which is custom character building — but it’s hard to complain when a huge chunk of the game is going to be handed out for zero dollars.
Cryptic really backed itself into a corner by focusing so much on pumping out quick MMOs that they failed to realize that they simply could not charge big-budget MMO subscription fees at the same rate. They really should’ve been looking at alternative pricing plans from day one instead of year two, and history could’ve perhaps been different if they had.
In any case, I’m sure it’s going to help CO out, and from what I’ve read in reviews about Neverwinter Nights, I think Cryptic’s getting leery of subscription models as it is. The first reaction that I and many others had at the news of Champions’ F2P is wondering if STO is soon to follow. Personally, I’d love it. I do like that game, but I can’t justify a subscription when I would play it only once every week or two. A F2P model, if well-planned, would draw me back in, and I think Cryptic’s certainly built a microtransaction store to handle this model.
Although STO may not be in as dire straits as CO at this point — it’s newer, it carries with it a much stronger IP, and it’s not really competing with any other similar MMOs the way CO is with City of Heroes (and, eventually, DCUO and SHSO). If they’re making good money off it, STO could remain sub for some time to come.
So what about other games going F2P? I don’t see this as a magic button that can instantly cure a MMO’s blues, and I think companies should really take time to consider and examine if this model even works for them. Turbine felt like they were being patient and thoughtful as they planned out LOTRO’s conversion, whereas SOE seemed like they rushed EQ2X to press without considering a lot of the ramifications. Both titles are still working hard to find a balance that pleases both types of customers.
I could see Warhammer as F2P, although Mythic’s stated publicly that it won’t happen and would be really hard to do. Some of the older MMOs out there could get a boost from F2P (in much the same way that Anarchy Online has) — UO, EQ, DAoC, AC, Planetside, even SWG. In fact, a freemium SWG could be a shrewd move on SOE’s part to counter the pull of players to TOR.
2010 is almost away from us, and I’m really buzzed about the future. And while not everyone is crazy about F2P, it gives me more options to play, and I love that.