It's a topic that we’ve seen rise and fall in prominence for a long time now: If, when, how, and why World of Warcraft would go free-to-play. It’s time to dig up this topic again as Champions Online has recently gone free-to-play and we're seeing a notable drop in numbers for World of Warcraft’s subscription base. Before we continue to delve into the topic, let’s go ahead and address the obvious: WoW isn’t going free to play anytime soon. However, it is always a possibility at some point there will be a free-to-play option available.

Current Options

Speaking of free-to-play, WoW already has the option to download, login, and enjoy the game for free. The 2 week limited trial gets you exactly that. You can enjoy yourself all the way up to level 20, the only downside being the limitations on the account. You can’t trade, mail, use the auction house, talk in most channels, or do much of anything other than rally to the Horde/Alliance’s battle banners and fight some kobolds.

This is honestly a really good way to know if you want to plunge into WoW or if you want to try something else since WoW can become a rather expensive hobby fast. I know at the launch of Cataclysm I had to pay for server transfers, faction changes, pick up the expansion for me and someone else, and the costs associated with the expansion quickly exceeded the cost of a serial number.

But with the limited trial there is a way to play that is free. It's just not what you'd traditionally associate with a game being truly free-to-play.

Slippery Slopes

Right now WoW has lost 600,000 subscribers and if some alarmist opinions are to be believed, WoW is heading into a sharp decline. Now, I’m not one of those alarmists or someone who spends their evenings casually perusing the official WoW forums to scream about how angry I am at some random aspect of the game or another, but it’s always fun to entertain some ideas.

Let’s say that it gets worse, WoW continues to bleed a significant portion of the playerbase and none of the patches or expansions does anything to stop it. This is almost an impossibility, but like I said, let’s entertain it for a moment. What can Blizzard do? Make World of Warcraft free-to-play.

How would they accomplish this? Well, there are a few ways to go about it. The first is extending the current limited trial to an unlimited trial keeping the same restrictions in place. You can get to level 20, you can battleground, but you can’t trade or talk. Simple, effective, and would immediately get a ton of fresh blood into the game and a lot of older players back in order to twink out in the BGs and farm the trial members (although honestly, I’m sure they would probably be phased into their own self-contained BGs somehow).

That’s about the only sane way to make such a major transition work and we’d have to see a lot more subscribers click “unsubscribe” before this happens.

Spectacular Insanity

If Blizzard were to go to an extreme and make all of World of Warcraft free-to-play then, by gosh, we’d all be in for a world of trouble. The amount of ner’do’wells that would flood the game would exceed critical mass within hours. Not to mention that Blizzard would need some way to maintain an income and then we’re at the hilarious topic of what an in-game World of Warcraft cash shop would look like.

Now, some say we’re already heading toward a subscription-based game WITH a cash shop, which is true to a certain extent. The virtual store that Blizzard runs is the same thing as a cash shop. It’s just a cash shop that doesn’t directly affect your ability to play the game (huzzah huzzah!) and, as I’ve screamed a 1,000 times before, will never become more.

Well, that is until you factor in the concept of paying to run dungeons with Real ID friends from different realms. That takes a giant leap from the "services" category to land squarely in the middle of "paid gameplay option" territory, depending on your perspective. Sure, it's still kind of a service, but then again the idea is that the Dungeon Finder will group you with random scrubs unless you pay for the privilege of getting to select who you group with from other realms.

But beyond that, if the entire game transitioned to a free-to-play business model, then Blizzard would need to institute a cash shop. That’s when you would find XP scrolls, potions, tradeskill boosts, tradeskill items, and more for sale conveniently within the game for real life cash. Maybe even throw some epics into their cash shop in order to make some extra money.

I’m almost the kind of person who would celebrate such an idea. Think about it, you didn’t have to pay a monthly fee and if you wanted to do something extra you could just buy it piecemeal. That’d be pretty awesome in my book, but I’m sure many of you don’t feel the same way.

The Guild Wars Model

An interesting idea that has gained some momentum is how well the Guild Wars model works. Buy the game and it’s free to play for life, or at least the life of the servers. So, you could go out and buy the WoW Battlechest and then enjoy the game for free for the rest of your life.

The only caveat is that WoW is a big game and heavy on resources, so I’m sure they would still need to monetize it and that would involve the “evil” cash shop and microtransactions. At the same time though, the way Guild Wars 2 is shaping up we’re probably going to see a game that is more technologically advanced than WoW carry more players without a monthly subscription fee and, probably, a cash shop that has no effect on gameplay.

I don’t see WoW ever heading in the direction of the GW franchise, but it’s always a possibility and I would love to see them copy the way GW2 is planning to do things, which may become the gold standard for all future MMOs if it is successful.

What would it take for WoW to become Free-to-Play?

I’m sure many of you are wondering, what event it would take before WoW decided to implement some kind of F2P system. Well, we’d probably need to lose roughly half of the current subscribers. That number is difficult to speculate, because that big mean 11 million number includes China and other countries where players pay by the hour, not by the month. Still, I would have to guess they’d need to lose a good 4-5 million more subscribers before we could even begin to hear rumblings of a free-to-play WoW.

I will leave you though with this quote from an interview over at Will WoW always be subscription based? Could it ever have a micro-transaction/free-to-play model?

TC: I certainly think it's possible that we could do some kind of micro-transaction stuff. Whether or not World of Warcraft ever goes the direction of, I guess like Anarchy Online has gone the direction of going free-to-play with micro-transactions. Whether we ever shift to a free-to-play model is really too hard to say at this point. Anything I say now could easily five years from now end up seeming like, oh my gosh, that was an incredibly dumb thing to say, how naive!

So do you think WoW will ever go free-to-play or will it remain subscription-based forever? Leave your interesting and creative responses below!

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Xerin 1
Get in the bush with David "Xerin" Piner as he leverages his spectacular insanity to ask the serious questions such as is Master Yi and Illidan the same person? What's for dinner? What are ways to elevate your gaming experience? David's column, Respawn, is updated near daily with some of the coolest things you'll read online, while David tackles ways to improve the game experience across the board with various hype guides to cool games.