Updated Wed, Sep 12, 2012 by Shayalyn
There was a time in the evolution of the MMO, around the beginning of 2009, when free-to-play games were shunned by Western gamers as low-quality, cartoony, badly translated Asian imports offering only two paths to leveling success--make pay-to-win microtransaction purchases or engage in an endless, mindless grind. Despite early successes like RuneScape and Maple Story, many old school MMO players believed that free-to-play meant you got what you paid for--a whole lot of nothing. It seemed that the Western market wasn’t ready for what Asia had embraced; we liked our games with subscriptions and none of that nickel-and-dime crap, thank you very much.
Then along came Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. Turbine saw the promise in the free-to-play payment model and used it as a means to rejuvenate DDO. By going free-to-play, DDO Unlimited was inviting former players to return and new players to explore the possibilities, while rewarding the faithful--those who still had active subscriptions--with a thriving, invigorated player base. DDO Unlimited’s model allowed gamers to download and play the game for free, and then purchase adventure packs, items and services ala carte. Players who wanted to experience all the game had to offer could opt to become VIP members and pay a monthly subscription to gain premium access to all features.
Turbine’s bold step worked, and we saw many games quickly follow suit, including The Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest II, Age of Conan, Champions Online, and DC Universe Online. Payment models varied from game to game, but all offered some variation on a theme--the client download was free, and other options were available via microtransaction or premium subscription.
Soon, the MMO marketplace was awash in free-to-play converts--games that launched with a subscription, and eventually converted to a free-to-play format. Few mainstream MMOs, however, were created from the ground up with free-to-play in mind. Despite the success of games like SOE’s family-based Free Realms, not to mention an explosion in microtransaction-based social games like Zynga’s Farmville, big budget triple-A titles still commanded monthly fees. Until their subscription numbers waned, that is.
When Turbine launched DDO Unlimited in September, 2009, we applauded their ingenuity and celebrated their success in rejuvenating a game that had largely fallen off our collective radars. When The Lord of the Rings Online went free-to-play a year later, we acknowledged that it only made sense for Turbine’s other game, also based on a huge IP, to follow in DDO Unlimited’s footsteps. SOE’s EverQuest II was the next convert, and it seemed to work--suddenly there were more players in the game than ever. By this time, the gaming community had spotted a trend, and most deemed the conversion to free-to-play as a positive means to bring an aging game back to life.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when it happened exactly, but as more formerly pay-to-play triple-A titles converted to free-to-play a paradigm shift occurred. Instead of viewing the conversion of pay-to-play titles to a free-to-play model as a positive evolutionary step, we began equating it with failure. By the time BioWare announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic would convert to free-to-play this fall the tides had turned.
With an estimated (though undisclosed) budget of $200-500 million, and a pre-launch fanbase dedicated to both Star Wars and BioWare, the announcement of a free-to-play conversion just over 7 months after launch looked like a hail Mary pass designed to keep SWTOR in the game despite what many perceived as a rapidly shrinking player base. The fact that this information came on the heels of May and July 2012 layoffs at BioWare, not to mention the departure of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Executive Producer, Rich Vogel, contributed to the overall appearance that BioWare wasn’t taking an evolutionary step, in the way that DDO Unlimited had, so much as admitting defeat.
Where Western gamers had once been content with their subscription-based games, equating a monthly fee with quality and regular upkeep (despite grumbling that MMO studios were releasing games that lacked one or the other, or often both), more recently we’ve heard a different song. On our own forums, and through social media, we’ve seen the same phrase time and again when talking about a new or upcoming release: “I’ll wait for it to go free-to-play.”