What is a Free to Play MMO?

Every time I see an ad saying “WoW – free to play until…” I cringe a little bit. Sure it’s completely true when you add the stuff after the ‘until’, but nomenclature is important, and at the end of the day it’s a trial, not an entirely free to play mmo. F2P mmos can come in so many forms nowadays, so it can be difficult to put down a definition that completely covers it. But, I guess it’s important to set some ground rules for ourselves about what we will talk about and what we will run away from, screaming like little girls. So here we are, doing something that I just said is a pain…

So what are the common characteristics of a free to play mmo? I’ll start with the obvious one.

Not Everyone That Plays is Paying

I’m sure most people would get this from the whole “free” part, but you never know. Companies that make and maintain f2p mmos depend on some sort of income other than mandatory monthly subscription fees to stay in business. This could be microtransactions, subscription fees for premium access/items, in game advertising, or whatever else they can think up.

It is Free and Easy to Start Playing

With the amount of competition in f2p mmos today (ie, there are a lot of them…) getting players into the game quickly is crucial. If I’m having a hard time installing a game (I’m looking at you, Runes of Magic), I probably wont stick around for very long as there are 20 other mmos all trying to get my attention. Because of this and the whole ‘free’ thing, f2p mmos also tend to have an incredibly high number of registered accounts and users. This also works to the game’s advantage, because more players means more people to potentially buy something and net the company a profit.

Restrictions on non-paying players

Alright we knew this wasn’t all going to be sunshine and rainbows, because not paying can come at its…uh…costs. Some games restrict non-paying users to certain areas, races, classes, and skills or place caps on in-game gold. In some aggravating cases, access to game support is limited and paying users are flat out overpowered in compared to non-paying ones.

Free Takes Longer

A good free mmo will avoid overpowering paying players and instead give them a time advantage over everyone else. Take Dynasty Warriors Online as an example:

In game, there are two types of items needed to upgrade and maintain weapons, gems and ore. Gems come in all different flavors and are used to upgrade different stats on your weapons as well as do basic repairs. Ore, on the other hand, is used to give your weapon elemental bonuses as well as replenish those bonuses.

Both of these items are needed in ample supply to keep your weapons in tip top shape, so of course they are available in the game’s item mall for real cash. They however also drop (at a rather low rate, mind you) from farm-able arenas. The drop rate isn’t so low that it’s impossible to play the game without paying up, but you’d have to spend some game time farming.

This leaves the players with a choice, either spend a long long time farming for those items, or pay a little cash and avoid the farming. Many people will take the long route, which is perfectly alright for the developers: more people playing the game means more free advertising through word of mouth. Some people, though, will think their time is more important, and decide to pay up. The important thing here is that the decision was made completely on the player’s terms, and was never forced upon them.

What Are Trial Games Like?

Now we come to the strange twin brother to the f2p genre, the game trial. Here, people can also play for free, but they eventually hit some sort of roadblock. The usual methods here are either time based, where after a set period of time the account is completely shut down, or advancement based, where once a player reaches a certain level or finishes a certain zone they can’t progress any further. In both cases, these restrictions are lifted once the player pays up through their subscription fees.

The Exception(s) That Prove the Rule

Because apparently it’s impossible for me to commit, I’m making a few exceptions here.

  • Guild Wars/Guild Wars 2 – I know these are technically buy-to-play titles, but once you pay that its completely free to play and partially uses a microtransaction system to monetize….plus I REALLY want to talk about gw2.
  • Wizard101 (and games of similar payment options) – At first, this plays pritty much exactly as I described a trial game: once you reach the end of a zone you get stuck. But when you get there you not only have the option to start paying subs, you can also decide to buy permanent access to more maps through an item mall. It’s an interesting hybridization, so I call it fair game.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.



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