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Online Gaming: Subscription Vs. Free-to-Play

Online Gaming: Subscription Vs. Free-to-Play

Sep 16, 2013

The shape of online gaming has slowly been shifting over the last few years, as a move towards the free-to-play business model seems to be slowly taking over as the  ‘accepted’ method for launching new games. Free-to-play games make their money through micro-transactions in-game, instead of the more traditional, subscription-based model where gamers purchase a portion of game time for a set price.

Online free-to-play is beneficial towards gamers in that they needn’t invest heavily or ‘waste’ money testing a new game. If they decide the game isn’t for them, they can quit, and not worry about the money they may have just spent on a game they dislike. However, should they enjoy playing, they can continue on the free-to-play model and invest in any of the micro-transactions they desire. These transactions are typically non-story essential, are mostly involve cosmetic or quality of life purchases that have little effect on actual gameplay. Micro-transactions can give a certain flexibility to gamers that subscription-based gaming sometimes fails to achieve.

By not having to invest in subscriptions fees, they can drop in and out of the game as much as they desire, over many months and years. However, in subscription based games, should you purchase three months worth of game-time, and stop playing after the first month, the last two months of the subscription is wasted. On the other hand, if you are enjoying the content – and thus invariably sinking hour after hour into the game – then that £10/month will feel worthwhile. Let’s face it, it’s just maths – the ‘bang for buck’ factor really comes into play here. In context, if you compare the price of an average cinema ticket (about the same price, if you’re lucky), the £10 feels like it has more enjoyment to offer over a longer period of time, versus that of a single trip to the movies.

SW:ToR changes from sub-based to F2P

Star Wars: The Old Republic started with a subscription fee, but has since gone free-to-play

Star Wars: The Old Republic changed from subscription to free-to-play only six months after launch, as it struggled to retain the high number of subscribers they had at launch. With subscription numbers fluctuating, the inconsistency makes it hard to project how active players will fluctuate year on year. For fans of MMORPG’s, having to pay multiple subscriptions for multiple games becomes unfeasible and expensive. Because of lower subscriptions numbers, it was more financially viable for both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic to turn to free-to-play, whereas long-time genre heavyweight World of Warcraft remains subscription based.

Older MMORPG’s such as Ragnarok Online and Lord of the Rings: Online adopted free-to-play much earlier, presumably because of falling number of subscriptions and (specifically Ragnarok) because of the dated graphics and game-mechanics. The free-to-play model allowed for its core audience to remain, perhaps dropping a few pennies in micro-transactions every now and again, even if they paid a monthly subscriptions elsewhere.

Many free-to-play games do have a method of membership which grants users additional benefits. These can vary between things such as extra character slots, increased EXP. gains and item drops. If you play one particular game a lot, membership could be a worthwhile investment. Although, if it’s a game where you play infrequently every few months, it may not be necessary.

list of differences in Subscription vs F2P

Differences between membership and free-to-play in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For instance, Planetside 2, which is free-to-play, has a payable membership option. Membership awards monthly instalments of ‘Station Cash’ that can purchase guns (also obtained by ‘Certification Points’, generated through EXP.), cosmetics, bonuses to EXP and resource gains, as well as priority positions in server queues. The worry  in competitive free-to-play gaming is that a micro-transactions might evolve, leading to “pay to win”, wherein gamers purchase the superior items for real money. It is important for developers to note how destructive this can be to a gaming community.

Another important thing to consider is how buying the best items available could damage games with character progression. By purchasing the best weapons, armour, vehicles etc, it diminishes the rewards for beating a particular boss/milestone. If you strive to push your character to get the best items possible, by killing a hard boss or completing a difficult mission, it feels rewarding once you achieve this. However, by punching your digits into the in-game store, it undermines the challenge of the game.

In games like Team Fortress 2, where there is no character progression, the money invested in micro-transactions is mostly for cosmetic purposes. All the weapons can be unlocked by playing the game, but they can also be purchased for a small fee should you want a particular weapon immediately. None of these purchases, however, are game-breaking. All the default weapons work as efficiently  as the ones unlocked, but the unlocked items are modified slightly to cater for a different play-style, while remaining balanced.

TF2 Pyro's alternate weapon and cosmetic

Example of a Pyro’s cosmetic and weapon changes, available on the Steam Workshop.

The impact and approval of free-to-play versus subscription seems to vary greatly depending on the genre, number of players and type of game. In an RPG, for example, if you could pay real money for the best in-game items, it is unfair on those who cannot afford to purchase them and could cause the in-game community to splinter. However, the purchasable items need to be interesting and desirable enough to entice those willing to pay to part with their money, without having a negative impact on the meta-game between players.

Interestingly, both the recently released Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and upcoming The Elder Scrolls: Online are subscription based, which goes against the grain of moving towards free-to-play games. While this payment method will feel relatively natural to PC gamers, paying subscription for an MMO on console feels peculiar. It hasn’t been announced whether PlayStation Plus will be required for The Elder Scrolls: Online, however it is for FFXIV:ARR and so is likely to be a prerequisite moving forwards, particularly given the move towards a more Xbox Live-like service with the PS4.  Having to pay a subscription for both PlayStationPlus and a console MMO  might be enough to dissuade many gamers from purchasing, but arguably their main demographic of more hardcore gamers will likely already have a PlayStation Plus subscription.

It’s hard to gauge whether these games will stay subscription based long after launch. Neither of them are being heralded as World of Warcraft-killers like previous MMORPG’s, so the expectation isn’t as high. But with the true PC and console cross-platform integration started by FFXIV:ARR, it might have success with its subscription business model due to a larger potential audience.

Whether these (and other) subscription games will then also feature micro-transactions in addition, is another discussion point altogether…

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