..Or at least what someone else paid for

There is no end of people in the world with all kinds of reasons why someone else should pay for something for them, or at least why people should have access to various services, or even goods, regardless of means.  Liberals and ‘social justice’ crusaders of all types make campaigns for various entitlements a centerpiece of their political outlook.  While I usually disagree with them in terms of the degree, means, and amount they want to hand out, I don’t think they are entirely wrong.  Despite the protests of libertarians and other conservatives, there IS an entitlement to the means of others that is fundamental to a free society – the right to an attorney.  No one contests that defendants in court should be provided an attorney if they can’t afford their own, and that fundamental truth means that a just society has an obligation to provide at least some things to those that can’t obtain them themselves.  The question is what, and how much.  Liberals usually are at fault for wanting far, far too much free stuff, not for wanting any free stuff at all.

Regardless of how you feel on the politics of this, however, video games are a very hard sell as something that someone else is obligated to provide you for free.  Video games are a luxury item.  If you can play video games at all, or even complain that you can’t play them (as opposed to having to complain about more fundamental issues like not enough food, or being chased by angry men with machine guns) you are in the 1%, especially when we consider all of human history.

Yet whenever the subject of MMO business models comes up, there will inevitably be a few nimrods that forget this and complain that because they are a college student, or have medical problems, or live in a poorer country that subscription games are “unfair” to them because they can’t afford $15 a month.

Inevitably, people will reply to this by pointing out that $15 is not a lot of money in comparison to other entertainment, and that video games are a luxury, not a social entitlement.

The more clever free-to-play advocates will avoid this obvious trap, and tout the alleged benefits of free-to-play, presenting it as both more profitable than subscription and more ‘player-friendly’.

There’s some evidence for both claims.  Path of Exile, while not an MMO is doing reasonably well with it’s ‘ethical microtransaction’ model which, while (unintentionally) not as ethical as they think it is, certainly isn’t bad.  SWTOR is the poster child for a game recovering from massive subscription losses by going free-to-play, and Everquest has had new life breathed into it with the same system.  It should be the perfect system, right?  Everyone wins; the player chooses whether and how much to spend and the developer comes out ahead by increasing their playerbase.

There’s a trap in this reasoning, however – Path of Exile is, while a pretty good game for what it is, not an MMO, and games that are MMOs that start out FTP generally haven’t been very good ones, at a minimum being fairly low-tech like Runescape.  Others, like Everquest, are aging and trying to remain viable.. and succeeding, or so it appears.  Still others, like SWTOR, Age of Conan, LotRO, and RIFT are simply failing to compete with WoW on WoW’s terms because, why not just play WoW?

In arguments for free-to-play, especially those relating to ESO (despite it being out barely 3 months) there’s always a strong element of “this game is failing/dying” and “why don’t they admit failure?” and extensive complaints about bugs and content and balance and.. all the problems of a new MMO.  In threads about all those problems, people talk about it going free-to-play.

Free-to-play is strongly seen as a route for “failed” games, often even forgetting games that are simply old or were never expected to be high-quality games in the first place. 

This brings up an interesting question, though – if a game isn’t worth a subscription, why is it worth playing for free?

There might be a few reasons – maybe you just don’t play a lot, or just want it as an “alternate” game when your favorite is down for maintenance or something.

If you intend to play regularly though, why are you playing a game that is really that bad just because it’s free?  If you don’t actually enjoy playing it, who cares that it’s free?  Play something else – or develop an interest other than games in that spare time.

This comment, taken from a thread at Tamriel Foundry entitled “Why isn’tESO free to play yet?” is revealing:

At least with F2P you can experience some aspects of the game without financial commitment before making that decision. I know that I played DDO when it was P2P for about a year. It became pretty redundant at end-game and other games I really wanted to play pulled me away. I’ve gone back 4-5 times fora month plus each time because it’s free. I wouldn’t have done that if I had to pay each time.

The author is referring in the first sentence to how FTP lets players try out a game to see if they like it without committing financially.

This poster, not being terribly clever, however, tips his hand in the very next sentence:  He found the game good enough to play for a year, paid, then eventually quit because it was “redundant at the end.”  Is that what qualifies as “trying it out?”  Does he resent paying for that year and the enjoyment he got for that period because he didn’t like the end part?

It gets worse.  He goes back for 4-5 months at a time because its free.  It’s worth spending 4-5 months of gaming time on a redundant game simply because its free?  What for?  Why not do something else?

And he finishes up with “I wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t free”.  Ok, so then who cares?  Why does the company care about not having a freeloader for 4-5 months at a time?

I find it a little hard to believe that the game actually has anything wrong with it, other than being in a saturated market with too many competitors.  He played it for a year, and still comes back to it… but doesn’t want to pay, because it’s “redundant”.

The insidious aspect of this is that then, if some problem can identified with every game, why shouldn’t they all be free to play?  After all, we can find some reason why every game isn’t “worth it” with a little effort.  A few histrionics over bugs and growing pains are easy to conjure up.

And that is the real issue – the market is saturated with games all trying to “be WoW” (while EVE sits safely off in the corner frightening away players afraid of the consequences of loss it entails) and players all constantly harping on these games failures, real or imaginary, and skating from game to game like tourists.. but not if it costs them any money, because if they’re all free, why commit?

And this new game, this upstart, why is it not free to play?  How dare they have a subscription?  Why are they not letting me come and go as I please while someone else pays?

The question is, how sustainable is the FTP model, and for how many games?  How many “whales” are out there, and what will they pay for?  How long will they keep paying for it?  Referring back to Path of Exile’s model, they boast “5 million subscriptions and hundreds of thousands online” and offer – completely unnecessary to gameplay – hundred-dollar-plus vanity pets and thousand-dollar “packages” of which they’ve sold a “couple hundred” of the former and “half a million dollars” of the latter.

A little simple arithmetic tells us that this means out of 5 million accounts, only a few hundred have made these major purchases.

Yet these “whales” are what really fund FTP, and our intrepid DDO player above wants the “whale” to spend a few hundred dollars on a vanity pet so he can have free play in a game he obviously likes.

Now, this can work for some games, but it probably can’t work for all games all the time.  There are only so many “whales” with so much money for games to compete for.. and the whales ARE invested in one game, and much harder to pull in than that freeloaders, if they are already invested.

Finally, this method may not be as ethical or player-friendly as we think.  There is a real question of what’s going through the mind of a person who spends thousands of dollars on vanity pets in a video game.  In many cases, it’s rich people or dedicated fans with money to burn, but in others.. it isn’t.  Compulsive spending is a real thing, and I doubt very much that the makers of Path of Exile considered that when they started talking about how “ethical” their business model is.

Free-to-play isn’t all bad, and in many ways is a response to market forces.  But, when much of your market wants your product for free, it behooves one to question whether that’s really going to work in the long run.

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