Massively Overthinking: The true value of free-to-play players


Today’s Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter backer and prolific commenter Omedon, who wrote us a really long question. It’s long. But it’s a good and relevant one, particularly in light of dolphingate, tokyogate, and p2wgate (quit making gates, people). And it’s worth printing in its entirety before we answer.

Once upon a time, when F2P was young and magical, arguments among the genre’s enthusiasts would sometimes feature a variation on the following point: “I pay for the game with my time because the MMORPG needs a lot of people, and I have options, so they should count themselves lucky that I play their game, whether I pay them or not!”

Of course this would get shouted down with cries of “freeloader” or what have you, and on it would go. I’m not going to weigh in on this argument, but instead question whether or not it can still be made in the genre, as it now clearly accepts that F2P is the norm and that players can and will hop around from game to game. I think it can be argued that MMORPGs now, more than ever, try to keep players “one at a time,” not necessarily banking on this community of gamehoppers actually directly playing with each other as a core need of the game.

We hear about the “solo-ization” of our online games, and I point straight to the idea that there are too many MMORPGs out there now, on a non-novel internet, for many of them not called WoW to hold down “massive” visible communities for very long if at all, so these games seemingly must cater to the individual, and hope, harder than ever, for these individuals’ money, not just their presence potentially bettering someone else’s experience. To do that, they often provide a game for “that guy, in our world” not necessarily requiring other players, at least not on a vital, logistical level.

Indeed, I’d even argue that any non-PvP-centric game has a solid reason to almost see player interaction as a negative variable to their game’s quality, given how non-novel the internet and online gaming are. Perhaps this is why so many MMO indie projects so heavily feature PvP: Not only is it easier to delegate each other to be the other guy’s content, but killing each other is perhaps all we can be trusted with in each other’s online gaming space any more!

The core discussion-prompting questions I’m asking are these:

Does “paying with your presence” still hold water in a time when many MMOs are adapting, for many reasons, and in many ways, to smaller communities? Are we still that logistically vital to each other en masse, and really, in such a saturated market, should we be, within realistic game design? Bonus question: Do subscription or pay-entry games (B2P) have an even greater obligation to provide something of a less co-dependent experience to the individual player?

I cannot believe dolphingate is a thing. How is reporting on this my job. How would I explain this to my grandpa. Or my grandkids when I'm old.

Here’s what we think.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): The lower barrier to entry from F2P games does cause some problems that a B2P model doesn’t suffer from. It makes banning less effective when people can just sign up a new account, for example, leading to more gold spamming and exposing new players to more toxic behaviour. Estimates also suggest that as many as 80% of players won’t spend a penny on a free to play game and are numerically a drain on resources. On the other hand, free players do contribute to a game’s popularity and both produce and consume media like Twitch streams that act as free marketing. Multiplayer games and group features in MMOs also require a certain critical mass of players to even function correctly and avoid massive matchmaking queues or empty zones.

I tend to initially play F2P games without spending a penny and almost see it as a challenge so succeed without paying, but if I find I’ve sunk 50 hours into a game or the devs have done something awesome, then I’ll happily sink some cash into it as a thank-you. A lot of the players I’ve talked to about free to play games do the exact same, and even those who wouldn’t spend cash themselves on a game will sometimes buy in-game gifts for others. In that sense, perhaps all those free players in League of Legends or ArcheAge can be thought of as potential future purchases or recipients of gifts rather than a drain on resources. Free players may also help the company wow investors by being part of huge attractive statistics showing millions of active customers, even if only a fraction ever spend any money.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Raise your hand if you use Gmail. Freeloader! Kidding. You’re not a freeloader. You’re not the customer; you’re the content. Your presence attracts advertising and provides data worth a fortune. It’s not much different with MMOs; even a purely free player provides inexpensive organic advertising and makes a game feel alive for everyone else. Free players are the seat-fillers of video games. For games where that matters, those players are obviously of value. As much value as a paying F2P or sub player? I doubt it. But not worthless, either.

Figuring out how to get people to play and stay in MMOs has been the chief hurdle for the genre since its inception. I don’t think F2P wrecked that; I think F2P gave developers more levers to push or not push in their attempts to clear that hurdle. Some of them still trip up. So I’m not sure that we’re in the middle of adapting to small communities. We’ve always had small communities, and by the numbers, plenty of those going F2P are already small.

And I don’t personally think that B2P games have a greater obligation to provide more services to its playerbase. If anything, I think they have less obligation (and motivation) than F2P and sub games because B2P is the traditional online video game model. They’ve already got most of the money they’ll ever get from most players. Anything else is gravy.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): At the risk of echoing several other sentiments already present here, I’ll say that it’s always a good thing to have more people playing and exploring a game. The biggest trick to getting people into a game is removing the barriers to entry; there are people out there who I know would love Final Fantasy XIV and really want to try it out, but they just can’t justify dropping a box price and a subscription on top of that to see if they like the game. If you jump in and like a free-to-play game, great; if you don’t, you’re not out anything.

Free-to-play players aren’t paying customers, but the fans who listen to your songs on the radio or YouTube aren’t paying customers either, and the hope is that it changes over time. Let people get in the door first.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): It’s hard to answer this question objectively since no MMO company releases the data necessary to definitively state whether F2P players have a positive or a negative impact on a particular game. Subjectively, though, F2P players providing value with their presence is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in my life. It assumes that more equals better in regard to population, and this is a complete and utter fallacy depending on the game and the preferred playstyle.

Even if more did equal better, the vast majority of post-2004 MMOs feature primarily solo pursuits outside of proven-to-be fringe activities like raiding and PvPing, and the F2P player brings absolutely no value to the solo quest grind that makes up the lion’s share of today’s MMO gameplay. In fact, he may actually subtract value from it if the game features competition for mobs, population-related lagging or rubber-banding, etc. Also, many games restrict F2P players from fully engaging with the auction house or other economic systems, so it’s illogical to posit that F2P players add value to this sort of gameplay across the board, either.

The only value that F2P players provide (and I’m talking truly F2P players, i.e., those who never spend a dime in the item mall) is a name and a number for those silly registered users statistics that game companies are so fond of publicizing.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’ve seen more succinct writers than I sum up why free players are not only welcome but needed by F2P games. Essentially, they contribute to the community and promotion of the game so that paying customers hear about it and experience a game world with a full population. Well, fuller than it would have been otherwise. Plus, you never know when you might convert a free player to a paying one. Studies show that if a game can get you to make even a single payment, then you’re much, much more likely to buy again in the future. In PvP and sandbox titles, all players — free and paying — are part of the content that impacts other players, so the more the merrier there as well.

I don’t see this as a huge difference from a buy-to-play title other than the lack of a now-decaying stigma that a free player used to have. MMOs need all the players they can get to stay afloat and hopefully grow.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I do see some benefits to the standard western interpretation of free-to-play. Albeit, these benefits generally small and short-term. The games that benefit the most are those that survive off critical mass. PvP-centric games are a prime example of this. Much of PvE is done by yourself or generally with people that you know. PvP requires that you have a large number of people playing the game at the same time. I don’t just mean the group of eight or so players in your group. Even lobby-based games require multiple groups of people to function well. In fact, most ELO systems require it. However, F2P benefits only short term; there is no commitment by the players, so they will likely leave just as fast as they came.

Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): Every player counts. Always. Every paying player is money coming into the studio. Every free player is potential money; free players sometimes spend money and sometimes have friends who spend money. I’ve seen lots of talk of F2P players being a negative in communities, but I’ve never seen any research or data to back it up. It’s just a “feeling” old guard MMOers seem to have based on some darn kids on their darn lawn.

If people are playing your game, that’s a better first step than people not playing your game. There’s room for niche titles (probably), but niche developers aren’t going to start turning away players to keep their niche status. I don’t think the payment model matters as long as it’s the model that offers the best experience and not the best monetization.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I might be sidestepping the question a bit, but while I do think that F2P offers something of value to a game in the way of warm bodies for population, I don’t think it is worth it. Why? Because I think the quality of a community (yes, the community is still a very vital component of an MMO) is far more important than the quantity, and I think a population that is invested in a game is better than one that isn’t. I truly and deeply believe that people appreciate things more when they have actually paid for them. If you’ve spent the cash yourself, you tend to care for your purchase better and treat it better. Basically you show more respect for it. That translates into how you interact. On the other hand, just having things handed to you with absolutely no investment or effort on your part lends to a lack of caring or even entitlement issues.

I think buy-to-play is much better, for both the above reason and because I ascribe to the notion that people should pay for goods and services that they use, plain and simple. Now, I’ll agree that payment doesn’t always have to come in the form of cash; advertising or even bartering is just as valid a payment type in many instances for things. But in the gaming industry, I think limited trials and such can be more beneficial than unlimited, indefinite free play. I just don’t think there is a place for “get something for nothing” in society or gaming. And frankly, it bothers me when this happens so often that it comes to be an expectation.

Your turn!

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