Massively Overthinking: Where is the line between buy-to-play, free-to-play, and subscription MMOs?


You might think this Massively Overthinking topic is way too obvious, but I assure you, it’s not! Consider this: When the buy-to-play-with-no-sub Guild Wars 2 made its basegame a giant free trial years ago and kept a purchase fee only for the expansions (without which the game lacks basics like mounts and elite specs and ongoing living world content), the anti-GW2 crowd crowed that it had become just another junk free-to-play game.

But when WoW added its “starter edition” freebie experience that allowed people to play to level 20, at which point they needed to buy the game and sub or be capped forever, nobody really batted an eye. And Shadowlands’ pre-patch has now made that deal even sweeter with even more content for free accounts, and still I’m not hearing cries for calling WoW a F2P title with optional B2P and optional sub. The same was true when the WoW Token allowed people to essentially play for free if they ground out enough in-game currency, which has more in common with a free-to-play-with-optional-sub game like EVE Online than with old-school subscription MMOs. Why isn’t WoW considered just a B2P game, as its sub becomes only more optional over time? Why aren’t we being consistent?

So this week, I want to talk about how we define things like subscription, buy-to-play, free-to-play, and hybrid. Where exactly do we draw the line on these? Are we giving WoW a pass because it once was sub-only, or are these just distinctions without meaning?

Andy McAdams: I think these are distinctions without meaning anymore. I mean, really the only reason we make a distinction between free-to-play, subscriptions, buy-to-play or whatever else is out there is so that we can make value judgments on whether we think these games are “worth” it. Once upon a time, saying something like “free-to-play” was virtually synonymous with exploitive and manipulative monetization practices and subscription was just used an excuse to get players to keep paying to not get anything new to play. I’m sure I’m going to be well-actually-ed into oblivion in the comments here, but those stereotypes about games aren’t really helpful anymore. The line has blurred to the point of not being a meaningful distinction and not really saying much about the game at all.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I think expectations have changed. Buy-to-play/free-to-play/cash shop/subscription are no longer mutually exclusive. In fact, pretty much all of the major MMOs have figured out how to incorporate elements of each, whether to maximize revenue, meet players where they are financially, or both. As far as players are concerned, all but the most hardcore have come to terms with this reality and seem more than happy to spend in the way must befitting their play style, be it by whaling, grinding, or somewhere in between.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I do think we give World of Warcraft a pass (on a lot of things) because of its size and because of our ingrained belief that it’s so untouchable and strong that it doesn’t need to capitulate to business model changes that veterans still see as a move of desperation. Even for me, someone who hasn’t gone back to WoW in a few years, the idea that WoW isn’t excelling anymore, to such a point that it has heavily chipped away at its solid sub-and-box business model, makes me nervous. It’s hard to contend with. I kind of don’t even want to admit it because of what it portends for the whole MMORPG genre. But then games like GW2 and Elder Scrolls Online keep reality in perspective for me.

Personally, I wish we could keep free-to-play for cash-shop only games, buy-to-play for games that have any kind of buy-in fee for a base game or content, and sub for games where the standard player is expected to sub. But I know corner cases and overlap (and let’s be honest, stubbornness and denial) will make that kind of hard delineation impossible. And appending -only and “hybrid” to add clarity instead just further muddies it all up.

I’m also sure that my colleagues are right: that these distinctions don’t really matter all that much, especially when they are exploitable by the studios themselves. What really matters isn’t whether or how you pay for the game; it’s how much and what for.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Value for money is still a subjective thing in my opinion, even if there are people who will shrilly cry about how certain buying decisions will ruin the genre (they can affect the market as publishers try to meet a perceived demand, of course, but that seems to flux as naturally as any other supply/demand chain).

There seems to be a sort of perception that WoW gets a pass due to its legacy, but I think it’s mostly because there’s a consensus of perceived good value much like there is with FFXIV, while GW2 switching is, as pointed out by Bree, something that’s coughed up by haters than anything else.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I tend to think these sorts of things are debates that are, at best, overwrought. Not because there’s no value to asking the question but because all of it really relies upon picking nits over whether or not something, anything, can be played for free.

Case in point: No, neither World of Warcraft nor Final Fantasy XIV is a free-to-play game, in XIV’s case evidenced by the fact that its free trial doesn’t let you keep going after you’ve bought an expansion and then unsubscribed. The fact that Guild Wars 2 lets you play a good chunk of the game for free doesn’t change the fact that the game’s business model and main mode of engagement is in buying expansions (and gems) without having to buy a monthly subscription of any sort. You can argue the realistic benefits of playing The Elder Scrolls Online without a subscription, but you sure as heck still can, because the game is a buy-to-play title with an optional subscription.

But the thing is that none of these debates are ever really just about business models because a business model tells you less than you might think about a game. GW2 and ESO are both buy-to-play titles, sure, but the way both of those titles expect to make money off of long-term players is different and speaks to different designer priorities. All a business model does, in the end, is give you the broadest possible definition of whether or not you need to subscribe, buy the game, or do neither in order to log in on an idle Tuesday.

When a title changes this stuff, it’s not a philosophical shift; it’s recognizing what is actually profitable in the game and what is not. FFXIV didn’t roll out an expansion of its free trial (which ends the moment you buy the game, even if you unsubscribe right away) because it wants to change its business model, especially as the game fully expects to sell you an expansion next year. It changed because there’s no actual money lost buy rolling Heavensward into the base game (remember, the game always includes prior expansions in the new expansion) and being more generous helps the team look more generous. It’s win-win. And it gives you better content to play to get a stronger sense of what the game has to offer.

So these are real distinctions, but they tend to get lost in the weeds because people who are very intent on arguing one way or the other tend to do so in service to a larger point. And that’s something I could get into, but… I don’t feel like it right now, and I already wrote all of this. I’m tired.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I follow some parts of the Pantheon community elsewhere, and I see plenty of people there pining for the old subscription-only days. I wonder if that is really viable at the price point it seems people are willing to pay. A niche game would have to charge too much to provide all the continuous development and customer service a player expects. A more populated game has to provide all that at scale.

As my small son says when he’s trying to be diplomatic, I don’t love cash shop microtransactions, but I love the flat subscription model even less. I have no trouble with paying for a game or paying for expansions, and my distaste for cash shops does not keep me from buying pets and mounts, but paying a flat fee forward access to a game I already bought grinds my gears. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fine option for people who know how much play time they will have over a month, but for people like me with more chaotic lives, it often becomes a useless expense.

I guess I am saying that they aren’t really useful categories anymore. Sub only seems like a pipe dream, but more power to VR if they can pull it off for their fans. I expect games to be a mix of monetization because they usually are.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think for me the terms are tied to whether I can play the game’s primary content with it. I think the best way to explain myself is with examples.

Guild Wars 2 is still buy-to-play to me. To experience its full content, you need to buy the game; which at this point means buying the expansions. If you buy the expansions, you can go and do anything. If a player jumps in without buying, they are restricted to what content they have access to.

Spellbreak is free-to-play. I can play as much content as someone who has spent money on the game. Albion Online is free-to-play because I can log in and play beside someone who has a sub anywhere in the game (I think).

World of Warcraft is a subscription game. If you want to experience the full game and all its content, not only do you have to pay for the latest expansio,n but you also need to pay monthly for the access to it.

So even though these games and most others mix and match with their offerings, I think it boils down to available content for me. Or maybe I just fall for their marketing ploys – one or the other.

Tyler Edwards (blog): It’s funny because a few weeks back I was arguing in our work chat that Final Fantasy XIV’s expanded free trial deserves to be viewed not as an unusually generous trial but as an unusually miserly free-to-play model. I think you could make a pretty similar argument for WoW’s Starter Edition, now that the level squish puts a huge amount of content within reach of a mere level twenty character.

There’s some murkiness in this definition, but I think a good rule of thumb is that if half or more of your game’s content is available for free, your game is free to play. WoW is now essentially offering all but the latest expansion for free, and FFXIV is not far behind. While we tend to tunnel vision on endgame in the MMO community, that’s still ultimately a small portion of a game’s total content. If you’re one of the three people who’s never played WoW, you can get a Starter Edition account now and have at least several months worth of content waiting for you.

Keep in mind that SWTOR also generally restricts its latest expansion(s) to subscribers, even if it remains unlocked once you unsub. There’s very little difference between that and what WoW and FFXIV are now doing, and no one’s arguing SWTOR is still a pure-sub game.

I do think both games are getting a bit of a pass on this through a combination of their reputations, their history as sub-only titles, and clever marketing. It’s quite brilliant, when you think about it. By selling things as a trial rather than free-to-play, they can both dodge the stigma that sometimes follows free games and deflect any criticism of how restrictive their free-to-play option is.

I can just imagine how much BioWare is kicking itself right now. Imagine if it’d sold SWTOR’s F2P model as an expanded free trial. The reaction from the community could have been wildly different. FFXIV and WoW are getting praised for their generosity for doing basically the exact same thing SWTOR caught hell for.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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