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

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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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WoW is mainly focused on the endgame, which is still locked away from non-sub users. Versus FWP/B2P models…where one can presumably play all endgame content with no extra RMT costs involved. Therefor, the significances between the two is still very striking and clear. And no matter how WoW has become “liberal” with their free trail program of late.

Bruno Brito

I’m ok with considering WoW a hybrid of sorts if you also consider that it’s a hybrid between B2P and P2P. There’s no “F2P” in the equation. It has a B2P cashshop, a P2P model with a addendum of farming for free sub cost.


You can call it what you like. The difference between not being able to play endgame stuff versus you can with other games is a stark defining difference, no matter how one cuts it, IMO.

I am all open to renaming/rebranding business models to reflect what they actually are though.


In case of WoW this sounds like you are really trying to find any small thing that would make it even slightly F2P. Modern WoW is extremely focused on end game content and the trial gives you a segment of the leveling content. This is like calling the original Doom a F2P game because it had a free demo.

There are always edge cases for any such classification but I don’t think this is one of those cases. Also classifications having cases where the lines are blurred does not mean that the classification should be abandoned. For example the classification of life is one such example.

Malcolm Swoboda

Can play the large majority (iffy) to the entire gameplay for free – F2P.
Exceptions might be when significant gameplay features and very select content bits are paid. The former, well Genshin Impact is ‘f2p’ but characters… gacha… are a significant part of it, but I’ll still call it F2P. The latter, well GW2 has a base game free so I call the base game F2P but not the whole game, and SWTOR has locked out content. I just keep myself from saying ‘totally F2P’ for these games.

Must pay in single installments to unlock content, from small to huge – B2P.

Must pay in regular installments to have continued access to content – sub.

You’re looking for a complexity that isn’t there. A trial doesn’t mean anywhere close to the majority or totality of the game. A game demo means almost nothing. WoW offering much more content than before is neato. It also isn’t anywhere close to even a large portion of the full game today. When WoW markets itself, it markets itself today as “WoW: Shadowlands” – please tell me where I can play Shadowlands F2P. And me not paying a sub because of WoW tokens, doesn’t mean someone isn’t paying. A blurring of lines doesn’t mean the lines don’t exist. Adding ‘based’ and ‘focused’ and ‘up to X’ doesn’t mean the concepts aren’t predominantly important. I need to purchase Overwatch. I need to subscribe to FFXIV. I don’t need to spend a cent to Path of Exile. Its a question of what the game is *requiring* from players, and while subscriptions may (or may not) be modest for a single month, it adds up to the largest *required* cost. F2P ‘makes up’ for this with *strongly suggesting* any potential whales/spenders to pay much more than other players, and potentially making the game less fun for more players than otherwise (due to them being in a F2P status), but it isn’t required to pay. You can just as well call F2P games, besides a few, ‘microtransaction based’ and needing to be F2P to accomplish this. Its still ‘based’ in things.

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…continuing with my droning on opinion, WoW vs F2P/B2P is like comparing that little girl with a big ass spider mech to Spider-Man, who also happens to be Spider-Man. o.O

Bruno Brito

You should have made the obi-wan “you were supposed to be the chosen one” meme for the Kickstarter thread :D

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‘A Kickstarter thread,’ muttered Schlag. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’

Axetwin .

The comparison of reactions to WoW’s free trial to GW2’s free base model is unfair. WoW made that change years and years ago. Long before GW2 made their change. I agree with Sam, GW2 is STILL b2p that has not changed. However, not only is the game still b2p, Anet wants to run it is if it were f2p, and always has since the game launched. You are still hampered by the standard limitations you’d expect from a f2p game inspite of already shelling out real money. Anet’s motives have always been suspect. So, GW2 gets the same kind of crap Blizzard got when they added a cash shop to their game. THAT I feel is a more apt comparison, because the motivations are closer aligned.

As for what Tyler said about SWTOR. No, Bioware would have always eaten shit for what they did because it’s EA. If there’s one thing Gamers™ love, it’s shitting all over EA for the same stuff they’ll praise other companies for. That’s best case scenario. Worst case is they’ll flat out blame EA for “popularizing” the shady industry practices a lot of companies have adopted even though EA had nothing to do with it. Like Lootboxes for example. While their induction was through f2p MMO’s, it was Blizzard and Valve that showed just how much money their playerbase is willing to spend on these things. Yet Gamers™ will continue to insist Lootboxes wouldn’t be a thing if it weren’t for EA. So SWTOR is in a position of damned if they do, damned if they don’t because people are looking for, and waiting for reasons to shit on the companies involved.


I think one distinction between f2p and b2p is that..
In b2p you buy more content.
In f2p you buy convenience, fluff and power for existing content.

GW2 and WoW are greedy versions of the good old trial/demo; if you like the bite of the cake you can buy the entire cake…except it is no longer the entire cake, as they also sell you essentials like plate and fork as well as fluff. So I guess GW2/WoW are both b2p, trial and f2p in one big beautiful wallet milking mess…. With WoW going one step further by adding subscrptions as well – WoW is highly optimized for profit and it shows.

One comment above said that the business model doesn’t define a game anymore – I disagree with that. The business model has deep implications on the entire game from the overall philosophy to game design to content and systems and down to the smallest things, as well as the overall wibe/feeling of playing the game.

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I think the way to classify f2p,b2p and p2p is by looking at the game in question holistically and see how the business model factors in the player experience. As Ben said business models are not mutually exclusive anymore but every single MMO has a primary focus on one type of business model in my view. Like is ESO a b2p game with an optional subscription or is it just a subscription based MMO? I’d say its a b2p game with an optional subscription because you can access the entirety of the game’s content without paying a subscription but you cant do the same by just paying the subscription. FFXIV and WoW yes you can play some of the game for free but a lot of it is excluded unless you pay the subscriptions so I’d have no doubt in calling that a sub based MMO. It may be a little harder to judge eve online. if you dont pay the subscription you’re going to have severe limitation so much so I do believe you’re excluded from some of the content. But on the other hand you dont really have to pay a subscription with real money. However that has a high cost in that to do that you do have to turn the game into a job essentially so yeah I’d still say its primary subscription based.

Bree made an interesting point in how some people seemed to express a double standard with Gw2 and WoW. However I dont think this was truly an expression of confusion with the business model or something that is explained by the game size.

I dont know what it is but somehow Gw2 is probably the most polarizing MMO out there in this regard. A really good example of this is the living world and how Anet charges for those extra if not unlocked for free while they’re first released. I’ve seen a ton of posts on social media arguing how greedy Anet are to charge for these and how these should be included for free with expansions etc.. Extremely common sentiment yet ESO, Secret world (not legends) DDO and Lotro do or did exactly the same thing and yet never heard a single person complain about that! Its like understood that with a B2P business model one should expect DLCs that will be charged extra for. Having a B2P game that gives dlcs out for totally free would be the exception not the rule. Furthermore Gw2 charges the lowest price for its DLCs and allows players to unlock them for free at no extra effort to the players (like lotro and DDO allow that too but require a lot of grinding to unlock them that way) so if people truly had an issue with paid for DLCs in buy to play MMOs you’d expect that to feature more in the games that have a higher cost while here we see the exact opposite.

My theory here is some of the opinion expressed by the player base are at times not genuine opinions but more like tools used in service of an agenda. Seems to me sometimes unfair criticism is expressed by people to create bad publicity potentially to try to force Anet’s hand. In this case I guess because Anet already gives the DLCs free in some instances some people hope by creating a bad publicity around it they can get the dev to move the extra mile and make it free for everyone and such. Its either that or Gw2 has a totally unique player base with completely different views than any other MMO gamer which to me seems a lot more unlikely.


Hmm. Interesting article. But, ultimately, this discussion was a lot more relevant 10 years ago.

There was a time when the lines were clearly marked and monetization wasn’t the dominant feature. Subs were on top of the heap, F2P meant the end was near, and buy to play meant game play for no additional cost for more than a year.

None of that is true anymore. And as mentioned in the article, the lines are blurred.

So, for me, it doesn’t matter. I have played great games from all ilks of business plans. The best are the ones that provide the best value and fun for my dollar.

A more recent trend, and my fave, is free DLCs. No paywalls at all. And this has been manifest in sub games, free 2 play games, and buy to play games.

Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

“If a player jumps in without buying, they are restricted to what content they have access to.”

This is the crux. For pretty much anyone who could rationally be described as a “casual” player, almost all MMOs now offer considerably more totally free content than those players are ever going to need or want. At the very most, a true casual might occasionally need to move to a new game but in most cases even that won’t be necessary – holiday content and regular updates will run ahead of anything a full-on casual player is likely to catch up with.

Semi-casual players who do log enough hours to finish the free content (and let’s be honest – the totally free content in FFXIV or ESO or EQII is going to take even a fairly regular player many months if not years to complete) only need to be flexible enough play more than one game to keep going indefinitely at no cost while findign themselves fully entertained.

The only group that needs to pay these days is the committed player for whom playing MMOs is one of, if not *the* main form of entertainment they consume. Anyone in that position is most likely going to be quite happy to lay out some money for one of their core hobbies.

All in all it seems to me to be a hugely more equitable and approachable part of the entertainment industry today than could have been imagined when MMOs were widely seen as a very peculiar and expensive niche interest fifteen to twenty years ago.


Yeah, the lines have gotten pretty blurry. Personally, I prefer hybrids that allow you to test the game out, and THEN decide whether to pay. Because if you don’t like it, then you don’t have to feel bad about having paid money for it, and if you DO like it, you can open the wallet and be like ‘HAVE MY MONEY, AND MAKE MORE OF THIS!’.

Buy-to-play used to be ‘You bought our product, and now you have to enjoy it whether you like it or not, sucker!’. Especially because many times they would make packaging that if it’s ‘damaged in any way’ it’s all of a sudden lost it’s value. But some people started figuring out how to open them, try them, and then return them seemingly unopened…which lead to the companies getting pissy because they didn’t succeed in ripping you off like they wanted to. (Which they would sometimes sue people for. Also, amusingly the same attitude they had, was used back on them…which was pretty much karma.)

Free-to-play was more ‘You get all of our content free.’ but then started being like…’Uh, how do we actually afford to make it then?’ and depended on the ‘kindness’ and ‘generosity’ of people to make donations to keep them functional. (If you know humans, there’s not much of those qualities left…) Which lead to the whole cash shop idea and steady creep of bad monetization into games that lead us to the ugly we have now in many games.

Sub games were more of a “You buy the box cost, then you ALSO pay us a monthly stipend to keep your game’s server going…and maybe just maybe we’ll use a little bit of that to give you a little carrot on a stick in ‘new’ content once in awhile to lead you along to pay more for it…and we’ll call those expansions.”

Nowadays, most games use a hybrid of all of it. Expansions that are essentially ‘B2P’, F2P to get you hooked, and often a ‘VIP’ membership section that ‘gives a little more than usual’ to people who actually fund the game with something in it that is ‘required’ functionality-wise to keep the game from being annoying some way…which is literally just the sub idea. Some of them even double/triple/quadruple dip…with things like lockboxes, gambling mechanics, ‘battle pass’, membership, among other things…and lock something ‘you may want’ behind each…it’s become ridiculous.


I would put the delineation at how you can play the full game.

If I can play the full game for a single upfront fee? B2P

If I can play the full game whilst paying a subscription? Sub game

If I can play the full game only when spending lots of small amounts in a cash shop? F2P

If I can play the full game using multiple methods? Hybrid.

If I have to use multiple methods to play the full game? Greedy dev

That said, I’m a stubborn sub-only guy. I highly value community in my MMORPGs and in my experience, the community in a sub-only game is vastly superior to the other business models. I guess it’s because the community is self-selecting: only the people who really want to be there will be willing to pay a sub.

As for whether a sub-only business model is viable? With the right game design, yes.

Bruno Brito

the community in a sub-only game is vastly superior to the other business models. I guess it’s because the community is self-selecting: only the people who really want to be there will be willing to pay a sub.

You’re right to an extent. I feel it’s more about the game design reaching for all kinds of players. Everquest Project 99 is F2P, entirely, but you have a tight-knit community because EQ in itself is not a game that reaches for every kind of player.

The most triple-A a MMO tries to be, the more diluted the community becomes in terms of how big and divided it is. WoW is a great example, where the community can be terribad or good depending on the sect.


On that, I also kinda disagree. I feel that diverse communities are also stronger than niche communities, so I want my game to have hardcores and casuals, pvpers and pvers, crafters and looters and everything inbetween.

I feel that a sub-only game makes the distinction between motivated players and un-motivated, rather than any sort of playstyle distinction.