Massively Overthinking: Is free-to-play as bad as we thought it’d be a decade ago?


It’s 2022 and we’re about to talk about free-to-play like it’s 2012! Back then, the conversation was all about which MMORPG would fall to free-to-play next, since after all, it was happening every other month. We spent a lot of time debating when they’d do it and how it would go – would it be a trash implementation that tried to liberate every last penny from its die-hard fans and freemium gamers, or would it be sufficient to pacify veterans and bring in new players as planned?

Nowadays, free-to-play is pretty much a given. Most MMOs either start that way or end up that way in short order. Games like Lost Ark and New World and ArcheAge – to say nothing of the Bless Onlines and Astellia Onlines already long gone – spent enormous amounts of time and ink trying to convince western gamers that their free-to-play models would be kind and gentle and not at all money-grubby or pay-to-win or gacha-like. I suppose they have to; there is a very large and vocal contingent of MMORPG gamers in the west that will absolutely tank any MMO perceived as crossing forbidden monetization lines. And now we’re looking at a similar move for Swords of Legends, just a year live and trying to attract players by lowering that velvet rope.

Now with the benefit of hindsight – and the knowledge that pay-to-win is being corrupted into play-to-earn – I wonder if you feel differently about some of the free-to-play conversions in MMO history. Is free-to-play as bad as we thought 10 years ago? Which MMO of history turned out to have had the best (or worst) conversion to free-to-play?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think ArcheAge still burns me the most when looking at games that were originally intended to use one model and then converted to another. The labor system, which was one of the big draws for crafting/gathering players, felt super weird, though I’d also been playing a lot of the non-English speaking betas. SWTOR was similarly a sour experience, largely because people who had paid for the game before it was even released couldn’t retain their storage (let’s not even mention the hotbar issue). A large part of it is that players have seen the “full” experience of the game, and suddenly it gets shuffled around, with parts of the game suddenly seeming inaccessible or restrictive when converting to the new model. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, but the sensation alone will cause a costly backlash.

Admittedly, I’m kind of dancing around the topic of F2P-only since I think the biggest issue is reworking whole systems to fit a new monetization model. In fact, I’d argue it’s probably easier to start with F2P and then ask players to pay for add-ons. That being said, I honestly can’t think of a single MMO that converted well to F2P except maybe Guild Wars 2, only because as a non-hardcore player who wanted to do Conquest matches with friends, I was able to do exactly that (until they got bored, but that’s another issue). I know some ranked play people aren’t happy with it, but as someone who’s watched PvP die as devs gated content behind paywalls more and more, I’d argue even that community gets a boost from F2P.

Andy McAdams: I don’t think free-to-play was as bad as we thought, but I also don’t think it’s been a universal good. There are still predatory models from developers – like 99.9% of mobile MMOs are more about milking you for every penny to eke out any enjoyment of the game. The monetization in the game the Age of Wushu killed me. Yeah, it was free-to-play but almost everything in the game required money and not in small amounts. Three dollars to “rent” a temporary mount for 12 hours of real time (meaning that the timer ticked down even when you weren’t in game)? No thank you. Even the best models are somewhat unscrupulous at times. In GW2, a lot of the best-looking gear is a store purchase only – same thing with most of the pseudo-gambling box mount skins. And as we covered earlier this week, in a free-to-play game, you are the commodity. So the publishers are collecting heaps of data and selling that data to anyone with two pennies to rub together to pay for it.

Ethically, I still have a problem with the F2P business model only being successful because a small number of players are exploited into spending monstrous amounts of money.

But on the plus side, I love being able to dip in Guild Wars 2 and play on my Mesmer for just a day. I also like being able to dip into Elder Scrolls Online on a whim. It doesn’t take any commitment from me to get a quick fix in those games. ESO often ends up with me subbing for a few months after getting that quick fix. I think F2P monetization can be less egregious and exploitive, but I feel like there are remarkably few “respectful” F2P games.

I dunno, if pay-to-earn is the new free-to-play, pay-to-earn is still infinitely more toxic and snakeoily than free-to-play ever was.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I never thought of free-to-play as inherently bad. In fact, I got into MMOs largely due to the zero cost to entry of LOTRO. Looking back, I think some of the original F2P implementations were very confusing and stingy (looking at you, SWTOR), but we seem to have worked through those growing pains for the most part. At this point, I’ve come to peace with the fact that free-to-play is designed to entice players into eventually spending money on a game. As long as what they’re selling feels reasonable (no loot boxes, keys, win buttons, etc.), I don’t get too worked up about it. I think the original fear was that all games would eventually incorporate pay-to-win into their design, but that has proven not to be the case.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think most of my concerns about free-to-play back then are still true today: Games that design around their business model usually implement predatory mechanics one way or another. It was true for subs, though, too; it just wasn’t quite as obvious. Sub games have an interest in elongating gameplay to keep you subbing. F2P games have an interest in selling power and convenience and vanity to keep you in the cash shop. Neither one is good for the player or for creating great games.

I do think some free-to-play titles weathered their transitions better than others. Some of them, like Guild Wars 2, were so subtle about their shift from B2P to F2P that I bet a lot of people reading this forgot it was F2P, but it’s one of the better examples. Another one with a classic-era conversion would be the original City of Heroes conversion; its F2P version was almost a little too good for veteran players, though I wouldn’t have wanted to play it as a rookie.

But yeah, I think our call-outs a decade (and more) ago were spot on. The industry was going to claw more money out of us, and the games were going to suffer disproportionately in the process.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve always been a proponent of free-to-play. I think the advantages far outpace the disadvantages. I’ve said before that the subscription model just doesn’t make sense with the insane number of games you can play without one. Free-to-play offers you the ability to really try a game and find out whether it’s for you or not without any financial penalty. Then, if you really spend time and like it, buy some perks.

Now, in general buy-to-play tends to be a better experience overall as I think the developers feel like they don’t have to hold back as many of the conveniences that players should have.

I think the worst conversion I ever had was probably with SWTOR. The way it reduced the experience for subscription to free was atrocious and offensive. It explicitly let you know that you are a lower tier citizen.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’ve been an advocate for free-to-play pretty much from the moment it started becoming mainstream in the West, and nothing’s really dissuaded me from that point of view. In fact, if anything, I’ve only become more sold on F2P as I’ve increasingly found most of the common criticisms of it to be exaggerated or just plain irrelevant. There will always be people in these games with better gear and fancier mounts than me; what difference does it make if they got it through grinding or a cash shop?

That’s not to say it’s a perfect system. Far from it. But the reality is that from a consumer’s perspective choosing a best business model for online games is always going to be about choosing the lesser evil, and all things considered F2P ends up being pretty painless for me.

All that said, I still prefer buy to play with DLC over F2P. Having some financial barrier to entry usually leads to less toxicity in the community (not always, but on average), and offering paid DLC incentivizes developers to continually churn out quality content updates, as opposed to just updates for the store. But I’m not going to complain too hard if a game goes F2P instead of B2P. Both can work well.

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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