Vague Patch Notes: The ever-changing costs of playing an MMORPG


It was a pretty big deal back when I had first started working at original Massively when the trend started, and I can still remember the main catalyst. Dungeons & Dragons Online suddenly announced that the game was switching from its subscription business model to a free-to-play model, with some restrictions on play for free players but a huge chunk of the game available for free. And while at this point that seems almost routine, you have to remember that back at the time, the MMO landscape was very different.

This isn’t to say that free-to-play games didn’t exist when DDO swapped over; they certainly did. But they were generally seen as wonky imports that weren’t inherently worth the price of admission, and buy-to-play games like the original Guild Wars were also the outliers. It’s a situation that has always fascinated me as something I watched unfold in front of me over the course of several years, to the point that now free-to-play is pretty much the default. And it makes me think about why the change went down like it did.

As someone who is very definitively Not Justin, I do not write The Gaming Archaeologist column and thus will not be recounting The Story of The Free-to-Play Revolution. For my purposes today, the broad strokes are more important. DDO was not doing well, it swapped to free-to-play, and the developers couldn’t stop crowing about how the game saw both an influx of players and a sudden influx of money. It was a huge reversal of fortune. But why?

You don’t need any great insight to figure out why the game switched because it’s a simple story. The game was languishing, and thus if the conversion failed, it wouldn’t be a major loss. But why did the game resonate with people so much more once the entry price was nothing? How did that draw in not just more players but more players willing to pay money?

Some of it is because of how MMOs had long sort of been biffing it on free trials. For years, most MMOs offered some sort of free trial, but it was usually sharply time-limited among other limitations. There were reasons for this, sure, but it meant that when you dived into the game, you were very aware of the ticking clock. If you started the trial on a busy week, well, then it was over and you just moved on.

But I think there’s a bigger component, and that’s just the feeling of getting an unfair good deal.

Can we back this story up, like, a million steps?

In the long long ago, my then-girlfriend got a Netflix subscription to rent DVDs. This was not surprising. But when she discovered that you could actually stream some movies on Netflix? That was a game changer. Suddenly it felt like we had access to something truly unfair and valuable, a new feature that vastly increased our entertainment options for the same price as a video rental.

Really, this was how Netflix built its initial business model. It solved what was seen as the “problem” of rental video stores having limited selection and sometimes annoying processes to get what you wanted. Of course, those video stores theoretically had a bonus in terms of curation and employee knowledge… or at least, they had before Blockbuster had hollowed out the business model. It was a thrown brick through the front window, in other words.

Keep that Blockbuster bit in mind, actually. It’ll become relevant again soon.

When DDO embraced the free-to-play model, it still felt fundamentally like the kind of MMO that had a development budget behind it (and at the time, it did not feel particularly archaic). This was in contrast to the imported games that had previously held the free-to-play torch, which often were very clearly hastily translated for a quick cash-in and were often stuffed to the gills with things to charge you for. It felt like you were getting something better than you should have been getting for free.

Combine that with the fact that the game hadn’t been doing great beforehand (so it didn’t have to convert many people to paying players in order to make money) and a general sense that you were getting a deal, and it was really easy for people to start getting to the fun part of the game, feel impressed by its quality, and decide to drop some money. Keep in mind that Runes of Magic was not exactly aged at that point either, and its whole selling point was basically “we feel like a budgeted and real MMORPG, but we’re free to play.” There was a market.

At the time, free-to-play seemed like a license to print money. But here we are having watched tons of games convert to free-to-play and then shut down, which raises the question of why. Why did, say, WildStar convert to free-to-play and not make a splash when the game had tons of stuff to recommend it?

Because everything is free-to-play now.

Not so much.

You don’t need me to tell you this. Browse on Steam for a minute and you’ll see tons of MMOs that are free-to-play. You can argue that some of them aren’t really free-to-play or you really need to subscribe or whatever, and that’s entirely valid, but it also doesn’t matter. There was a time when we had a whole column on old Massively dedicated to the oddball free-to-play games that were out there, but at this point that column would easily cover most MMORPGs.

Remember what I said before about Blockbuster? The same thing has happened with all sorts of industries. Smaller bookstores were bought out by chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble because those chains had more money and could boast better distribution deals. But when online shopping became even easier and had even more selection, the real bulwark would be small bookstores that had expert curation from the staff… except those small bookstores had been bought out. There’s a good reason Borders went from a major chain to nonexistent.

In fact, the rarity now is games that are subscription-based, and some people will hold up a banner that subscription MMOs are the truly stable ones that don’t need to bow to the vicissitudes of cosmetic outfits on the regular. (Not that subscription MMOs won’t happily sell you a cosmetic outfit or seven because the window on that has moved.) The margins have completely inverted, and the potential consequences of developing a full MMORPG when faced with a market that could reject you out of hand are… significant.

So what’s the lesson to be taken from all of this? I don’t think there is one, actually. It’d be nice to claim some sort of moral high ground and argue that when everything was a subscription, things were better, but that would be a lie. Not only were there a lot of games that shut down in that era, there are several titles that probably would have shut down if they hadn’t found a free-to-play audience. Like DDO, for example!

Rather, it’s just something I find interesting. We’ve watched the economics around this genre change in a way really no one could have predicted, and I have little doubt that things are going to continue to change. It’ll have good sides and bad sides, like always. But it’s going to keep changing no matter what.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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