Friday, October 29, 2010

Human Nature is the Reason Players Resist Free-to-Play

It's a great time to be a Free-to-Play gamer. Sure, Free-to-Play is nothing new, but over the past year or so several high quality, formerly subscription-only games have converted to Free-to-Play and there are more on the horizon. However, not everyone is happy. In particular, the subscription paying players of these games. To understand why, you have to understand what is meant by Free-to-Play.
What Free-to-Play often really means is Pay Optional. It costs nothing to start playing the game. A significant portion of the game, if not all, is accessible to the player. In addition to what's free, players are given the opportunity to enhance their gaming experience by making optional purchases with real world money. One way this is handled is through an Item Mall, or Cash Shop. These in-game stores may sell clothing items to change your avatar's appearance, mounts to speed up your travel, boosts to help your character level faster or stay alive, extra storage space, or any number of other game enhancing features. Or a game may choose to only open up a part of their world, and allow players to purchase additional areas if they wish to adventure further. There are several different pricing models out there and most include one or a combination of these options.
So why would someone who used to pay a subscription of approximately $15 a month be upset at now not being forced to pay month after month. Part of the reason is the stigma Free-to-Play has. In the past, a high percentage of Free-to-Play games were of low quality when compared to the subscription games. However, over the years they have gotten better. Furthermore, we are now talking about established, Triple-A titles. We know the quality is high.
The main issue is the cash shop. Players complain that now that have to pay for stuff that used to be included in the game. I agree this is a valid complaint for someone who plays a particular title a lot and, in the new model, would end up spending more than the $15 subscription fee a month. But, from what I've heard, the reality is that that accounts for only 5% to 10% of the players. Furthermore, many of these games (certainly all of the recent subscription converts) have a subscription option available for people who play a lot, which would allow them to play everything without having to dish out any more additional cash. Yet, players still want to resist the Free-to-Play model. Even those who would benefit sometimes don't like the idea of having to make Cash Shop purchases. They have that "being nickeled and dimed" feeling. In fact, I heard the host of one podcast recently admit to being more comfortable paying a $15 subscription every month than paying $2, $3, $5 here and there in a Cash Shop, even, if on the average, the Cash Shop purchases were less each month.
So why the resistance? I believe it is the human nature to resist change.
Way back when MMO's were a new thing, in the days of Ultima Online and Everquest, the only model available was the subscription model. Some people jumped right on board. Others, like myself, scoffed at the idea of paying a fee each month to play a game and took a while to accept the idea. Either way, subscription was the only way to play, or at least the only way to play a quality game. Players were comfortable with that arrangement. Now something new comes along that challenges the subscription mindset. It's different. They don't like it. It's not how things are supposed to be done. By accepting it, in some way they feel that they are admitting they were wrong for all those years.
I suspect the exact same thing would be happening if the order was reversed. What if the first MMO's were Free-to-Play games and the publishers made their money with Cash Shops and area unlocks? Then, after about ten years of this, a game publisher offers a subscription model which charges a monthly rate less than what most players were paying in item purchases. Players would be up in arms. "How dare you force me to pay a fee every month!" "Don't take away my choice to buy what I want!" "It's just a trick for the game publishers to get rich!"
Do you really think it would be any different? I don't.

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