Are F2P MMOs Just Not Very Good?

SW:TOR Bounty Hunter

SW:TOR's subscription fee... just went up in flames.

“Are F2P MMOs just not very good?” I asked myself this very question the other week when I heard the news that, surprise surprise, SW:TOR was going to ditch it’s subscription model and go free-to-play instead. Of course, everyone and their donkey had predicted this months ago so it didn’t come as much of a shock, aside from perhaps how quickly it happened. I think most of us were expecting it to take a few more months.

And whilst at first this news seemed to simply reinforce the argument that subscription fees are a dated mechanic of the past, it did make me wonder why a few select games like WoW, EVE and RIFT can successfully – and profitably – operate that way yet others can’t. Although there’s more to it than just having hundreds of thousands (or millions) of players (the initial cost of development and on-going license fees are other big considerations, for sure), it does stand to reason that the subscription model just doesn’t work with a dwindling player base. And player bases dwindle because games suck. I mean if they didn’t, these games would still have lots of players, still be using models subscriptions and everyone would be happy.


I can hear you getting ready to pounce in defence of your favourite F2P MMO and rip my larynx out like a rabid hyena in the process. Please don’t.

Because don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think all F2P games suck. Indeed, it’s a theory I quickly abandoned because there a few examples of, by popular account, excellent MMOs that made the switch (LOTRO, for instance). I do, however, don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that a lot of the recent MMOs are switching so quickly after having receiving pretty lackluster responses from the public. Take SW:TOR. I bought it, I enjoyed it for a month, I got bored. And while I can’t say that it’s a ‘bad’ game, it didn’t have any spectacular gameplay or innovative mechanics to keep me hooked for any reasonable length of time. It’s declining player base would show that most of the world would agree with me too.

Personally, I think Jim Rossignol hit the nail on the head in his article over at Rock, Paper Shotgun when he commented on how people simply don’t want to subscribe to games that they’ve seen – and played – dozens of times before. There’s only so many years one can play similar games for and not mind paying for them but, eventually, the novelty is bound to wear off. And I think that’s exactly what we saw with SW:TOR. It wasn’t a terrible game, it just didn’t offer anyone any reason to stick around and subscribe.

Which is exactly where the subscription model falls flat on it’s face. In a somewhat ironic, yet understandable, twist it seems that people would rather splash out and pay $30-$50 in one month for a game that they are currently playing than $15 each month once they’ve gotten bored, even if they probably end up with a worse off deal over time. No doubt there’s some interesting human psychology behind all that.

I suppose even though I’m an advocate for the subscription model because of it’s simplicity and transparent motivations (I’d much rather see developers work hard to keep me entertained every month than rely on selling me superfluous gimmicks to make a buck), I can appreciate that now the MMO genre is more competitive than ever before, with more choice than ever before, it’s becoming very hard to hold onto huge numbers of players over the long-term. Ultimately, it’s not SW:TOR fault that it couldn’t sustain a subscription model, but rather simply a sign of the times.

And then my entire thought process is halted by a little voice in the back of my head that says, “well it also wasn’t that good either”


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  1. Stabs says:

    A few years ago Tobold starting advancing the theory that WoW sets the bar by which MMO fans judge our games. Plenty of games were released in 2006-8 which were good when judged against MMOs like Anarchy Online and Asheron’s Call, but a long way short of WoW. There was no reason to play WAR or AoC or Lotro if you could instead play WoW.

    DDO expanded the bar by giving us a reason. The reason to play DDO rather than WoW was not being locked into a sub. (It also did some things better than WoW but that’s not really the point).

    So now there were two bars: good and free. For me to play your MMO beyond the first month or two it has to beat at least one of those bars, preferably both. I don’t mind paying £9 per month to play a MMO so my valuable time has to be better spent playing your MMO than playing WoW. I also enjoy not paying and particularly enjoy gaming complicated semi-free systems so if your game is no better than EQ2 or DDO I’ll play those as the F2P matrix adds an enjoyable level of complexity itself, it’s an extra and fun game feature.

    An alternative strategy to draw me in is different. While SWTOR offered not much I hadn’t seen in either SWG or WoW The Secret World has impressed me very much. I’m not subbed at the moment partly because I am very engrossed in Eve and don’t have time but partly because when my sub was due I thought it would soon go F2P. The bits of TSW I like, the puzzle quests, are likely to be free if they use the same sort of matrix as all the other ones. And I don’t care about raiding or high end gear. So everything I want in TSW will be available for free later on and I’m in no rush (in fact now isn’t a good time). So in the case of TSW the existence of other MMOs that are F2P and the suspicion that TSW would become one was a big factor in putting of my decision to sub. Good game though, very good. (As is Eve which is also – for me – free to play).

    • yeoman79 says:

      Just to make things clear, DDO (if you indeed mean Dungeons & Dragons Online) was originally subscription based. Released in 2006, it changed to F2P late 2009. So DDO also spent several years as a subscription based game, until poor subscription rates called for a revamp of its model.

  2. Tesh says:

    Regarding buying a game for $30-50, it’s a different psychology. See, if you buy it, you can play it whenever you please. Sure, some players will finish it in a month, but they can go back to it if they feel like it. Other players may take years to finish it. To be sure, there’s a little bit of “paying for the convenience and for ownership” in there, but it’s not usually accurate to compare a month of an MMO to a new offline, owned game purchase. Of course, further muddying the waters, there’s the box *plus* a subscription model we see in big MMOs… that first month isn’t $15, it’s the box price, usually also $30-50. Months beyond that might be $15, but that’s just *adding* to the price tag, where the single purchase game doesn’t incur further costs.

  3. browolf says:

    Maybe the problem these days is the there’s trade off between the amount of high quality content people want and the time/money it would take to make it. People have shot themselves in the foot by desiring MMOs to have the content depth/immersion of single player games. Apparently it’s simply not possible to deliver.

    People may hate the grindy games of old but cost wise were probably a lot cheaper to make. If you can persuade people to stick the grind, there’s less chance of people running out of content as you can stretch the grind out indefinitely. Which is pretty much what ffxi has done to keep itself going.

  4. bhagpuss says:

    Excellent analysis by Stabs there, almost all of which tallies with my own experience. Not sure how many see gaming the Freemium rulesets as additional content but I certainly do.

    That said, I completely refute the Tobold hypothesis. WoW categorically does not set the bar for anything other than popularity. To benchmark against WoW for quality is a s ludicrous as benchmarking against The Osmonds for musical quality in the early 1970s. Popular never has and never will equate to quality.

    I waited more than five years to play WoW and when I did I found it moderately entertaining. It’s a classic three-month MMO, which is exactly how long it took me to lose interest in it. Naturally, had it been my first MMO, as it was for more people than had played all previous MMOs put together, it would operate as a different benchmark, that of “first MMO”. My first MMO was Everquest and I still judge all new MMOs by that standard and probably always will.

    This leads me to also refute the Rossignol hypothesis. He might have a short attention span and be easily bored but that doesn’t apply to all of us.Taking EQ2 as an example, I’ve played it pretty heavily since it launched in 2004 and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. I know people who are still playing Everquest regularly after more than a decade and I myself still often revisit it and have a great time.

    Some people need constant novelty to be entertained and others don’t. I’m in the latter camp. If I like something, I like it. The like doesn’t wear out easily, especially when, as in the case of MMOs, nothing is static.

    On the substantive issue of F2p vs subscription I think it’s the wrong argument. It comes down to the quality, or more particularly the addictiveness of the game. Put simply, if the game is good enough, the payment model is largely irrelevant, at least from the player’s point of view. Really, the least interesting thing about any MMO is how you pay for it.

  5. Syl says:

    An MMO must suck if it can pull off the sub? I don’t agree with that.
    I’m not quite sure what F2P you’re referring to; the all-free to play like Allods, or the buy-to-play (but subfree) GW2 or in that case also SWTOR now.

    in any case, conquering your own share in a limited market that is at the brink of complete saturation as we know it, is a very hard undertaking for latecomers; as Stabs said, some big spots are taken already – WoW and Rift both deliver the polished and classic promise, EvE is a space opera, LotrO got the lore and fantasy geeks and now TSW is appealing to horror fans. there’s limited space and timing is a big part of it, too. so unless you’re not incredibly new, innovative and refreshing while ALSO managing to deliver a polished product, it isn’t very wise to launch an MMO that comes both with account and sub costs…..

    I was baffled Bioware even attempted this – just as I am baffled at TSW; I will count the days until they go subfree, probably as soon as both GW2 and MoP have launched. right now Funcom benefits from the summer hole and players waiting for the big hits later this year, being curious. but TSW appeals to a small niche and I don’t see them pulling the sub off longterm. there’s also the mistake (imo) they made combat wise; they probably could’ve gotten more shooter and zombie-killer fans on board had they not made it an incredibly boring MMO-style auto-attack and auto-aim deal. Big mistake.

    so, do these games suck? no, but the developers are rather late to notice what’s going on right now and think they can pull off stunts that maybe would’ve worked 7 years ago. in Funcom’s case this is particularly surprising (thinking AoC here). but maybe they just wanted to try. ;)

  6. Telwyn says:

    For years Blizzard were very successful at keeping the balance between quality of content and pace of content updates. Just enough to keep all the hard core players grinding away at the end game and enough new quests/zones and other distractions for the casual players to be happy. Personally I think WoW failed that balance with Cataclysm, there’s been massive gaps between content – the 5 new character levels were too few as well. The drought of content while we wait for MoP is even worse. Pace of content is very important.

    Rift is bucking the trend of sub games transitioning to free to play because Trion have set a new standard for rapid content rollout. Compare that to Tera, which has had very little content since launch and arguably launched with very little content and you see the opposite story (there’s a long thread about this on the Tera forums at the moment).

    It seems for the last few years, most dev studios have not seriously planned for new content releases *in decent quantities* after launch. I was disappointed at how little actual new content SWTOR has had since launch so I’m unsubbing next week. I have zero interest in end-game raiding, so far there’s been little new story added except through large group activities. If Bioware had taken a lesson from Trion on frequent in-game events and a steady trickle of new quality storylines I think things would be very different for them.

  7. pitrelli says:

    Hmm I think ‘Why are subscription MMOs failing?’ is more to the point.

    In my opinion there is no singular reason into a failure of a subscription game, sure you could turn around and say ‘ because the game sucked ass fuzz’ but that wont really be telling the full story. Each game recently which has moved from sub to F2P will have there own factors on why they failed but I thought it would be interesting to list what I think are the main reasons:

    - Target audience: Game developers need to be clearer and realistic on who exactly are their target audience, and how best they can serve that player base and how to develop a game for that specific audience. There is no point in creating a game and half assing parts of the game just to try and broaden the scope of player base. If one part of the game is below par then it impacts on the enjoyment of the game as a whole and creates a bad vibe amongst the player base which can spread fast.

    - Budget Perhaps devs/companies need to lower their expectations and aim lower. Why not create a solid base of a game on a shoe string and strengthen as you move forward? What we are currently seeing is massive budgets being blown then investors becoming impatient when subs drop thus almost forcing the push of the panic button and the transition to F2P for a money grab. I don’t buy this ‘opening up the game’ for other players nonsense when making the switch to F2P, if that was the case then the game would have launched as F2P and designed as such.

    - Same old, same old If you are going to clone World of Warcraft then at least make some decent additions. Lets face it once the first month of ‘new shiny’ has worn off is there any reason to stay with a game which plays exactly like the one you left? Probably not, especially since you may have a history and several high level toons in the original game. Rift just about got the balance right here.

    - Lack of content updates & vision for the future Bar Rift I cannot think of another MMO which has been well planned and releases content regularly. For me it looks like Rift actually held off release until they had also a couple of patches worth of content ready to ship. The fact so many MMOs try and include every feature into their game it sometimes has a detrimental effect on it and on the odd occasion genuinely feels like the devs do not know what direction the game will go to in the future….. which is in my opinion exactly what happened with SWTOR.

    - Generic pricing system Box and sub model have stayed the same price for years now, why not release a game with a lower sub fee or low entrance cost? Test the water a bit. Or of course do a GW 2 and just release with a B2P and cash shop model off the bat. It shows you are confident in your game and gives the players a chance to reward the devs by spending some money. I for one will be buying Gems regularly in GW 2, not because I particularly like anything that is in the shop but because I want to reward them for making a bloody good game and being honest with the player base.

    Soz for the wall of text

  8. [...] This is taken from my reply over at We Fly Spitfires from his recent post entitled ‘Are F2P MMOs just not very good‘ [...]

  9. Aunaka says:

    I really enjoyed the post, and wont’ bore the comment section with a comment blog of my own, I will simply say that I enjoyed SW:TOR as a one shot game, I paid no more for it than any other “one shot through” game. I’m happy to hear it’s going F2P so I can go back and enjoy the storylines of the other classes without pay a sub fee.

    I’m really hoping that more games start doing the F2P, but I am more than willing to pay a sub fee if it provides me with dynamic end game content.

  10. Klepsacovic says:

    With MMOs, quantity has a quality all its own. Raiding needs other players. Auction houses and other economics need other players. Even small-group content needs other players. Without many other players, those who do play are subject to too much variance in their experience: prices are unstable, queues range from trivial to hours-long, raiding may become impossible. Beside those direct effects, more players mean it is more likely that friends are or will play.

  11. hordemaster says:

    I feel I touched upon this topic very thoroughly in a recent post so I will just refer you to my blog post for said post, if you should feel inclined to read on. But I do agree with the premise: most f2p games aren’t very good in comparison to wow and a few other p2p games which have lasted the test of time like DAoC.

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