For some publishers, the free-to-play model is a panacea. Aging subscription-based games or MMOs that simply never found a solid paying audience using a subscription model have turned to free-to-play in an attempt to stir up more business. While the prevailing wisdom is that a free-to-play model is a no-brainer for an online game today, it shouldn't be assumed that free-to-play is automatically the best option for a title. Naoki Yoshida, producer on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, told us why Square Enix decided to go against the grain with a subscription for the MMO.
Interestingly, the approach that Square Enix is taking combines a little from both business models. Players will be able to play online completely free during the first month, which could be enough for some - of course, Square Enix hopes they'll get hooked and want to continue to pay in the months afterwards.
"You could actually get through the game to its ending within that trial period. It's more like, if you like the game, you'll continue to subscribe," Yoshida said. "Of course, there's a lot of endgame content and constant patch updates. That's the stance we take. This is a question that I get quite a lot, about free-to-play versus subscription, but it's not about which is better. There are pros and cons to each business model."
"A lot of games look at the first two months of subscription numbers, think that's not going to be a feasible business, and switch over to free-to-play... people [are] making a rash decision to switch over and chase a quick buck"
Yoshida noted that a subscription model in some ways can yield a more stable business, whereas free-to-play can draw in a lot of players but they may not buy many items or stick around.
"With a subscription model, of course, the cons are seen as how you have to keep putting money in on a regular basis to keep playing the game. But there's also cons for a free-to-play model, in which players can easily quit the game. Items are taken for granted. People don't appreciate the progress they make. With free-to-play, we need to think about where to earn income, because as game developers, we want to provide the best gameplay experience, but we need to have that revenue from item microtransactions. We have to not only think about game content, but we also have to think about what kind of items to provide in order to continuously gain that revenue. It brings up a question of who we're making happy in the end," Yoshida said.
"With the free-to-play model, a lot of people can easily join in and play the game, but it's not necessarily the best. You have to consider and make a decision about what works for a particular title. It depends on what the gameplay experience is and how we want to sustain the game. You may or may not be aware, but Elder Scrolls Online is also going for a subscription model. Producers, especially those who love MMOs, are maybe a little too nice. Business-wise, when you think about microtransactions, where you have that instant source of revenue... Some companies might decide to set their ARPPU really high so they can gain that instant revenue and make a quick buck. But MMOs take years to build on and maintain. When you think about it, maybe you made a lot of money this month, but what are you going to do next month? By going the subscription-based route, it provides stability. The players will have to pay a specific amount on a constant basis, but that'll allow for maintenance, so we can have top-notch developers stay on staff. In the end, it turns out to be better for the fans. We can continually update and make the game better."
As far as Yoshida is concerned, some publishers have not given the subscription model a fair chance. They get swept up in the free-to-play trend and don't think about ways to improve their subscription business.
"A lot of games look at the first two months of subscription numbers, think that's not going to be a feasible business, and switch over to free-to-play. I don't think it's necessarily because free-to-play is a better form, though. It's more about people making a rash decision to switch over and chase a quick buck," he said. "With the subscription model, you have that constant flow of revenue. As game developers, creators of games, we want to be able to continue providing the best gameplay experience and sustain that. Of course, the initial subscriber numbers might not be as many as the free-to-play model, but we have that constant stream. We're not thinking just about the business of the moment. We want to think about the long term and being able to have the funding to continue making updates. Some people might be focused on quickly gaining revenue, but you have to think about the long term. All that being said, I think it's okay for both models to coexist. It all depends on the demands of players. I'll need to continue to pay attention to what the players want and consider what the most optimal format will be."
Square Enix announced recently that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has about 1.8 million registered players with more than 500,000 DAUs. So the user base seems to be growing and the subscription approach appears to be working for the publisher. In its most recent fiscal report, Square Enix was back in the black in large part thanks to A Realm Reborn.
Jeremy Parish of USgamer conducted the interview with Yoshida