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MMOs' free-to-play future

Switching to freemium isn't about dodging the axe

With the news that GamersFirst's impending APB relaunch would be a free-to-play title came the inevitable grumbling that this would necessarily mean a tawdry, bitty affair, scrabbling for pennies in the dirt. 'Free-to-play' is so often associated with low-rent, cynical clones, but there's nothing which innately hooks it to low-quality titles. Nor is it a sign of entropy among games that turn to it late in their lives.

The presumption in many quarters seems to be that any MMO moving free-to-play is a desperate, last-ditch act of survival. While it's certainly true that the frenzied rush for £8 to £12 per month subscription fees incited by World of Warcraft's surprise success is all but over (though, of course, it's not dead until Blizzard says it is), this doesn't mean every MMO that followed that model is on a fast train to hell.

Plenty of MMOs can and do survive on unspectacular subscriber figures, with even a slow trickle of monthly payments guaranteeing them an ongoing lease on life and the sort of bottom lines most retail games only dream of. Apart from high-profile collapses such as APB and Tabula Rasa, where far too much was spent far too quickly to possibly recoup in a hurry, the line between success and failure for MMOs is far from distinct. Veterans can and do remain, even with small, cliquey subscriber bases - Everquest, Ultima Underworld, City of Heroes... They might struggle to expand their reach, but they retain a profitable core.

When a game like Lord of the Rings Online or Dungeons and Dragons Online goes free-to-play, it's not because of the smell of decay: it's because of the smell of money. The greedy eyes staring longingly at FarmVille don't derive entirely from the social games industry - MMO publishers are increasingly aware that payments for additional quests, items and virtual currency can add up to far more than a subscription pulls in.

These MMOs (and others like them - Everquest 2, Champions Online are notable recent migrants) could feasibly have continued for years, pulling in modest sums but demanding relatively low maintenance. A move to free-to-play, though, offers the chance to turn modest into millions. The long-term effectiveness of these reboots remains to be seen, but when we hear Turbine talking about doubling LOTRO revenues and boosting DDO's turnover some 500 per cent, it's clear this wasn't anything to do with borrowing a little more time before the master server is turned off.

Similarly, APB: Reloaded being a free-to-play title isn't a matter of miserably trying to wring even a few pennies from a dead money tree. It's because GamersFirst could pick up an existing MMO infrastructure on the cheap and then twin it with a model it knew full well turned over good cash. Better still, for them, someone had done the hard work already, investing in something far more high-tech than the long tail nature of free-to-play development would otherwise have allowed.

That's why more games will follow. Warhammer Online, Star Trek Online, City of Heroes... There should be no surprise should any of these make the switch in the coming months. If and when they do, it won't be because they're near death: it will be because their publishers realise that something they believed was in slow decline could turn out to be quite the opposite.

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Alec Meer avatar
Alec Meer: A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.
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