What The “Free” In Free To Play MMO Means

Posted by on October 3, 2011 at 9:23 am

World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online… Lately, there’s been a huge spate of MMO’s changing to a “free to play” scheme. While the publishers of these games use the word “free”, we know that nothing in this world really is, so we have to ask: What does “free” really mean?


As I said, we know nothing in the world is truly free so we have to look at the use of this word and what it really means to the people who are going go play them because of the claim of “free to play”.

In the case of World of Warcraft, “free to play” means that you can play as many characters as you want, with full access to all of the content available to paying players, up to level 20. After that, if you want to continue playing you have to start paying the standard subscription fee of $15.oo per month, AND pay for the software (which will run upwards of $150 for the full suite of expansions, etc…) just like everyone else.

Blizzard uses this to hook players in to the game and get them wanting more, in hopes that the people who take them up on their “free” offer will get hooked and go ahead and shell out the paper to keep on playing. This is a pretty solid ploy for Blizzard because they’re not losing much. Anyone worth half a pound of roadkill can make level 20 in WoW in a single day, if they apply themselves. 2 if they do a lot of half-stepping. So if you take all of the character classes available, they’re MAYBE giving up a couple of weeks of free play for the user to make up their mind.

After that, if the player bites the hook and subscribes, Blizzard is making money and they’re happy. If the player doesn’t bite, Blizzard has lost nothing.

Dungeons and Dragons Online has a different model. They give the software away and allow unlimited play time and leveling but the amount of content available to the player is very limited. If the player would like, they can start paying to unlock more content as well as paying for items like potions and gear, in Atari’s online store. This is another situation where the publisher is losing nothing at all. It costs them just short of squat to serve you the software and allow you to access the basics of the game and if you want to get any serious play time in, you have to shell out the dough.

The main difference here is that you don’t end up paying for the game itself, just access to the content. This ends up costing you less, in the short term, but in the long term all of the microtransactions can get pretty costly. I’ve known a couple of people who have spent hundreds of dollars on this game. I spent about $20 and called it quits because I saw what it was doing to some friend’s bank accounts.

The latest of the converts to “free to play” is City of Heroes. This one will allow players to play to level 50 (the current level cap) for free and gives them the option of buying new content (this sounds similar to DDO). After that, it gets pretty convoluted and I’d say you have to be a player of the game to understand what it all means. What it boild down to is that you have 3 different account types; Free, Premium and VIP. The VIP account costs you the standard$15 per month and comes with the works. The free account is very basic and doesn’t give you much, but you have the option to purchase some things. Some things you can’t purchase, though, because the account is free. You can apparently get a Premium account, though, by purchasing “paragon points” (I’m not sure what that means) and once you’ve become a Premium player it looks like you can buy access to some more things but, of course, you can’t get access to all of the content until you subscribe and drop them your $15 a month.

What this all means to me is that each of these games, in their “free to play” forms, are there specifically to bait the hook in hopes that the fresh fish will take a big bite and start coughing up the cash. I know that by the time it all boils down, the “free player” is going to end up spending as much money, if not more, than someone who bought the whole thing from the store so when I see “free to play” I turn around and run the other direction.

It’s cheaper that way.


I kinda wish they had more of these years ago. I played EverQuest for a while, but only after I went out and bought a physical collection of discs at a store. Of course, I was in and out of super slow DSL (128k down, fools!) at the time, so it didn’t really make much sense to download anything that large back then. In early 2005, I bought a copy of World of Warcraft when retail copies were scarce because Blizzard’s servers were already overloaded (they had to toss out a year’s worth of expansion servers onto racks immediately to meet initial demand!).

And I sat on it.

That’s right, I owned a (then) rare copy of Blizzard’s latest and greatest and it sat on a shelf for months. Why? Because I didn’t want to run through the first thirty days the game offered out of the box. Instead, I tried out other MMOs with free downloadable trials: City of Heroes and EVE Online. The former, going free here soon, makes sense in having a business model where people can pick it up and play. It’s action-oriented, flashy, and an incredibly shallow experience. EVE Online however, does not. Every person who wants to play that game will pony up fifteen bones every month for it (or get a bunch of PLEXes to get around it, but that’s beside the point).

Free to play MMOs are like the cute girl at the <social gathering spot>: you want to know them, but you’re not really interested in committing to them financially. For years, I got invited back every other month to try their respective product for another week for free or whatever, something to stoke the fire. I can’t really blame them, that’s just how you get people involved in a subscription. It’s no surprise that a lot of these formerly glorious MMOs are going free because it allows them to latch on to a whole new group of people, especially kids whose parents aren’t going to dish out their credit cards for the recurring payments. Need something new? Need something cool? Just buy a card for it at Safeway.

It may blow your mind, but World of Warcraft is going to be free some day. I bet they’re also going to make more money when they do it, too. The problem is in transitioning to that phase and how well you do it. Going free grants an MMO a whole new lease on life, something that couldn’t have saved games like Ultima Online and EverQuest in the years before microtransactions were popular. If more games want to go free, more power to them.

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