Syp recently wrote about the difficulty in understanding what free-to-play (F2P) means given there are so many different variations of F2P. He touched on a thought I’ve had for a while, which is that the discussions around game payment models get messy because no-one defines their terms. There is a vocal group who criticise F2P as “more expensive than paying a subscription” while ignoring that they probably also had to pay for an upfront box cost before they could start paying for that subscription too.
So let’s look at the payment models available for video games, at least at a high level. As best I can tell, there are three broad categories of player payment – the one you make to buy the client, any ongoing regular subscription fee and any irregular / non-periodical payment (that’s usually small on a per unit basis). The combination of these three leads to the following breakdown:
- Titles like World of Warcraft require a ‘box / client’ purchase that is traditionally treated as being a separate cost to actually playing. Then there’s a subscription cost and a store where players can pay a few dollars for pets or something extra.
- Asheron’s Call still requires players to buy full access to the client, and then has an ongoing subscription fee.
- With single player games like Freedom Force, you only need to pay for access to the client to be able to play.
- Eve Online (as best I can tell, anyway) has no cost to formally access the client, but does have ongoing subscription fees while there has also been (not that well received, at last at first) in-game item purchases using real money.
- Some titles are free to access the client and have no set ongoing fees, instead relying on their players to pay for in-game items a few dollars at a time – World of Tanks is one of these games.
- The very odd game (and Sociolotron is a very odd game – don’t Google that one at work) has only a subscription fee as its revenue source for its developers.
- Guild Wars 2 has received a lot of attention for its combination of “buy the box, play free forever” approach along side a cash shop option.
- Finally, there are games that don’t charge players anything – their revenue comes from advertising funds or other sources. Up until about July 2012, I believe that Miniclip didn’t provide the option for players to pay them for games (although I may be mistaken).
For the purposes of the above, I’m ignoring free trials and demos and the like – I’m only thinking about where players need to pay in order to legitimately play the full game.
Of course, this doesn’t actually answer what Syp was talking about: that the term F2P isn’t a clearly defined term. The above table doesn’t help solve that particular issue, but hopefully does provide some consideration points for future discussion in this area.
Nice breakdown, except I’d also add in that some games are ‘subscription optional’ – LotRO or any of the SoE games that went F2P for example. You can play those with a subscription, or just buy off the restrictions you want a la carte.
Technically, World of Tanks is alsao ‘subscription optional’ but given what you get for premium membership, and the fact you can buy it using your stash of gold, I’d just say that’s a special form of microtransaction.
It does get confusing. I had thought about trying to add something like “Lifetime Sub” – one big payment which is a bit like a ‘super’ box purchase that means no sub fee – but then decided to keep it relatively simple.
Another factor is certainly the emphasis that a title places on each revenue source. WoW has all three options, but its sub fees are the most important source of revenue (especially since box cost is done to something like $5 at the moment). DCUO and ChampO would certainly depend more on the microtrans aspect than the box cost or sub fee.
It was easier back in the day when you had all Western MMOs with the same payment model with only the ‘Asian grinds’ using cash-shop model. I think when people coined ‘F2P’ that’s originally all it meant — a cheap foreign cash shop-based game.
With the market changing so much now, that vague term is pretty much useless now.
I think F2P is still a useful term, but I take it to mean only that I can get access to a significant portion of the base game without having to pay anything.
Pretty much every MMO is moving towards some kind of hybrid payment plan, with F2P offered to at least get the client onto a player’s PC in the chance they’ll spend a few bucks on it.
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