Is Free To Play A Sign Of Defeat?

Or is it the superior business model for MMORPGs?

Star Trek Online is the latest MMO to announce that they are going to go from a subscription model to a free to play business model. Considering that Champions had already made the transition some time ago, this announcement didn’t come as a surprise.

It seems that more and more second tier MMORPGs are making the move to free to play. Dungeons and Dragons Online started the trend a few years ago, and that move saved the struggling game at the time. Since then, we’ve seen Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Champions go free, with Fallen Earth and now Star Trek making the move in the near future.

In the cases of DnDO, LotRO, and AoC the developers have reported significant increases in the number of players playing, and an increase in revenue.

Of course none of the first tier MMORPGs are planning to go FTP anytime soon. WoW and Rift, as far as I know have no intention, and the big up and comers, The Secret World and Star Wars The Old Republic have announced that they will be using the subscription model.

So it seems that, in Western markets at least, developers prefer the subscription business model. And who can blame them? Subs provide a fairly stable income stream, which if you have lots of subscribers can be huge.

But when these games start struggling with subscriber numbers, it seems more and more of them opt to change the model to the free to play model.

So I ask, is this a sign of defeat or does it mean that free to play is the superior business model?


  1. Rodolfo

    It is a sign of defeat if the game was built with a subscription model. All the games you mentioned had a bump in revenues, with a larger bump in costs as well but that is not reported in the press releases.

    Ultimately F2P is a perfectly viable monetization method (despite denying this, Warcraft is essentially a freemium game now for example) but if your game has not built in a monetization mechanic that matches your outpout it will not last. And I mean that games like Lotro were built with large patches to satisfy subscribers, and a change in your business model need to be adjusted inside the game.

    Hopefully F2P will reinvigorate the genre which right now is mostly EQ/WoW clones.

  2. Hunter

    I notice you leave out Guild Wars 2 which doesn’t have a subscription model, though you do need to pay for the box. Considering its the same model as the original Guild Wars, that shows a lot of faith in that model.

  3. Stropp (Post author)

    @Hunter – True. I didn’t think of Guild Wars when I wrote the post. Since GW2 is using the same model as GW1, it must have been successful for the company in the first place. Otherwise they would have (very likely) used a different business model.

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