Why Free to Play is not a Death Knell for MMOs

In the past few years, the massively multiplayer-online market has looked congested at best. And the harsh reality is that unless your MMO is based on an established property or series such as Warcraft or Star Wars, your chances of even making back production costs are very low when using the traditional subscription model.

Lately, more and more developers are turning to the free-to-play or partially free-to-play model in order to maintain player bases and gain revenue. Even BioWare’s once-popular MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic will soon be getting the free-to-play treatment. Is this tactic viable for struggling MMOs? Let’s take a look at some examples.

One game that has certainly benefitted from a switch to free to play is The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, a game that had a reasonably solid following after its release in 2007. Developer Turbine decided to adopt a free-to-pay model (with an optional subscription), thinking it would lead to more profits, and the studio was right. Profits doubled after the switch, leading to more than a million new accounts.

Age of Conan: Unchained followed a similar path to that of Lord of the Rings Online, starting strong with a respectable player base, which slowly dropped off. In 2011, Age of Conan switched to a free-to-play-and-optional-subscription model like the one in Lord of the Rings. Just like LOTRO, profits doubled with roughly 300,000 new downloads of the title.

The MMO market is a crowded one, and establishing a presence beyond the 800-pound World of Warcraft gorilla is difficult. Some MMOs are able to carve out niches like EVE Online while others employ unique, successful payment systems like the Guild Wars series.

Regardless, one proven way to attract players and revenue is by using a free-to-play system.