Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Free-To-Play versus Subscription

The recent news that Lord of the Rings Online is going Free-To-Play, and being supported by a cash shop instead of subscriptions has reignited the debate over the two payment methods.

Before I post about LotRO specifically, I'd like to talk about the underlying issues as I see it.

In every hobby, different parts of the potential audience are inclined to spend differing amounts of money. For example, take Collectible Card Games such as Magic: the Gathering. You have some people who purchase a couple packs a month, some who purchase several packs a week, and a few who buy boxes of cards at a time. In theory, by having a variable amount that can be purchased, the company does not "leave money on the table", and gets the maximum income it can.

That's basically the idea behind the economics of the F2P games. They feel that subscriptions leave money on the table both in the segment of the audience that is inclined to pay less than the subscription amount, and the segment of the audience that is inclined to pay more.

The following graph shows how the income from the two forms compare against each other.

Note: Not real numbers, just hand-waving to get the idea across.

There are three sections where the two payment methods do not overlap. Section A is money from people who aren't willing to pay the full subscription. Section B is money from people who are willing to pay more than the full subscription (Star-Pony-land).

However, what people are inclined to pay--their "rest state" of spending--is not the same as what they will pay. If the only way to play the game is to buy a subscription, a lot of the audience will pay up. That's what Section C represents: the extra income that a subscription can extract above inclinations for a specific part of the audience.

So what the F2P companies are betting is that A + B > C.

Now, I don't have any access to any real world data about what the actual size of A,B and C are. This is just punditry. However, I think that the F2P companies are gravely under-estimating the size of Section C.

In my opinion, the gaming/scifi/fantasy subculture is terribly "penny-wise, but pound-foolish". We will talk a good game about paying up, but the vast majority of us won't pay unless forced to. We will come up with all sorts of excuses, but will try and evade payment by any means necessary, legal or illegal, and even take pride in it. No matter that it leads to the destruction of the companies involved, or the cancellation of shows or games that we enjoy.

If the game is good, and the subscription reasonable, I think Section C will be significantly larger than Sections A and B. In fact, I don't think Section A actually exists, and the F2P companies will end up depending on a very small, but high-paying segment to survive. Which is an unstable way of life for the company, and is often not too healthy for individuals in that small segment. For every millionaire tossing wads of cash at the item shop, there's an addict spending money she can ill afford to waste.

That's why I think that subscriptions will put a game on a firmer, more stable financial footing than cash shops, even if they do leave some money on the table. Of course, your game has to be of a certain quality to make subscriptions viable, and that's where most companies seem to be falling down these days.

(LotRO is a special case, in my opinion, which I will discuss in a later post.)


  1. I tend to agree that gamers will proudly opt for the spend nothing options and then do insane grinds to get access to the content they desire. Games where it is possible to play for free, but incredibly impractical.

    e.g. Warstorm a TCG where you can get a free pack worth about $1.25 for every 250 auto-matches you complete. Noting you can only do 15 an hour as a free player...

  2. "I think that the F2P companies are gravely under-estimating the size of Section C."

    Do you have anything to back this up?

    Take WoW. Now suppose WoW's rate of churn is that an average player will last a year. In 5.5 years of approx 10 million players 55 million people have at some stage played of whom 45 million have moved on.

    For players like me who've moved on the only way to see stuff that's vaguely interesting like LFD and ICC is to re-sub. I'm not that motivated, nor are the other 44 999 999 ex-WoW players.

    But if it were free to play would I check out the new stuff every patch? You bet. So would a lot of the others.

    Farmville peaked at 82m or so. F2P WoW would, in my opinion, have gained a similar number.

    So the only question now is would having 8 times as many players playing free to play with cash shop result in impulse purchases outweighing the sub income? The success of the sparkle pony suggests that Blizzard would have made a lot more money with the Turbine F2P model.

  3. No Stabs, I stand by my contention. All those vaguely interested players fall into Section A. If they were truly interested in paying money, they would subscribe.

    What I'm getting at is that all these people may "say" that they would buy stuff, but I don't think they actually would. Or maybe they would buy one or two small items so they can boast they participated in the new economy, but it won't match the steady month-over-month income of a subscriber.

    Going for Section A people is a fool's game. I have no proof of this, just years of observations on how my chosen subculture behaves. 90% of the time we are full of hot air, and not to be counted on.

    The Star Pony targets a completely different section of the audience, the Section B people. It's an attempt to get some of that extra revenue that was left on the table.

    We're talking about two completely different segments of the audience. I think that conflating them is a common mistake made by F2P advocates.

  4. What's with the subsection that happily pays the subscription but refuses to go for F2P games, simply because they find the "You've got to go out of your way to buy this questline/item/etc before you can play it." and/or "micro"-payments in general annoying?

    I know those are around, too, I'm one of them. I'll gladly pay for a WoW expansion, because if I have it, the buying thing's DONE with and I can play how I want. But I don't want to have to juggle which zone/questline to pay for or run into reminders of Nya-nyah-you-haven't-bought-that-yet.

    I wonder how many think similiar.

  5. On the top of that, the companies can take extra from the top segment by selling star pony, while having the benefits of subscription.

    However you miss something from the calculation: the players of an MMO are not just consumers, they are also content providers for other players. No one would play an MMO where you are alone on the server.

    The F2P kid who never pays a cent still provides revenue to the game company by being the "n00b to pwn".

  6. I think an important factor is that there can be only one subscription based game at any time. People won't pay for multiple subscriptions, therefore it's hard to get people away from the existing dominating game.

    It'll be interesting to see how Blizzard solves this problem with SC 2, Diablo 3 and their next game. I assume they will all be playable without a monthly fee or there will be a combined "Blizzard monthly fee" for all Battle.Net games.

    On the Magic example: I've stopped playing MTG because it got to expensive. In MTG you have a severe disadvantage in how effective you are and in how much fun you have by having less cards. I was a "type B" MTG player (baught cards for a few $1000) but they've lost all my further money by trying to hard.

    On the other side I would never spend that much money on virtual items as owning "real" cards feels way more "cool" as owning a virtual star pony which you won't have access to as soon as Blizzard decides so (going out of business, closing server down, banning you for no real reason or for a reason, etc...). That, of course, might change. 20 years ago we would have all aggreed that you don't need to carry around a phone. :)

  7. I tend to agree that the cost of the subscription tends to be a Barrier to Entry for the gaming community. There ARE a certain amount of people who do not play WoW because they think the $15ish per month is too much. That also buys into what Kring states about only one subscription per person (though I do not believe this... MOSTLY they are right, just not completely).

    However, with WoW, I do agree that this segment is likely not very big. The biggest bang for buck for Blizzard to increase revenue would be to go for Segment C.

    However, we thing we have to factor in as well. Segment C is a highly variable segment. It depends not only upon people being able to buy extra stuff, greatly upon Blizzard creating quality things to buy.

    Additionally, we must also factor in the Accountant's perspective. A constant stream of easily predictable subscription cash makes life easier for not only the accountants, but the executives who USE that cash to develop other products (see: Starcraft II, new MMO, etc). You can DO that development with microtransaction money, but you have to pay close attention to HOW you do it since your income is not stable.

  8. I suspect that the name recognition of LotRO is what the marketers hope will drive the product.

    Making the game F2P with a huge player base also means a corresponding increase in support costs. Not just paying for administrative and other support personnel, but the costs associated with the servers, bug processing, and whatnot. With the F2P model, you're asking the people who spend the most cash on the game to support everyone else who is just there to poke around. Kind of like asking the smokers and drinkers to support roadbuilding projects.

    If this were converted to WoW, the raiders would support the rest of us, since they push the boundaries on most of the content. If you raid in WoW, you'd be asked to fork over more money than me, who doesn't raid. I'm not so sure the raiders would like that so much.

    With subscriptions, you have a steadier source of income from everyone, so you can maintain your support staff and equipment better.

  9. The problem is that DDO was on the verge of shutting down until Turbine went F2P with it. So obviously Turbine was seeing similar problems with LotRO that it saw with DDO.

    And I actually play the game and see the problems too. I started playing a year ago and took a break for about 6 months. When I came back everyone in my kin was gone. The kin message was that middle earth was a great place, "but nobody comes here anymore." I think that says a lot!

    Also, I visit its forums quite often (like, oh, daily) and all I see are people leaving and it's been that way for some time. Many are leaving because of the influx of a certain subset of WoW players (you can tell, trust me). Many are leaving because F2P will mean even MORE of these players come aboard. And then there are some who are leaving because they want to come back when it is F2P as they are hoping it will save them money - and if your main's level is maxed out, it likely will in the immediate future.

    I think the idea in this is to get people hooked. The trial accounts in LotRO are very limited. So instead of limiting their crafting abilities and time in Middle Earth, you let them stay as long as they want and get as high level as they want for free (via grinding). Oh, but then the player wants to raid? Well, then you have to pay to unlock more trait slots. Oh, but then you don't have this particular virtue because you didn't complete the deed (which can only be completed by doing X amount of quests in bree-land), so you have to buy the quest pack.

    As for Sparkly Ponys, maybe Turbine's problem is that they tend to give these away in lotteries rather than sell them like WoW does.

  10. Since I swtiched to Runes of Magic from WoW I have noticed that several of the people in guild talk about how much they have spent on "diamonds" - in game item shop currency. We just had a "double diamonds" weekend and several of the higher levels guys in the guild were talking about dropping $100-$200 that weekend to stock up.
    In a game where you can get a sizeable gearing advantage for pve/pvp content there are definitely people willing to pay, a lot, for that leg up.

  11. I know that personally I'm comfortably playing a flat fee, but if a game is free to play I probably will not pay anything. I'm the sort of person that when a purchase comes up I evaluate whether or not it's worth it to me. I do not make impulse buys.

    Do I want to spend $1, $2, or $5 on this little trinket that does something for me? Invariably the answer will be no, unless I'm having enough fun with the game that I'll view the purchase as a "donation" because I've enjoyed the game as a whole. (I've only thought about doing that once, and it was for a very low budget start-up that I nonetheless enjoyed.)

    If WoW was to go free to play they would be getting less money from me.

    I like WoW over F2P MMOs (and I've tried out quite a few, including DDO) because of the high production values and the sense of the world, the story. They're things that generally speaking don't have a price tag in a F2P MMOs. You might have areas of the game only paying customers can access, but you don't have major storylines only paying customers can access.

    The perks are generally additional classes/races, items to help level up or do more damage, costumes; things that are "nice" but not required to play, and since they're not required I wouldn't pay for them. What I do one, no one pays (directly) for. No one pays to access the latest world event. The world event is for everyone.

  12. Spot on summary, and from reading the comments there are MANY subtleties that affect the graph.

    The anonymous comment about ROM and stocking up on paid tokens when they're on sale is one of the reasons I (and Carina) simply flat out refuse to play those games. If I feel pressured to pay an unknown amount of money (unknown as far as is $100 enough? $200? what about next month?) to remain competitive in the game. The only time I'm willing to play a game with RMT transactions is when I feel that I'm able to compete with someone able to blow $1000 in the game, something that social gaming companies like Zynga have done a relatively good job at thus far.

    I agree that Section A probably doesn't exist. It is most likely a transient stage during which people pay a buck or two, then realize how easy it is and slowly work their way into group B.

    WoW seems to have done a good job at the subscription model while also fishing into group B with their paid services and pets/mount. At this point it feels like Blizzard is working out a balancing act of trying to milk enough people in group B without pissing off people in group C who don't want to feel pressured to spend extra and thus cancelling their sub all together.

  13. What people are overlooking is that clearly Turbine made some sort of determination that LotR:O was either no longer sustainable as a subscription, or that they think they can get more profit from the RMT model. LotRO could still fold even after this change, and it may not mean F2P sucks (it's something I dislike myself), just that LotRO got as far as it could.

    With an IP as strong as LotR though, if Turbine is creative with their item shop, I would not underestimate the amount Section B would pay in that game world, if I were you.

    Plus, there's always the chance that this is a one-time cash grab, and that they'll be closing down the game within a year too.

  14. "The Star Pony targets a completely different section of the audience, the Section B people. It's an attempt to get some of that extra revenue that was left on the table."

    No no, Star Pony buyers are type C. As are people who buy illicit gold. As are people with too many Y chromosomes to want a my little pony but who would buy something else like Exp potions. As are people who server transfer rather than reroll or multibox.

    By your definition B = sub payers, C = people who are willing to pay more than the sub.

    My point it WoW is a game with a substantial proportion of its players who are type C. It just charges them type B prices and leaves money on the table.

  15. Stabs, take a look at the graph again. Section C is the middle section, not the right section.

    I completely agree with you, only I think we have a miscommunication on which section is labelled C and and which is labelled B.

  16. My bad, I'm sorry.

    Now that we agree on WoW being a game with a large number of people who want to spend more than $15/month do you not think that changes in the standard sub model are inevitable? Not necessarily in WoW but Blizzard's next MMO won't be $15/month no cash shop.

  17. No. To get Section B money with a cash shop, you have to sacrifice Section C. Section C is subscription-only money.

    My contention is that section C is a lot larger than most people think, and is also more stable.

    To put it another way.a lot of people will buy a Star Pony. But how many people will buy a Star Pony every month?

  18. But it's not a star pony.

    Let me describe the DDO cash shop and why people spend a lot.

    First they bring out content a lot and there's a big stable of pre-existing content to purchase.

    People will buy a new dungeon every month. Hell, you would wouldn't you? If you could pay $5 for a new level 80 ICC equivalent 5 man wouldn't you buy it now?

    Next they're very clever about luring you into the habit of spending (more so than most other F2Ps). You get points as you play so everyone is a cash shop spender because of the free points. That breaks down one hurdle.

    You get a huge account upgrade first time you spend money, any money spent ever upgrades you to Premium. It's worth buying $6 of points for the Premium status alone so almost everyone playing regularly spends something at some point to get the upgrade. That's another barrier down and your credit card details on file making it easier to come back and buy more.

    Finally Blizzard are very very good at implementation. If they had a cash shop it would be a hell of a lot better planned than whatever shitty Korean or Sony cash shop people have seen before.

  19. A bit of data: http://www.engagedigital.com/blog/2011/01/07/turbine-lotro-revenue-has-tripled/

    LotRO revenues tripled, DDO revenues quintupled. Your "C" group isn't larger than A + B.

  20. @Anon, you may want to read the post after this, where I specifically point out that LOTRO follows a different pattern, and F2P makes more sense for them.