In Gaming, It's Free-to-Play vs. Subscriptions: Which One is Better? I Say F2P

In Gaming, It's Free-to-Play vs. Subscriptions: Which One is Better? I Say F2P
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What Is the Subscription Model?

In simplest terms, the subscription model is where you pay some recurring fee to play a game - usually an online game or MMORPG. The most common example of the subscription model would be paying $15 a month to play an MMO like World of Warcraft. This model started off with Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Everquest and was generally about $10 a month. By the time WoW released in 2004, $15 was the standard and it has stayed there ever since.

What Is the Free-to-Play (F2P) Model?

This model has many names, but Free-to-Play, F2P, and freemium are three of the most common. There are many variations of this model, but basically the model works like this:

  • The game is free to play.
  • The game has extra features or content you can pay extra for.
  • You can buy as many, as few, or sometimes none of the extras. You basically set your own price.

The things you pay extra for are often called “cash shop items” or “item mall items” or something of that nature. They are not always items though. They can be intangible buffs or enhancements, character feature add-ons or short cuts, buffs, purely cosmetic enhancements, or anything really.

  1. I Want to Play More Than One Game!


This is one of the many reasons why the subscription model is such a drag. What if you want to play the new Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO but you don’t want to bail on all your World of Warcraft friends? Enjoy paying $30 a month, even if you play one MMO 90% of the time and the other one only 10% of the time.

With the subscription model, there is no support for people to play part time, or just socially, or to just maintain their character enough for an occasional visit. You are all-in no matter what.

  1. I Have a Life, Family, Responsibilities, Want to See the Sun, etc.


The sad fact is that under a subscription model, the casual players are subsidizing the hardcore, 50+ hour a week gamers. Most MMOs report that the majority of their customers play less than 30 hours a month. If you fit into this category, it means you are paying about 50 cents an hour.

But the hard core raiders who play 200 hours a month are only paying 7.5 cents an hour. Guess who makes up the difference? You do.

It is simply not fair that the majority of gamers overpay so a small, hard core fraction can have their hobbies subsidized.

You want to talk about the 99%? That’s the casual or average gamer overpaying that $15 a month fee so no-lifer basement dwellers running 20 dungeons a night can enjoy their hobby.

  1. Maximize Enjoyment When You Play the Most


Over a year, a standard subscription based game will cost you $180 bucks. Unless you are really hard core, you most likely won’t play the game consistently throughout that year. Some months you will play a lot, and some months you will play very little.

Wouldn’t it be better to get more of that $180 of value in the months you play a lot, and not worry about the months you just login to check mail or say hi to friends?

In a F2P game, you could focus the majority of that $180 on buffs, enhancements, and bonus features during the times you are playing a lot. So when you are playing often, and really having fun, you can maximize the value of your dollar.

  1. Don’t Worry About Taking Breaks - The Meter Isn’t Running

Taxi Meter

In a F2P game, you don’t have to worry about taking a break, going on vacation, having a huge project at work or school. Without that $15 a month free hanging over your head, you aren’t losing any value just because you take some time away from the game. The meter isn’t running.

When you have more time to play, that’s when you can spend whatever you want to spend. It is a pretty miserable feeling to know you just spent $15 on a game that you never even logged into.

  1. The Dirty Little Secret of the MMO Industry - Sleepers

MMO companies don’t like to admit it or talk about it, but sleepers are a huge and valuable part of their business. What are sleepers? Sleepers are people that have stopped playing an MMO, but have forgotten to unsubscribe. The months roll by, they keep paying $15 a month, but they aren’t playing. Some people fail to cancel their accounts for months or even years.

Asheron’s Call 2 went out of business famously when they lost their sleepers. When Turbine (the developer of AC2) bought out Microsoft (the publisher of AC2) they had to switch to a new billing system. Because of this, everyone had to re-enable their subscription. Obviously the sleepers did not. By losing these sleepers, AC2 was no longer financially viable, and the game had to be shut down soon after.

  1. Never Lose Contact With Your Friends


One of the more terrible things about a subscription game is that should you choose to unsubscribe, you are cut off from whatever friends you made in that game. Most online games have a community that grows around him, and this community has enormous value to players. Being cut off from them would be like Norm being kicked out of Cheers.

In a F2P game, there is no subscription lapse or need to unsubscribe. Even if you have decided you are bored with the game for a time, you can still login whenever you want to talk to your friends and hang out. You aren’t cut off from the community just because you don’t want to invest more money into the game.

  1. Is That New Content Really Worth It?

In a subscription game, the developers often release new content or expansion packs to lure people back to the game. But if you want to try out this new content, you have to re-subscribe ($15) or buy a new expansion pack and re-subscribe ($30+ and $15 a month). Worst of all, you have to pay all this money in advance before you even have the tiniest hint whether you’ll enjoy the content or not.

In a F2P game, you can login to the game and either directly experience the new content yourself, or at least see and talk to people in game who are experiencing it. Then you can make an informed decision from within the game whether or not you want to come back, buy more cash shop items, etc.

  1. Much Easier to Get Your Friends to Try It!

Have you ever tried to get your friends to play a new game with you, but had trouble convincing them to dump WoW or some other game?

This is a much easier sell if the game you want them to try is F2P.

Convincing someone to sign up for another $15 a month committment, or to unsubscribe from their current game (losing contact with that community) to try a new game, can be really tough.

When the game is F2P, they can try it out with no impact on their current/previous favorite game and without having to dump their current gaming community.

  1. Eliminate the Developers’ Motivation to Code Such Horrendous Grinds

GrindstoneGrindstoneEver wonder why so many MMOs have such long and painful grinds? The biggest reason is because it helps them make money. The longer they can stretch out your advancement cycle or a path of content, the more subscription payments they can get out of you. They have less incentive to focus on the quality of your experience and more incentive to stretch it out as long as they possibly can.

In a F2P game, the developer has to “wow!” you in order to motivate you to hit that item shop and buy something. They sure aren’t going to do that by making you spend 2 months farming Timbermaws in order to earn a single dexterity enchantment (inside joke for WoW players).

When the developers’ and the gamers’ interests are more closely aligned, you have a much better chance of a great gaming experience.

  1. Make Them Earn Your Dollar

pile of dollars

Similarly, when developers know they have you on the hook for a subscription they know it is a huge decision for you to cancel it. They depend on this and get rich from it. In a famous 2008 analyst conference call, Blizzard revealed that they only spent $200 million on EVERYTHING (Staff payroll, hardware support, customer service, etc.) related to the development of WoW in its first 4 years.

During those same 4 years, they took in BILLIONS of dollars in subscription fees.

You do the math.

  1. Some People Have More Time, Some People Have More Money

The current paradigm in online games/MMOs is that people with the most time dominate the game. This is a shame as it creates an imbalanced community that is dominated by people who often don’t have much going on in life outside the game (yes, that’s a generalization, but it is largely accurate).

Why shouldn’t people with more money but less time be able to accelerate their gameplay a bit so they can keep up (at least somewhat) with people who can play a lot? In this way, the people with more money are subsidizing the people with more time, but at least in this scenario the people doing the subsidizing are getting a benefit from that.