In Defense of Free-to-Play

A long time ago, in a summer far, far away, I had this crazy idea that subscription MMOs were overwhelming. I toyed with the idea that if you’re being overwhelmed by online games, one of the ways to deal with the stress is to wean yourself off of the genre by using free-to-play games as a kind of MMO Methadone. If you’re not tied to a game by a subscription plan, it’s a lot easier to kick the habit, right?

Now, two years later, I’m running into that same situation once again. Despite my fervent belief that Star Wars: The Old Republic is chock-full of superfuntime storytelling goodness, I have a hard time making myself log on because of the standard MMO gameplay at the game’s core.

And every time I don’t log in, I feel the subscription fee nagging at me.  I’m paying for a game (many times over, if you consider the exorbitant price they suckered me into for the CE) that I don’t want to play, and therefore, I’m subject to what I like to call subscriber’s guilt.

Something’s Gotta Give

The MMO subscription model does nothing to engender loyalty from a gamer any more than a shock collar actually teaches your dog to stop peeing on your flowers.  There’s nothing actually keeping you there other than fear–fear you’ll lose money, just like your dog is afraid of getting zapped.

This is where F2P game companies have it figured out.  Unlike a subscription company, F2P developers have to make you actively want to give them money.  They give you the game, and if they are going to make money, you have to want to play.  Compare this to subscription games where it is in their best interest to keep you around as long as possible, whether their methods for doing so are technically fun or not.

You see, subscription services are tricky.  They’re passive, and they autorenew.  So if you’re not thinking about it, if you don’t take any initiative, you give that company money.  As long as the games are good enough, you’ll keep the subscription active–which is how much of my seven years of World of Warcraft subscription fee was spent, by the way.  And even if you don’t play past that first month, you’ve still dropped $20-6o on the box.

With a free-to-play game, however, you download the client and have to be sucked in if you’re going to spend any money.  You can set up a subscription, but let’s be honest with ourselves: you probably won’t.  Instead, you’ll able to shop the store and see if there are any quality-of-life purchases you want to make–XP bonuses, quest/adventure modules, and other shiny things that are in no way required to play the game.  Your money is then a direct line to the developers saying they did something right.

But the most positive thing about about F2P games is that they are free from subscriber’s guilt.

You want to read a book?  Well, I hope you like wasting $15 a month.  You want to play another game? Again, I hope it’s worth its cost and your MMO’s.  You only have a few hours of free time to play this month?  The value of your subscription just plummeted.

And you know what? I’m not cool with that anymore.

I don’t feel like being guilted into playing a video game just because I’m paying for it.  I want to log on and play when I want to without feeling that I’m wasting my time if I’m not pushing to the endgame, if I’m not having fun.  I want to just play and enjoy myself, and if that’s for 2 hours this month, then a F2P game is fine.  If it’s 50, then even better. Bang, meet Buck.

So What’s The Plan?

For now, I’m going to be spending a lot of time with two titles: Dungeons and Dragons Online and DC Universe Online.

I’ve had an off-and-on relationship with DDO for years, and I have to say, I love the game, and and in 2 years, Turbine has snagged exactly $20 from me–I bought access to the Warforged Race and the Artificer class.  The core of DDO is different enough from standard WoW-style MMOs that I don’t feel that burnout I get with SWTOR, and DCUO is an action game where I get to team up with my favorite superheroes to do quests.  Yes, Nightwing, I will help you kick Bane’s ass after what he did to Bruce.

To be fair, though, DCUO has snagged my wife’s attention more than mine.  I bought her a PSN giftcard for her birthday, and she spent the $5 necessary to get Premium access.  That’s it.  She’s not one for MMO gaming, so she jumps on when she wants to, does a few quests (“Superman and I used teamwork to defeat Lex Luthor,” she told me one morning), and doesn’t let the game drag her down.  When it gets frustrating, she logs out and does something else–a novel idea if I’ve ever heard one–because she is not financially tethered to the game.  No subscriber’s guilt for her.

With the semester coming back into full-swing and the number of projects I have that I want to work on, I don’t have time to worry that I’m not getting my money’s worth out of an MMO.  I’d much rather spend $15 on a couple of quests, character options, and quality-of-life upgrades that I’ll be able to access for the life of the game instead of worrying if I played a game enough to warrant my sub fee.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. This does explain why Wizard 101 and Guild Wars have more of my money than Blizzard. Seems to me this will be more important as time goes on and teenagers grow up and join the real world. There’s still room for fun out here, but schedules… change.

    So yea, agreed on all counts!

  2. This is exactly where I am when it comes to subscription games too. I just can’t take the ever present pressure to play one game! I love all sorts of games, books, movies, tv, and actually getting outside. That subscription model just gets in the way of all that.

    I’m done with subscription games, but F2P MMOs are still very appealing. I’ve played DDO in the past and I’m excited for STO to go F2P later this month. GW2 has also won me over with their business model. I’ll definitely pick that game up on day one.

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