The landscape of the MMORPG market is constantly evolving. From the early days of Ultima Online, to the heyday of Everquest, to the present day domination of the market by World of Warcraft, the MMORPG genre has gone through many changes over the years. To compete in a crowded market that sees new MMORPG games coming out every month, many game companies have decided to use the free-to-play with cash shop business model. There have been many complaints about this business model when it is poorly implemented, with the predominant complaint being that people who are unwilling, or unable to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars a month can’t compete with those who do. This is a valid complaint, and something that can be avoided entirely if the free-to-play with cash shop business model is added as an alternative option to the regular monthly subscription fee business model.
Adding a free-to-play option opens up MMORPGs to a much wider audience, especially to people who do not want to pay a monthly fee. It also lets many more people check out the game to see if they like it. A lot of people, myself included, have been burned in the past buying a MMORPG for full price, only to find out that there was very little to hold their interest past the first month. Of course, if your game is not good or fun enough to make people want to keep playing it, then this strategy might backfire. Personally, I am very leery of buying any new MMORPG that I haven’t had a chance to check out beforehand.
A good example of how this can be done successfully is what Turbine did with Dungeons and Dragons Online (and what they will soon be doing with Lord of the Rings Online). When adding the free-to-play option, they kept the monthly fee option (and actually improved it by giving 500 Turbine Points every month that can be used in the store). Those who pay the monthly fee get access to all of the content in the game. Free players get access to a large portion of the game, and can spend Turbine points to unlock the “premium” content, things like extra character slots, new classes/races, and adventure packs. The best part is that you can earn free Turbine Points while playing the game, in addition to the option to just buy them with real money if you are the impatient type.
I feel that as time goes on, more and more MMORPG developers will include free-to-play options in their games. Providing more options so that more people can try, and hopefully enjoy your product, is just good business. Perhaps one day in the distant future, even the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft might have a free-to-play option. I just wouldn’t bet on it happening any time soon.