Recently, there has been a spike in developers switching their projects over to a free-to-play business model. MMORPGs especially have been, though by no means have they been the only genre, jumping on the free-to-play bandwagon with the latest addition of the first twenty levels of Rift becoming free-to-play. Rift joins the likes of Star Trek Online, Guild Wars, DC Universe, and Everquest I and II, to name a few.  Why this huge shift away from the pay-to-play model set forth by the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft? The simple answer is because, quite frankly, it is genius.

There are quite a few reasons this payment model is attractive. For starters nothing draws people quite like free things. Sure, usually the free things in question are lame, like fliers, magnets, or cheap plastic puzzle pieces that break in half when the next puff of wind blows by. However, sometimes they can be awesome like a free video game or a frisbee. Regardless of the quality of the product, whether it is a terrible video game or a high quality refrigerator magnet, people will take it. I’m going to say this next part in all caps and punctuate with periods. PEOPLE. LOVE. FREE. STUFF. It can be good or bad, but people will take free stuff where they can get it. Who doesn’t take a free sample of food that they sometimes have at the supermarket?

Applying the simple fact that people will take free stuff to video games means that players can experience a game for free and then pay for whatever extra content they would like. A great example of this can be found in the free-to-play game League of Legends. The game itself is free and there is a shifting roster of characters (it is similar to DotA in gameplay) every week. If you see or play as a character that you particularly like, you can purchase that character for permanent use either with Riot points bought with real money or influence points that you earn by simply playing the game. Accessories like different skins that change your champions’ appearance or certain rune stones to give your character a slight edge over the competition can only be bought with Riot points. In stores like Best Buy or Target you can even find starter packs for around $20-$35 that give exclusive skins, runes, and access to certain characters. None of the things you pay for are integral to playing the actual game, but you can buy them if you like the game and want a bit more out of it. And the thing it, this works. There are over fifteen million people who play League of Legends and a lot of them are buying content. Developer Riot Games, whose only creation so far is League of Legends (and a shallow parody of Call of Duty called Duty Calls), was bought for $400,000,000. And all that profit is from letting players decide on the content that they want, without hindering them from playing the game.

World of Warcraft and other pay-to-play games force players to pay for content that they can’t really experience all at once. For example, late game content usually can’t be accessed or enjoyed by a player who is only in the preliminary levels of a MMORPG. In other games it might be higher level gear, characters, or areas that cannot be accessed until a significant portion of the game has been played or completed. You are paying preemptively for the possibility of future content… if you ever get that far. Where is the profit for the player in that? In a free-to-play game, you experience the content you want. If you hate the game, then you don’t have to pay anything for it. It is like piracy, but legal and ethically sound.

There are more benefits when players are left free to play (see what I did there?).  Without the financial constraints that pay-to-play online games have gamers can play at their own pace. This can only be a good thing in the age of casual gaming. Many gamers these days prefer to be able to play however much (or little) they want, when they want. Basically, the free-to-play model releases the player from any “workish” aspects of the game and allows them to tackle a game at their leisure.

On the developer’s end, the free-to-play model rewards developers for creating a good game. A well constructed and fun game will encourage more players to join. Many of the MMOs that have switched to the free-to-play model have seen an upswing in gamer traffic that has saved them from the internet dustbin like Age of Conan or Star Trek Online. Developers who adopt the free-to-play system for their game are pushed to listen to the fan base (which they presumably foster) and make constant updates and gameplay tweaks to spur player interest. In a sense, being free-to-play forces the developer to cater to the gamers in a very responsive way because that is where their money comes from.

From the standpoint of a gamer I can’t really say that I find anything objectionable in the free-to-play business model. It gives me a product for free and promises to improve and mature with time. If I like it, that is great. If I hate it, then I didn’t pay for it in the first place and that is fine, too. The only downside I can see is from the developer’s point of view. A developer would be unable to pump massive amounts of money into the project since the return would not be nearly as profitable for a big budgeted pay-to-play release. Imagine if SWTOR released free-to-play with its estimated $200,000,000 price tag and add on the costs of keeping the game up to date with patches and tweaks to gameplay. Bioware would not be recouping its loss anytime soon.

What do you think about pay-to-play versus free-to-play?