Buy to Play vs Free to Play

Which is better? Buy to play with no monthly subscription or free to play with optional micro transactions? Both are fairly new concepts amongst PC MMORPGs. Prior to Guild Wars, buy to play was non existent. Subscription based MMOs like Dark Age of Camelot, Asherons Call and Star Wars Galaxies dominated the industry. Guild Wars from NCSoft changed that. The game touted as revolutionary, and it sort of was, at least in its business model. Guild Wars, unlike Lineage 2 and City of Heroes, was hugely successful for NCSoft. So much so that they have released numerous expansions for it and are working on Guild Wars 2. Now, just as Guild Wars introduced a new business model to the West that other games would soon copy, RuneScape and MapleStory introduced something equally as revolutionary – Micro transactions. Guild Wars didn’t have a monthly subscription fee like other MMORPGs, but you still had to buy the retail game, which could cost upwards of $50. Expansions cost money too! Free to play aimed to get rid of all that. There were no monetary barriers to entry. Anyone could download and play games like RuneScape and MapleStory without having to pay a dime. These games didn’t invent the free to play business model, as it has been around in places like South Korea and China for many years, but they did bring it to places like North America and Europe.

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Guild Wars Gameplay Screenshot

Buy to play MMORPGs and free to play ones have had their ups and downs, but I think it’s safe to say that free to play games have largely been more successful. Aside from Guild Wars, there really aren’t that many buy to play MMORPGs. I’m sure there are more, but only two come to mind for me – Global Agenda and Alganon. On the free to play MMORPG front, I can easily name several dozen games without giving it much thought. Why are there so many free to play games and so few buy to play ones? I think it’s because free to play makes more sense for both gamers and developers. Guild Wars is easily the most successful buy to play game, but how much revenue could it have made for NCSoft in its lifetime? $200 million? $250 million? $350 million tops. $350 million is a lot of money, but that’s since the game’s original release in 2005. Now look at Nexon, the free to play MMO developer and publisher behind games like Nexon and Mabinogi. They reported $550 million in revenue in 2009. That’s A LOT of money in ONE year. Yeah, I know it’s not exactly a fair comparison, as I’m comparing one game to an entire company, but I think it’s fair to say that free play is more profitable for game companies. After all, why would so many game developers keep releasing free to play MMORPGs if buy to play was more profitable? To give you guys a better comparison, World of Warcraft – the most successful MMORPG ever makes about $800 million a year. Nexon is closing in!

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MapleStory – Nexon’s Most Popular Game

More profit for game developers means more content for gamers. Nexon makes a lot of money and that means they can afford to hire the best programmers, designers and artists. Just look at MapleStory. The game is hugely successful and in order to keep the game going, Nexon releases major updates to it regularly. When the game first came out, it only had 5 starting classes and few job advancements. Now it has over 15 starting classes and many more job advancements and a much bigger game world. Take a look at Vindictus too. That game looks incredible. It isn’t out yet, so I’m not going to pass judgment, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to raise the bar in terms of graphical quality for free to play games. I should also mention that free to play game companies have a greater incentive to keep updating their games. They want to keep players happy. Buy to play companies on the other hand, have an incentive to only release minor updates and save the big content updates for expansion packs, which they can sell. Just look at the original EverQuest. The game has over 12 expansion packs! You can buy all of them at once today at a bargain price, but at one point each new expansion had to be purchased individually. EverQuest is subscription based, but it still illustrates my point. Buy to play games have no incentive to release major free updates.

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Vindictus – Looks Awesome, Doesn’t it?

On the other hand, Buy to play games have their advantages too. They tend to be a lot more balanced – as buy to play games normally don’t have cash shops – so players can’t pay extra for advantages. Everyone is on a more level playing field. Some free to play MMORPGs are unfortunately “pay to win”, meaning the players who pay have huge in game advantages over those who don’t. Browser based strategy MMOs like Evony and War of Legends for example are 100% “Pay to win”. This isn’t an issue in buy to play games, as players don’t have the option to pay for any extras. Even in free to play MMORPGs that aren’t “pay to win”, paying players receive distinct advantages like bonus experience and mounts.

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Evony – Pay to Win

So, Which do you prefer? Buy to play or free to play? Which do you think makes more sense? Me? I prefer free to play. Why? Because I’ve been playing MapleStory on and off for years, and I’ve been able to enjoy all of the game’s new content without ever having to spend a dime. In fact, I’ve been able to enjoy dozens of MMOs and MMORPGs without every spending money. Anyway. Let me know what you guys think!

By, Omer Altay

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