A New Hope: How Going Free To Play Brought Redemption To Star Wars MMO

from the the-light-side-of-the-force dept

You’ve heard the rumblings before. Free doesn’t work. Or perhaps it was that free doesn’t work for big time franchises. More specifically for video games, you may have heard that when a game goes from paid to free it’s a sign that it’s a dead game. The mantra persists, despite examples like The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons showing the exact opposite can be true, where going free results in a significant uptick in revenue. There is still this fear in the hearts of game producers and, as we all know, fear leads to doubt, doubt leads to anger, and anger leads to the dark side of gaming.

Yet redemption can be had, if there is still good inside a game. The latest example of this is Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO that was once fee-based but is now free and has realized massive revenue returns as a result. EA Labels Emperor Frank Gibeau took time away from misunderstanding what DRM is to remark on the success of the new model.

“Since it was induced in November, we’ve added more than 1.7 million new players on the free model to the service,” said Electronic Arts president of labels Frank Gibeau. “And the number of subscriptions has stabilized at just under half a million.”

“The really interesting thing that’s happening inside the service right now is monthly average revenue for the game has more than doubled since we introduced the free-to-play option. And as we look forward, we’re going to continually invest in new content for the service and for players every six weeks or so.”

Oh, look, you give your customers what they want at the prices they want it, build up a massive fan-base, and a years-old game still ends up putting money in EA’s pockets. It’s a shame they haven’t tried a similar strategy with other EA games like SimCity, instead choosing to lock the game up tighter than Han Solo trapped in carbonite with an always-online requirement nobody wants.

Still, it’s nice to see that EA isn’t above experimenting with better gaming business models, even if they did so in this case with an older game in which they had very little to lose. Here’s hoping the company translates this success into a wider philosophy.

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Comments on “A New Hope: How Going Free To Play Brought Redemption To Star Wars MMO”

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48 Comments
Ninjasays:

Still, it’s nice to see that EA isn’t above experimenting with better gaming business models, even if they did so in this case with an older game in which they had very little to lose. Here’s hoping the company translates this success into a wider philosophy.

How is the anomaly count again for copyright? I think we can add this one. /lol

Anonymoussays:

realising the benefits from going ‘free’ doesn’t for one second mean that EA has learned anything. their fans are still prepared to play the ‘old game’, even more so now it’s free. the chances are that they would gain more if the newer games were released at least at sensible prices but that would involve in EA having to admit that the ‘old strategy’ of cramming every new game with as mush DRM as possible is a flawed strategy. no game maker, movie maker or music maker is ever going to admit to that. it would mean that the customers
knew more about what they want than the makers and that is an admission that is never gonna happen!!

Anonymoussays:

Re:

No: They would not have earned more from launching it as a FTP! The game was a pretty large success in the first weeks, after which the game went downhill. In the first months, they have probably earned a large part of their investment back. Now, the game lacked a good endgame and the content they had in that part was heavily riddled with bugs, which made a lot of people so frustrated that they quit.
In the end, they turned to FTP after subscribers almost vanishing.

We can argue about when they should have turned to FTP, but the fact is that the game had an amazing launch player-wise and since the lack of players on subscriptions are the main reason why FTP works, that is not what was needed here!

out_of_the_bluesays:

Techdirt continually mistakes "loss leader" with "FREE".

This isn’t an advertising supported FREE, presumably has some benefits for paying.

Now go over to the dark side, ha, and look at the raw number of freeloaders: 1,700,000 to 500,000, or 3.4 : 1 ratio!

This is an established franchise with tons of fans (of all ages, some with actual cash!) over more than 3 decades, and STILL can’t get over 30 percent paying, 70 percent freeloaders!

So, NO, still don’t see “FREE” working the way you claim.

RDsays:

Re: Techdirt continually mistakes "loss leader" with "FREE".

“This is an established franchise with tons of fans (of all ages, some with actual cash!) over more than 3 decades, and STILL can’t get over 30 percent paying, 70 percent freeloaders!”

Stupid fucking troll still doesn’t get it.

30 percent paying is still better than less than 30 percent paying. You always assume that anything less than 100% paying=failure. It doesn’t matter if 90% are “freeloaders” as long as the 10% (or whatever percent) that pay are enough to make the thing profitable, AND is still better than where they were before.

Anonymoussays:

But da Piratez!!111

“monthly average revenue for the game has more than doubled since we introduced the free-to-play option”

nuff said?

“This is an established franchise with tons of fans (of all ages, some with actual cash!) over more than 3 decades, and STILL can’t get over 30 percent paying, 70 percent freeloaders!

guess not. Sigh.

Ootb –
Would you rather allow people to try parts of the game, play old content, and improve the gameplay for paying customers while reaching a larger audience or have a game where less people play and have a worse exerpeince (MMOs require players!)?

If you can improve the game by allowing people to play for free, that helps you even if they aren’t paying. It allows the player/fan base to grow. Suddenly you have only 30% of people paying, but you also have 5-10 times more customers! Do the math, profits double. Yet people who can’t wrap their heads around giving a product away to advertise and improve the experience don’t give themselves the opportunity to allow their product (and thus profit) to reach it’s potential. Then they b^tch and moan about da piratez (zomg!).

Keroberossays:

Someone doesn't understand the mechanics of an MMO

I don’t think our friend Blue understands how important those 70% ‘freeloaders’ are for a f2p MMO (I’ll give him a hint–MMO = massively MULTIPLAYER online). If only a very few are playing, the game becomes almost impossible to play because you can’t find anyone to play with (almost all the content worth playing needs multiple people to experience it–especially endgame content and PvP). With every MMO I’ve played, the main reason I quit was the lack of decent people playing at the time of day I was playing it. Those ‘freeloaders’ are providing a service in the game by creating a large player base which makes the game more valuable to the ones who are willing and able to pay. This is why their revenue doubled. At the rate things were going, if they didn’t go f2p the game would have been dead in a year (and it’s kinda hard to get any profit from a dead MMO).

The same is also true in any online game–the more players you have, the more value your game has for your players.

dennis deemssays:

Re: Someone doesn't understand the mechanics of an MMO

the more players you have, the more value your game has for your players.

So very much this. As a trivial example, most of the members of the kinship I was in were free players. I was a subscriber and I also made more than a few micropayments for convenience. The presence of the free players meant more opportunities for all of us to run instances and raids, more crafters to help out kinnies with gear, more people bringing new members into the kinship, more people to have fun with on the kin chat. Win-win-win.

ltlw0lfsays:

Re: Someone doesn't understand the mechanics of an MMO

I don’t think our friend Blue understands how important those 70% ‘freeloaders’ are for a f2p MMO (I’ll give him a hint–MMO = massively MULTIPLAYER online). If only a very few are playing, the game becomes almost impossible to play because you can’t find anyone to play with (almost all the content worth playing needs multiple people to experience it–especially endgame content and PvP). With every MMO I’ve played, the main reason I quit was the lack of decent people playing at the time of day I was playing it. Those ‘freeloaders’ are providing a service in the game by creating a large player base which makes the game more valuable to the ones who are willing and able to pay. This is why their revenue doubled. At the rate things were going, if they didn’t go f2p the game would have been dead in a year (and it’s kinda hard to get any profit from a dead MMO).

Even EvE, where every moment you spend in LowSec/NullSec you wish there were less people playing the game at that particular moment, wouldn’t be awesome without the number of players it has.

The only reason EvE hasn’t gone F2P is that there is still a bunch of folks willing to pay $35 for two months to play it (and considerably less considering you can pay in advance or with ISK.

Leigh Beadonsays:

Re: Techdirt continually mistakes "loss leader" with "FREE".

Blue, it’s not a zero sum game.

By your logic, Craigslist doesn’t work. Way more than 70% of the ads are free — it’s probably about 99%, or more. All those damn freeloaders. And yet the company makes millions off of that small group of people that pay… fancy that!

Axsays:

Re: Techdirt continually mistakes

The game has a sub model and a free pay as go option. Sub gets you basically all content minus some cosmetic items ( but u get a monthly stipend so u can get some of it).

Free option has to pay to unlock various content so it is likely that many “free” players have paid for something.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Techdirt continually mistakes "loss leader" with "FREE".

ok, blue boy, where did the extra income come from.

Hmmm…. paying subscriptions are at 500K, down from where they once were, yet their monthly income has doubled.

Since the monthly subscription fees haven’t gone up, where’s the extra coming from?

Care to comment, or does that break your reality?

AzureSkysays:

Re: Techdirt continually mistakes "loss leader" with "FREE".

blue, what your not getting is that of those “Freeloaders” a large % buy stuff from the in game store, but dont subscribe.

I for one have spent more on games like STO and korean mmo’s then I ever have or will on p2p games.

with p2p I feel like i have to play or im wasting money, with f2p i dont, I can take a break, come back at any time and pick it back up, no feeling bad about having paid and not playing.

I infact know a few people who spent 4-8x a monthly sub on f2p games like STO, they see something they want in game, they buy some credits in game and get it.

SWTOR is a bad WoW clone set in the SW universe, thats why they went f2p, subs where plummiting and their profits where dropping like a rock in a vacuum, so they had to do something.

Rift is going f2p, Tera went F2p, face it, the p2p model is dieing/dead, there are very few mmo’s or other games that can sustain it, and those the stick to it, enlarge would make more using a freemium model(f2p with subs and cash shop)

and as others pointed out, even players who never buy anything provide a service by just being there.

another service they provide not mentioned is word of mouth AND friends who spend, I have a buddy whos bought me stuff in games we play(f2p mmo’s) because i was skint and he wanted to help me out, I have dont the same for others in the past……so f2p players who dont sub are important, even the ones who dont themselves have money to spend on the games.

Anonymoussays:

Just as an aside, there are some things I’d like to point out:

1) AC above has it right; this doesn’t mean EA has learned anything.

2) I think most publishers understand that free can work – it is just that many times they either a) aren’t certain that it will work or b) believe they can make more money with a pay-to-play model. In this case, EA probably knew beforehand that a free to play model would have more accounts, but that wasn’t what they were interested in.

What they wanted was to replicate the success of WoW, which made money hand over fist. The goal was to attract a paying subscriber base, which would have significantly more revenue per account than a free-to-play/advertising based model. Now, with that said WoW still made more money than any video game ever. The question EA asked (and we should be asking) is this: would WoW have made more money for Blizzard free-to-play or subscription based?

For their part, Blizzard firmly believes that they would have made less money without paid subscriptions. Free can work, but so can paid.

EA’s goal was that high-profit setup. They failed in that aim, and the adjustment is just moving from an unsuccessful fee model to a relatively more successful advertising one.

Anonymoussays:

It should also be noted that, at least according to congress, anyone that sells their works for a profit are supporting terrorism because they are enabling terrorists to sell infringing copies and profit. So we should all detest anyone that sells their works because by not making them freely available they are supporting terrorism.

horse with no namesays:

It's funny

All that they really did was use the free players to pump up their existing universe. However, as it often the case in the free to play models, the people paying are only paying because the pay model is better than the free model.

If they could get entirely for free what they have to pay for today, most if not all of them would just go free. Don’t confuse a free tasting / sample / limited use with the actual product.

Niallsays:

Re: It's funny

I’m pretty sure that anybody’s motivation to spend money is because they have to, or it gives them something that they want. So what is wrong with something being free at the point of use (think OTA TV) but paying is possible for a ‘better’ experience (think HBO)?

Plenty of products are ‘free’ and do quite well – because they are selling or buying something else (such as your attention).

jupiterkansassays:

Re: It's funny

“All that they really did was use the free players to pump up their existing universe.”

Exactly. Dedicated users will pay, but you need a large user base to make it appealing to dedicated users.

If the free version is satisfactory to most people then the free version is the actual product. This is a perfectly valid way to offer something for free, and is a proven model used all over the internet, from Techdirt to Vimeo to Dropbox to games.

PaulTsays:

Re: It's funny

You’re missing the point, I think.

“However, as it often the case in the free to play models, the people paying are only paying because the pay model is better than the free model.”

Exactly. This is the crux of the argument. Whether it’s EA’s fiasco with Sim City, studios taking content off Netflix, regional and format windowing or even outright blocks, the moves of these companies has tended to be to make the paid version WORSE than the free version provided by pirates.

That’s what people have been saying here all along. Make the paid version better than the pirated version (which is almost always possible), and people will pay. Make it worse, and people are less likely to pay. You’ll never get anywhere with trying to force people to pay for an inferior product, but offer them a freebie then an upgrade? Not everyone will pay, but there’s never been a time when 100% of entertainment consumers have paid for it – at least not directly.

“If they could get entirely for free what they have to pay for today, most if not all of them would just go free.”

Do you have a citation, or is that just an assumption? I can certainly give examples of people paying for products that they can otherwise get for free, and many products have survived for many years without demanding an upfront payment from its audience. You just have to adjust for market realities – and artificial restrictions are no longer viable as a way to convince people to pay up.

Nicksays:

About Sim City

It’s a shame they haven’t tried a similar strategy with other EA games like SimCity, instead choosing to lock the game up tighter than Han Solo trapped in carbonite with an always-online requirement nobody wants.

Umm… I hated just about everything they put out about Sim City, especially the online-only DRM and the social aspects of it but… You can’t really say that what happened here with SWTOR is the solution to Sim City’s woes.

All SWTOR did was remove the money investment that people needed, both in buying it and the monthly subscription. Nobody was complaining about Sim City’s cost (aside from the people angry that PC games are costing $60, which was only that price for console games because of the massive license fee they pay to console makers), and it had no subscription.

In fact, SWTOR still has “online-only” requirements, and unlike Sim City a lot of the game’s calculations are done on servers. In addition, it is arbitrarily locking up a LOT of content behind their “optional” monthly subscription pay wall, meaning that free loaders can’t even use it as much as they can or get the same items, unlike in Sim City which, after its initial investment everything is available.

Long story short, I am not trying to defend Sim City’s horrible choices. All I am saying is that F2P makes sense in situations, but what going F2P changed in this case would not apply to fix what was wrong with Sim City.

PaulTsays:

Re: About Sim City

“Nobody was complaining about Sim City’s cost”

Yes they were, indirectly at least, in the sense that the DRM wouldn’t have made it so much of an issue if the game had been far cheaper. If the game client had been free, or priced at $20, the complaints would have been reduced. People weren’t just pissed about the online requirement – they were pissed that they had so many problems after paying full price for it.

“In fact, SWTOR still has “online-only” requirements”

Of course it does, it’s an MMORPG (guess what the O stands for). No Sim City game has ever had an enforced online or multiplay component in the past, while that’s in the very nature of an MMO. Hence the different standards applied.

“All I am saying is that F2P makes sense in situations, but what going F2P changed in this case would not apply to fix what was wrong with Sim City.”

No, what was wrong with Sim City would have been fixed by allowing people who wished to play it offline to do so after they’ve paid $60 for the game. Requiring any online mode for that game other than perhaps activation and patching was doomed from the start.

Using the freemium model would have helped remove many of the complaints, but what was wrong with the game is the point where they decided to crowbar online and multiplayer where people didn’t want it, in a series that never needed it. Whereas an MMO needs online and multiplayer, it has no business being anything but an option in a game series that’s fundamentally a solo experience.

So, it comes down to the design phase. Are you selling a boxed game for $60, or are you selling something that requires a subscription? If you want the $60 up front, you’d damn well better not lock up half the game behind a paywall (day one DLC), or force me to play my single player game online. If you want a subscription model, cheaper game clients will encourage adoption and you’ll make more money in the long term (though people will expect content for that subscription).

Anonymoussays:

SWTOR was a good game the first year. Now its just a money machine for EA (look at my shocked face) as they keep adding material with no benefit to anyone that subscribes. Yeah, subs are up – its free and it wasn’t before. All they’ve done is take advantage of people who don’t see “cartel coins” as real money. I don’t feel bad for the people that don’t do the math, I’m just upset that EA thinks this is a reasonable model. Now the game is full of people that don’t care or try making the online element really frustrating. So yeah, there are a bunch more people playing, but the game sucks now where it didn’t a year ago. Nice work EA! Way to rape another great franchise (Madden, SimCity, Mass Effect, etc…)!

ECAsays:

FREE to play dont work...When

FREE to play dont work when you wish to release a game THAT you dont want to TOUCH anymore..
You dont want to UPDATE, CHANGE, ADD to…Create it over and over..

BUT, if yo create a GREAT engine, and it can be changed and augmented…WHY remake a product, KEEP ADDING TO IT and people will come.

Look up a game, released long ago, and STILL RUNNING..with alot of added content that the USERS created..Star trek armada 2. TRY to get a CHEAP COPY. last I looked a LEGAL copy on Amazon was around $100.

If the maker had Sold it, placed in Multi user online servers, and ADDED the content for a small fee…HE WOULD STILL BE MAKING MONEY..

But, no…they dropped it on the market, Fixed a few things, and RAN away with the money..to the NEXT project.

EA did a test..and FAILED..battlefield online, went from a NEAT game to CRAP.. NO real new maps, no new content, and CHARGE thru the nose…and you win with Over powered guns.

Why are there a BUNCH of online games from Asia? ALL making money?

Woadansays:

A New Hope: How Going Free To Play Brought Redemption To Star Wars MMO

There’s a big difference in F2P versus paid account. Many things available to the latter are not available to the former at all. And where they are available, they require the expenditure of real world money to acquire.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason SWTOR is more profitable now is because most F2P players are speding some extra cash to have a little bit more than the bog standard, which is at best annoying.

Now, I’d pay real money if SWTOR, or any MMO for that matter, were to decide to do away with the “Can’t get There From Here” syndrome. If you play MMOs, you’ll get it.

~Woad

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