Let’s start by saying I don’t disagree with anything Jeremy Gaffney said. The WildStar executive producer said in a recent interview that his game wasn’t going free-to-play because:

“Different games with different business models work in a very different fashion. If you look at City of Heroes [which Gaffney produced] compared to Guild Wars, it looks like City of Heroes is a smaller game.

“And it is, fewer people play City of Heroes, they peaked out at – I don’t know the numbers – something like 200,000. But 200,000 subscribers paying $15 a month, if you do the math, that makes about as much money as selling 6 million boxes, if they last long enough.”

Comparing active subs to total copies sold is apples to oranges, but I think we can all agree with the basic notion that a F2P game with X active players makes less money than a sub game with X players. A sub game can get by with far fewer players – say, X divided by Y. But what is Y?

Y probably isn’t 30 (6 million divided by 200,000), but it’s something. Let’s suppose Y = 5. So a F2P game with 1 million players brings in about the same money as a sub game with 200,000 players. That might be true at those numbers, and any high-profile game, like WildStar certainly is, will manage to do at least that well at launch.

But what happens after launch?

As we’ve seen time and time again, MMOs are more likely to lose players after launch rather than gain them. And when MMOs lose players, they become less entertaining for those remaining; there are fewer players to do things with, and thus those remaining players tend to leave, and the process is a vicious cycle that repeats itself until only a hardcore core is left – or the game is so unsustainable it shuts down.

This is called a game’s critical mass: the number of players that an MMO needs in order to continue to provide a good experience for its existing players and group content. It’s one of the reasons we see more small-group and solo-friendly content in MMOs these days. Simply put, it’s easier to find enough people to run five-man content than it is to find 10, 20, or 40 people, especially in a sparsely populated game.

But talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of players is generally beyond our scope of understanding. Let’s take a smaller example that we might be more familiar with: trading-card games.

Suppose a store runs tournaments for two TCGs. Game A is cheaper to get into and thus draws a larger crowd – say, about 50 people per week. Game B is more expensive or exclusive and thus draws only about 10 people per week. Both games actually bring in the same amount of money, so the store is happy with both.

In my experience, you need about six to eight people in a regular tournament group to have an enjoyable experience – that’s the critical mass. Any fewer than that and you just run up against the same people running the same decks, week in and week out, which gets boring fast.

Suppose both games lose 20% of their player base – people move away, don’t have enough time, or simply lose interest. Now Game A still has a healthy 40 players, but Game B is a lot iffier, with only eight players. Another 20% vanish. Game A still has 30 players, but Game B is on life support, with just six players left. Another loss would still keep Game A viable at 20 players but would probably destroy Game B. In other words, you wouldn’t have four B players left, still bringing in 1/5 the income of Game A – you’d have zero, because the remaining players would just stop coming.

It’s easy to see the parallel I’m drawing. How many of you have started out in a plus-sized guild at a game’s launch, only to see it dwindle down to a fraction of its former self later? And how many of you have stopped playing a game you otherwise enjoyed because most of your friends/guildmates left or it became too difficult to find enough random people to form a party?

I’m not saying that F2P is automatically better than P2P because of this scenario or that WildStar – or for that matter, The Elder Scrolls Online or Final Fantasy XIV – will suffer a slow, agonizing death as they bleed subscriptions and fall below the critical mass needed to sustain an active player base. Every MMO developer goes into a new project thinking that they’ll grow the game beyond its initial sales and active player base, even though relatively few do. If nothing else, devs should have a “hope for the best, plan for the worst” kind of approach.

I’d be curious to see how many games that switched from subs to F2P did so not because they were at that moment unprofitable but because the people in charge could see the downward trend and could think of no other way of reversing it than by injecting new players through F2P – even if those new players never paid a dime. As Wargaming’s Victor Kislyi once said, they see free players not as moochers, scamming the company for a free ride, but as content, helping to ensure there’s enough for the paying players to do.

Gaffney’s right in saying that F2P isn’t a “magic bullet.” But there’s also more to the equation than just the simple notion that if 1/5 of players in a P2P game pay, then a F2P game is exactly as profitable as a P2P one with 1/5 the players. Sometimes, 1/5 the players is just too far below the critical mass to keep an online game alive. Once you dive below that number, it’s usually a one-way trip to the bottom.

By Jason Winter

26 Readers Commented

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  1. Prof3$$0rMMO on October 6, 2013

    Everyone gets tired of a game once in a while, and wants something more out of it. If your game doesn’t add features to it continually , then you will be forced to turn to free to play. Star Wars the Old Republic has a repettative gameplay, despite the awesome speeches, and the space combat. Because of how low the amount of button combinations can produce. Which makes grinds feel less fun after a while.

    But games like Devil May Cry series, with a ton of button combination effects; last longer in the long run because the creativity of it makes you ignore the grind as a chore. (after you done it for so long.) And see it as a creativity match and how to make your combos look like a blockbuster movie character lol. I love Devil May Crys battle on air till you stop doing combos, floor bounce smash, and matrix air jumping , shooting maneuvers.

    Which sets the game apart and gives the player much more to look forward to and continue the ride longer, while he try’s out more games in the long run.

    • Prof3$$0rMMO on October 6, 2013

      So basically players will always want to not play the same genre all the time, and will play different games. So if you don’t have something that is creative to the combat or main features(depending on the game), then the whole thing starts to feel linear to the gameplay and genre, and they will want to change games. If the subscription MMO monthly prices are half the normal, and with half of what can be expected in free to play shops, it can last.

  2. khaled on October 5, 2013

    *cough* runescape *cough*

    • old rs player on October 23, 2013

      well, runescapen gets by by constantly changing and adapting itself, and then every now and then kicking up a ruckus and “relaunching” itself with a slight name change.

  3. Eviil on October 4, 2013

    I get what every single article that the world created in regards to F2P vs P2P. What I disagree about all of them is what.

    Even if you were a top notch analyst, it is very hard to determine revenue for free to play games compared to subscription. You can tell this is true because of the consistent two words use, if’s and but’s. This usually means if they can last. Subscription based games are more confident with what they have to offer and have a more accurate view on how the company is going to do. a lot of companies don’t make shit for a while, just because of that fact, they need to pay off the money that has been loans and I don’t want to hear about “They got all the money from donations” because a lot of them started the company with loans.

    Note: converting from P2P after MANY years to free to play isn’t bad at all. Stuff gets outdated but people still play it. Their outdated shit is much better than many of these new free to play bs.

    PS when I see free to play, I hear slot machines running.

  4. Golgo28 on September 30, 2013

    In the end it comes down to the game.Most mmos that fail and went f2p(excluding mmos that were f2p at the start)did so because the devs got lazy.Take WoW for example we all see it heading in the f2p direction eventually.But why is it?Because Blizzard screwed it up over the last few years.Dumbing down things to accommodate casual players most of whom came and went in a matter of months.Making it easy to get the best gear.Then destroying the talent tree system by forcing ppl to spec.And finally killing it off altogether in MoP.Now they are loosing the hardcore players that were there for years.

    Then you have games like swtor which were great to start but faltered in the endgame.Not giving people enough to do until new content was made.And there are the countless repetitive mmos where story is barely there and the gameplay gets dull after a few hours.

    If devs/publishers want to have a p2p model the game has to be good.But even a mmo that starts as a f2p has to be good.Cause both business models are designed to part you from your money.But if the game is crap your not gonna spend money.Which means making sure the game is playable,has a good variety content,a good quantity of content and that content is high quality.

    If a dev delivers that,the number of players will increase after launch.Cause as others have said people will tell their friends.Who tell other people and so on.Most publishers fail to realize word of mouth will do more for their success then advertising alone.But regardless every mmo dies down.

    • Jason Winter on October 2, 2013

      I think that speaks to a larger point (that I might someday try to put into words): That people just aren’t meant to play what is essentially the same game for 5+ years. That no matter what Blizzard does with WoW, a reasonable number of people are just done with it because they want to play something different.

  5. bait on September 30, 2013

    8 people is a critical mass for a tabletop or 1v1 board/card game maybe.

    there have been a lot of mobas lately struggling to create a real competitive atmosphere. in those cases i’d say the critical mass to create a functioning ladder system is about 10,000 players.

  6. Bic Boi on September 27, 2013

    So wait, what was the point of this again? F2P isn’t the end-all-be-all? Once a game dips below a certain sized playerbase it begins to suffer? MMOs inevitably die at some point or another so I don’t really see the purpose of analyzing all this; suffice to say changing to F2P is often a sign that it is failing commercially–whether it is beginning to or already has changes between the title and how savvy the developer is for changeovers.

  7. classyholmes on September 27, 2013

    I love these kind of articles! Thank you Jason for writing up these types of longer in-depth articles and thank you Spunkify for giving us all the fun let’s-plays and first looks!

  8. hardmode on September 27, 2013

    lol… they always say:_ we are not going free to play like parrots, then they have to go free for not having subscribers…

  9. Karnaij on September 27, 2013

    Eve online is starting to hit that critical mass there are only half of the people still on “HardCore Gamers” and so is league of legends, It has gone down from its peak. Plan for the worse doesn’t go for crappy games, but for all games. Look at WoW just a year ago it was F2P is pointless to us because we would lose to much money. Now its proble going F2P. Planing for the worse is just a back of option that most games dont think of and crash because of it. (P.S.) Games that crashed are bad games, just because every single game isnt the most popular game doesn’t mean its bad.

  10. Raphael on September 27, 2013

    eve online

    thank you and goodnight

    • xcr00k3dx on September 27, 2013

      EVE is in the extremely miniscule minority here, along with LoL & WoW.

  11. herflik on September 27, 2013

    Hey game developers, how about making actualy GOOD game, instead of writing all time “our game is good, but the player base will diminish anyway”. Real good game will increase player base after launch, simply because its good and people want to play it, they tell their friend and the chain reaction goes. If somebody loose interest in game it means, it simple isnt good enough for him/her.
    Look at League of Legends, it was small playerbase after beta, but the game was so well done in terms of gameplay and bussiness model, that as former beta player I could see how it playerbase skyrocket and break servers, month after month aftter release of game.

    So plan for the worst, if you cant make a good game.

    • Slayblaze on September 27, 2013

      The problem is developers always think they made a good game, even when it’s NOT a good game. So of course they don’t plan for the worst case scenario because they are blinded by how good they think their game is.

      This is why the almost-extinct Open Beta is so important. A REAL Open Beta, not just a soft launch, but rather a beta where actual fundamental changes are made based on the players reaction, and then implemented before actual launch.

      Unfortunately this hardly happens anymore, instead by the time an Open beta starts the game is already completely finished except for a few bugs here or there. The one exception of recent times is Firefall where large sweeping changes are being made in an actual Open beta.

  12. warriorbat on September 26, 2013

    There’s tons of F2P games out now and 99% of them are really bad. That is product of F2P expansion, many companies sees their opportunity in F2P games, so they spend at most 2 years making game and that’s simply not enough time to make anything good. That’s why we have tons of “Closed Beta”, “Open Beta” and “Soft Launch” at F2P games. Developers are using players to test their unfinished game and only after 3-6 months after “release” game is actually in a state to be called finished.
    So if it takes for me to pay for the box and later for subscription, but in return I get really awesome game, that is not grind-fest and not pay to win and have enough content and is not in beta-state when it’s released, I would gladly give my money to that company.

    • Graxis on September 26, 2013

      You missed the point of the article. You would be the hardcore minority that remains after the pop falls below critical mass. Eventually you and the handful of other hardcore players would get bored with so few others to interact with and move on.

      • buggy on September 26, 2013

        Graxis my fellow in enlightened one this guy warriorbat isn’t a hardcore gamer he’s just stuck on his stubborn alignment as I bought the game I got special right of ownership not a privilege of testing or playing the game of a company. Hardcore is how he shows his support to gaming regardless of what genre and gives examples not to have bias one own likes in games but experience of trying long standing games buy to play or free to play regardless and both games regardless have error and some last longer than the other I just pointed out examples of two there are always pluses to two side not just negatives.

        • Buggy on September 26, 2013

          to correct myself not “company” but publishers of said games.

  13. Slayblaze on September 26, 2013

    Great summary of one of the major issues that seems to sometimes be arrogantly ignored by several game studios/publishers – maintaining critical mass. It’s much more difficult to maintain player population than it is initially at launch in most cases, even more so in games which require a mandatory monthly fee, and it doesn’t matter how good the game is or how much of a “Triple-A” title it is, or how long its been in development, or if it uses a popular IP. Those things just don’t matter. What matters is opening the doors up as wide as possible to get the widest possible audience to enter the game. Putting up barriers to entry such as charging for the box or requiring subs will end up in pathetic failures in most cases – including Wildstar. It will be a dismal failure if it even lasts past the first year.

  14. Buggy on September 26, 2013

    both game market from free to play and pay to play are not different there just different ways of payment doesn’t not affect the effect of how the game is made lets all agree of that even a pay to play game that you can buy fails in about 1 month with lots of fan lights making it seem great a free to play game can last longer than the one game that is pay to play fails so in terms it just depends on the quality from story line to game play so that which it isn’t repetitive with war frame that a good example of it to warz which is currently now called infestation story was bad when it was out seeing even genre it was badly made but fan light of the genre made it seems great and also a big tidbit of info the ppl paying to the game is not the only source of income for the game like other free to play game there are partnerships from other game sites to publish it.

    • Nononono on September 26, 2013

      HOLY JESUS CHRIST, PUNKTUATION? Really, it takes a long while to read without punktuation..

      • Buggy on September 26, 2013

        If you want to put in punctuation for me meh go ahead and repeat the sentance and add it if not then oh well I like being lazy welcome to the net~

      • ziguzanuzoon on September 27, 2013

        dang that pic got me all exited thought maybe just maybe they were bringing back city of heroes did not read the post on Facebook miss city of heroes all disappointed now.

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