World of Warcraft ulduar

With Guild Wars 2 unpredictably going free-to-play, and its NCSoft compatriot, WildStar, ready to make the same, much more predictable, move later this month, only a few significant MMORPGs remain that still require an up-front purchase.

This is hardly news, of course – it’s the reason you’re reading this on a site that’s dedicated to free-to-play games, after all – but it got me thinking of what other games might eventually take the free-to-play plunge. While WildStar seemed like a no-brainer that people have been calling almost since its launch, the GW2 news took many, including myself, by complete surprise, so even the most stable pay-to-play game isn’t immune to the siren’s call of free-to-play.

Below I’ve listed what I think are the most prominent remaining pay-to-play MMOs out there and taken a crack at deciding what the chances (on a scale of 1 to 10) are that they go free-to-play… soon-ish. I don’t want to set a hard time limit on exactly when I think the change could happen; in exchange, I promise not to refer back to this article in 15 years when World of Warcraft goes free-to-play and say, “See, I told you so!”

As a side note, I didn’t include Guild Wars or Final Fantasy XI on this list because both are in a semi-active “maintenance mode” and not receiving any more active development resources. Also, I decided not to include games that haven’t yet launched, like Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade or Star Citizen. Maybe next year?

All right, on to the speculation!

Elite Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous

The youngest entry on our list, a lot of Elite: Dangerous’ low F2P possibility is tied to that reason: The game is still new and successful and still enjoying that “new game smell” that should keep F2P from entering into the minds of its developers for several years to come.

The game sold 500,000 copies in its first four months, which is a solid total but not knock-your-socks-off spectacular. Virtually every MMO drops off in sales after its initial launch, though an expansion coming in December should help pour more money into Frontier Developments’ coffers. Star Citizen could take a major bite out of its player base, but if it can keep producing regular content and not lose too many players to attrition, it should be fine for several years to come.

F2P Possibility: 2/10

EVE Online

And the one game that is held up as an example of an MMO that did grow year over year? That would be EVE Online, which peaked at 500,000 active players in 2013 but has since shed a hundred thousand or more, with concurrent players dropping by over a third. Toss in the lackluster performance by DUST 514 and the canning of World of Darkness, and CCP isn’t exactly in the best of shape.

But could a free-to-play EVE Online actually work? I said on a recent podcast that “EVE” and “free-to-play” were a mix like matter and antimatter, and that even a perfect and amazing F2P system would be welcomed by long-time players like the Black Death. Still, a company has to do what it can to survive, and if Project Legion doesn’t light it up, the impossible may just happen.

F2P Possibility: 3/10

Final Fantasy XIV

Final Fantasy XIV

I’m not going to spend much time here. FFXIV is successful and Square Enix has shown absolutely no interest, and at times, outright hostility, to the notion of free-to-play for its MMOs. Final Fantasy XI is still going with a subscription fee 13 years after its launch, so… yeah.

F2P Possibility: 1/10, because that’s as low as the scale goes

The Elder Scrolls Online

ESO already took the first step in removing its subscription earlier this year, but could The Elder Scrolls Online go all-out and go from buy-to-play to full free-to-play? I always clashed with Magicman over this possibility, and I still feel like ZeniMax is comfortable with the current way of things and its sales, especially with the console adaptations, that a full F2P switch is pretty unlikely.

That said, the company does have a habit of swearing things are set in stone with the game, until they aren’t. It was essential that the game have a subscription, you definitely couldn’t become a werewolf of vampire, and there wouldn’t be any first-person view – all things that have since changed. While I haven’t heard similar strong language about the current pricing method, I also wouldn’t put much faith on any future guarantees.

F2P Possibility: 3/10

The Secret World

The Secret World

The “other” major buy-to-play MMO, on the other hand, isn’t faring nearly as well. The Secret World launched with a subscription (and cash shop) only to do away with it months later, and it’s been heavily discounted several times in its history, just like Guild Wars 2. Could it follow the same path? Funcom isn’t in a good place right now, and I can’t imagine that anything is off the table.

F2P Possibility: 7/10

World of Warcraft

And then there’s this. Honestly, the “World of Warcraft will go F2P” talk has been out there for years – and I’ve made a few (bad) predictions myself – and it’s only picked up steam with the recent drop in subscribers. That said, 5.6 million is still a lot of players, and the game’s shown remarkable resiliency in springing back from down periods before. I’m hesitant to take one bad quarter (I think the bump to 10 million subs after Warlords of Draenor released was a bit fluky) as a sign of things to come.

Blizzard has been toying with the WoW cash shop for a few years now, and there’s that “unlimited free play to level 20” thing, which some take as signs that a full free-to-play switch is imminent. The success of Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm probably also comes up in meetings from time to time.

I think subs will still have to dip quite a bit lower to make it happen, and if it does, Blizzard runs the risk of alienating its (still substantial) existing player base. A lot of people have moved on from WoW and wouldn’t likely come back just because it’s free(-ish; I have my doubts that WoW F2P would be hailed as the most generous of payment models). But I think it’ll happen someday.

F2P Possibility: 5/10


  1. If WoW goes f2p, lots of serious players will drop. Games going f2p usually ruins its contents, with all the cash transactions on an in-game shop, and most people that pay the sub prefers rather paying a sub and having access to all content (cash mounts and pet aside, but they do nothing and are meh overall) than having to buy micro transactions through the game (and I’m with them).

    Not only that, but WoW also has a large community of lore addicts and hardcore roleplayers, and making the game free to play will allow (many more) ignorant people to play the game and make the social atmosphere unbearable. It’s hard enough to tell normal players that RP servers are specifically for Roleplaying, now try to imagine a bunch of clueless noobs ruining several players fun.

    If you think having an ignorant community is no problem at all or have a difficult time picturing how that works, learn some portuguese and play on ANY brazilian server. It sucks beyond balls.

    TLDR; WoW won’t go f2p for those and more reasons, and if it actually goes, I’m dropping it (and I’ve been playing this game for eight whole years…)

    • I’d play it for free, and I’ve played during Burning, Wrath, Mists, and Cataclysm.

      Does that make me a “clueless noob”? See, the problem with players like you is instead of giving it a shot and talking to some of the f2p players (who usually can’t sub because they can’t afford it), you’d rather sit in your ivory sub tower and throw garbage at the people that can’t pay.

      Here’s the thing. With or without you, I bet the game thrives even more than it does now.

      Now don’t get me wrong. I totally agree with you that there are some players that just want to troll, but this is World of Warcraft. Have you forgotten how the Barrens used to be? Have you forgotten the town attacks that would happen every now and then that would lock down one side so no one would be able to get any questing done?

      All I can say to wrap it up is that if all the “serious” players drop, then that means the game will just be more fun and relaxing. If you honestly think it’ll “ruin” the game, then I feel sorry for you.

    • World of Shticraft doesn’t have any serious players left on retail. Everyone, who isn’t a 12-year-old snot is playing on private servers like WoTLK, Vanilla or TBC, no one in their right mind will play this Disney-inspired piece of crap.

  2. Elder Scrolls will go F2P then we’ll get a Fallout Online B2P with Sub base model. I see the next B2P game going F2P play will be Black Ops 3. Then World of Warcraft will do something like previous expansions free no Sub model lastest you’ll have to buy. But sub model is gonna die out soon.

    • You mean all the hobo f2p games that have either doubled or in some cases tripled their player base and money their making?

      You seem to be missing the point that going f2p can only make a game better simply because it gets more people to play and even then there is always a cash shop. Always. As well as a subscriber type special bonus.

      Most complaints about games going f2p are from people who have subbed to said game and are pissed people who were smart and waited now get to play it for free. Hate to say it, but that was their choice.

  3. Ultima Online should 10/10 go F2P it just can’t sustain poor numbers.

    Eve Online 8/10 as its numbers are pitiful & CCP has lost its mind is non productive as its stuck in coding rubbish mud pile.

    Wow 8/10 its just needs to let go. as its holding onto a time forgotten.

    Star Citizen 9/10 as its a complete mess & come launch will flop into folded car crash.

  4. Jason, is there any way you can write an article on the state of mmos in general? are there more or less people playing mmo’s than 1, 2, 5, etc. years ago? are players quitting mmos earlier (pretty sure we know the answer to this one)? is the number of mmos larger and by how much (%)? do mmos have more features than before? what has changed in mmos?

    I think the answers to those questions will shed some light on p2p mmos going f2p. I don’t think these games are bad, just that in a market that hasn’t shown any major innovation over a lot of years maybe its getting harder to hold peoples attention for lengths of time.

    I pretty much agree with you whole list btw. thanks for your articles.

  5. Honestly I think it would be alot smarter for blizzard to move world of warcraft into the buy to play market, as it would make more sense since expansions would still cost money either way even if it were to go free to play.

    • but since I can’t edit I do have to agree that blizzard is going to need a new business model soon in the near future whether f2p or buy to play, because there down to 5.6million subscribers right now which is lower than Mists of Pandarias Sub fall out.

  6. 5/10 for Wow is quite optimistic, even with sub drops it’s still the most subbed game in the world and still making steady money.
    $1 billion a year is something that will difficult to let go of.

    • I think 5/10 is right on the money. It’s true that it’s steadily making money, but there have been games that have almost tripled their value by going f2p.

      With how well known the name “World of Warcraft” is and how everyone knows how good Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm is, I think it could do much better than a billion a year as f2p.

      That and like Jason said, they have to notice how well Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are doing. World of Warcraft hasn’t been in the spotlight too much because of the popularity of those two titles.

      I think it will go f2p, it’s just a matter of when and what will push it to do so.


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