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!
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
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
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 “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