Subscriptions vs. F2P: A Matter of Mind Over Money?

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor

In a recent guest column on, Goblinworks CEO Ryan Dancey responds to a Forbes article that casts doubt on The Elder Scrolls Online's ability to succeed as a subscription-only MMORPG. Both articles, as well as Forbes writer Paul Tassi's response to Dancey, are long and informative, and good reads, but I'd like to focus on one particular point in the debate.

Dancey puts forth a notion that we've suspected all along: that some MMOs launch with a subscription but with every intention of switching to F2P with an optional sub down the road. I don't think that was the case with Star Wars: The Old Republic – I honestly think BioWare thought they could maintain subs – but I'd say it could very well be true with The Elder Scrolls Online, and was almost certainly true of The Secret World, which converted to buy-to-play a few months after launch.

He's right, too, in that it does make sense from a financial standpoint, a point that Tassi also concedes. Those initial box prices plus subscription fees can result in sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars. SWTOR sold two million copies right out of the gate, and I'd be shocked if TESO didn't manage those numbers, at least, in its first few months.

But I'd contend that the decision between subs F2P is about more than just math. Even now, nearly five years after Dungeons & Dragons Online went F2P and really pioneered that model in the West, and has been followed by dozens of other successful and acclaimed subscription-free MMOs, there's still the perception that “F2P” = “subpar” or, when considering a game that switches models, outright failure.

That's not entirely unwarranted, I'll grant; there are plenty of awful F2P games out there. But so many of the arguments revolve around the constant harassment of cash-shop popups or the reminder that you're not getting the “full” game or other hits to one's psyche that are, more often than not, larger than the hits to one's wallet.

There are still a few blatantly pay-to-win games out there, but those aside, it's really not that hard to play any F2P game out there for less than $15/month. Sure, if you demand every shiny bit in the cash shop, every flaming sword, every diamond-encrusted piece of armor, it'll cost you, but you wouldn't have time to accumulate all that stuff in a typical month of subscription gaming anyway. Some games can toe the line between cosmetics and advantage, but relatively few newer games obliterate that line.

Rather, I think it's the psychological effect on gamers that make them think they're getting ripped off, even if they aren't, at least compared to a box price and subscription. We can still complain about SWTOR's cash shop, but was it more expensive to buy the base game for $60 two years ago or to pay to unlock all your hotbars, helmet slot, and so on? It's often the feeling of being nickel-and-dimed that irritates gamers, myself included – I've never gone back to SWTOR – more so than the actual cost. And so many free-to-play games feature the word “FREE” so prominently that it's easy to see why people bristle at the notion of having to pay, even when they're being offered a potentially better deal than a subscription.

Which brings us back to TESO: I contend that launching with a box price + subscription and then switching to F2P or B2P a few months to a year down the road will create a worse perception problem than if it had adopted a non-sub model from the start. The notion that ZeniMax is “waffling” or that the game is “failing” is supremely negative PR and people who grew used to the sub will grouse about having some aspects of it taken away or at the invading “freeloaders.” Human emotion is difficult for sales charts to predict.

Dancey at least is up front about his game's (Pathfinder Online) intentions: “We’ll begin with subscriptions only, and transition to microtransactions as soon as it makes sense to do so.” If this approach is planned and from day one, as it is with Pathfinder and, as some believe, with The Elder Scrolls Online, maybe being honest about it is the better choice, even if it does cost you some initial sales.

Or maybe not. Because hey, a hundred million dollars is a hundred million dollars, and that kind of money can offset a lot of bad PR.

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

Discussion (47)

Ball 4 years ago
If you just want to play an MMO and don't have any money then F2P Games would be your best option but be aware there may be allot of items locked behind paywalls and micro transactions. But if you have money or just don't care if you lose access to the MMO when your Subscription runs out you should buy a Subscription to a Subscription MMO the best option would be buying the 12 Month Subscription at least you wouldn't have to worry about renewing your Subscription every 3 Months or 6 Months.

Fire 4 years ago
This is a hard question to Answer. I love F2P Games since all I have to do is make an account and hop online but then there's all of those Micro Transactions and 1 Month,3 Month,6 Month,and 12 Month Membership Packages which I strongly hate. I do like Subscription only games since they don't really have Micro Currency or try to spam you to buy in game items with real money but I dislike the fact that I have to pay the Subscription Cost just to have an Account to the game. I know the Developers are trying to make money for their products but it seems like not allot of the things they do work. No offense.

ASD 6 years ago
I rather buy the game or pay a subscription fee. Because free 2 play is nice but they spam you with advertisements and micro currency and cash shops. Not worth it.

EvilDenies 9 years ago
This is why smart people Buy GW2 and enjoy perfect MMORPG.

Randolfo 9 years ago
F2P ist in most cases more expensive as sub games if you want good charakter progression.

Best Free to Play Model is

Path of Exile

Best B2P

Guild Wars 2

Bic Boi 9 years ago
It never ends, this $hit. Opinions are like arseholes; everyone's got one and no one wants to hear anyone else's.

P2P=Fail 9 years ago
There hasnt been one successful P2P game since WoW and even its losing its grip now.

Games that go P2P - F2P have bad reps because the "F2P" model is a joke.

A game that releases as B2P or F2P does far better then one that goes from P2P to F2P/B2P because 90% of the time the P2P to F2P game is nothing but an insult because the F2P accounts are hit with a lot of restrictions.

Post above was a good call on DCUO, in that game there is no difference as a premium account if you spend 5$ or 100$, you are still restricted the same and thats why the playerbase plummeted on PC, it might work on console because the F2P competition on console is like what..6 games ?

But on PC it doesn't work when we have a insurmountable number of F2P games being released every year for PC

When will companies see that P2P is on its way out and there is no game that will succeed in this day and age as a subscription game..its done..its over..stop trying..all you are doing is giving your company/studio a bad reputation later on when the P2P fails and you go "F2P" but try to keep the P2P part thus ruining the F2P part.

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DirtyZerg 9 years ago
The problem isn't the model..its how companies set it up.

Here is what I mean, lets take Path of Exile for example..nothing in the store gives you any form of advantage...the game is a hit. It succeeded. They have a strong playerbase and many buy stuff from the store, not for an advantage..but to support the game and look a little cooler.

The thing with Sub games going that they don't actually go F2P.

DCUO is a good example here..they keep the subscription option..but they then restrict the F2P/"Premium" accounts with ludacris things like a cash cap..making it difficult for anyone not SUBBED UP to do much of anything without preparing in be able to repair gear..

SWTOR is the same..restrictions..

When a P2P game is dieing but refuses to let go of the P2P they simply incorporate a "Demo" version of the game and slap F2P on it..all this does is scare away any new potential customers..your not going to succeed by trying to force people into subscriptions.

F2P isn't a bad model and there are plenty of high quality games that have done it right..TF2..HoN..DoTa2..Neverwinter (tho a bit P2W, not that bad tho)

Why do these succeed? Because they hit the door with F2P and didn't try to just add a demo version and call it F2P..the model works..what doesn't work is greedy companies trying to force people into subscriptions by restricting F2P or even "B2P" DCUO/SWTOR..this is why the populations on those games take a huge increase on "F2P" launch and then dive into the abyss again...people don't like being tricked..and restrictions on non subscription accounts is nothing but a trick.

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hardmode 9 years ago
nerdy mmo talk, you are talking about your incorrect way of life... paying this paying that... why are you so short minded?

cacaballz 9 years ago
Both sides are full on wrong. P2W, Sub etc... The fact is all about who is signing what contracts and how the business structure is set up in the first place (and intelectual property rights). For example, most games that shut down were usually already paid in full( most mmorpgs are), and could self sustain with a group of 5 dedicated payers. The big problems arrive when games want bigger stashes in cash by inticing investors (board members). Doing this means they HAVE to pull in X amount of dollars above budget each year. This normally works...but when it doesn' an IDEAL world, the investors walk away and the game keeps running. Since GREED runs every market. Those investors sign contracts that say: "If we do not get our X at end of year, you will shut down operations, and if ANYONE re launches this title, even if F2P, and 1 penny is made...then we are due to all entitlements and can sue you for damages"... This is why Hackers that make private servers is where you escape this stupid mess of greed. Long live HAckers!
The greed companies like to give you propaganda and they hack your account and blame it on hackers as "oh noo! Look how bad they are! They stole your wow gold!" LOLOLOLOL! They make money on that by creating "mobile log in services for a 1 time key purchase"...such a joke. You all are sheeple, and the faster you realize that the easier your gaming experience will be.

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Anonymouse 9 years ago
If the game sucks, then it sucks regardless if it's Sub or "Free?".

I hate F2P 9 years ago
I hate F2P 90% = p2w and the 10% are bad games ....

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Zalor 9 years ago
Uhm, do you guys know ESO is in beta? The game is still subject to change and it's going through the polish process. That's kinda what a beta test is for. It's very early to start claiming it as a bad game.

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Gam3r 9 years ago
the problem with ESO is that when it launches it will have so many errors that f2p games will look like wow compared to it.

Qtar 9 years ago
It will fail and they will start to make it f2p and then blame about the fp2 model when the game dies completely.

Rawasa 9 years ago
Blade and Soul china broke all boundaries when it launched F2P...high quality game with no pay-to-win cash shop items, and with a VIP option. Only problem is its in chinese.

Merkadis 9 years ago
The sub times are over.
Whatever or whoever will say the fact won't change, besides all they keep making(cloning) are boring grinders anyway, like hell i'll be paying for that crap.
And no1 seem to mention Path of Exile which shop is the crystal clear example of what f2p model should be like, and as we all know the game not only survive, it actually thrive like theres no tomorrow.

So yeah, stop ur BS ladies and gents, it all IS possible, only why would those companies bother with that? they just want $ after all, at least most of them.

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Schnauzbert 9 years ago
F2P Games always had a "cheap" feeling on me, atleast 98% of it. Games with subscriptions are usually of higher quality. I think F2P model would be a bad idea for such a big game as The Elder Scrolls.

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chefmadness 9 years ago
Are we really going to talk about this crap again & again. Please for the love of gaming write about something else. It seems like every week you gotta talk about (Is Free-to-Play Where Good Game Franchises Go To Die, Should F2P Games Offer Subscriptions, Maintaining Critical Mass: F2P’s Secret Weapon, ) These are just some articles that revolve around the same subject. & they all talk about the same damn thing. Seems to me Jason winter dose not like the F2P market since he talks down on it all the time. Please write about something worth while or just wait till their is some good gaming news to pump out. It seems like the bomb just jibber jabber & put out articles just as lame filler sometimes. I'm just saying. I mean no offense.

tolshortte 9 years ago

the Idea that a payment model will make a game fail is ridiculous. personally I think this article was used to push the f2p market now that its got a negative vibe surrounding it. I think they pick ESO because its not very good judging from the two betas ive participated in. so to make a prediction that ESO will be a disappointment and end up f2p isn't a huge leap honestly. so if you wanted to use a game that starts as p2p and then claim that payment model is why it failed causing it to go f2p this would be the game to pick

the f2p model imo is a lot like communism. its great on paper but doesn't work irl for many reasons including greed. I wish there was a great f2p model out there, but the best I have found is good at best. if you want an even playing field for leveling, gear, content etc then f2p is impossible. counting on cosmetics to fund your game isn't viable. most of the players in f2p games never plan on paying anything, hence why they play f2p titles. obviously there are players like myself who will invest in a f2p title trying to support a dev whos made an honest effort at creating a fun game but I would say those players are a minority.

back ESO. f2p, b2p or p2p, it will fail. its just not that great. its not bad. but I haven't been enthralled by it at all. I imagine the release has to be better than the beta(at least I hope) because so far I don't see where that 200mil went.

View 4 replies

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