Free to Play (F2P) or Free?

MMORPG.com is running a series of articles called “Bang for your Buck“.  In this series they are reviewing F2P games to see how free they are.  While I agree that this is a good metric to run for F2P games I think the start point of the series as well as the perception it feeds is flawed.

We old crusty MMO gamers are well aware that MMOs cost money for the companies to run on a monthly basis.  That means they need to recoup their investment somehow.  So in no sense of the word are F2P games ever truly free.  However some of the neophyte MMO players are seeing the word Free and presuming it means just that, free.  However Free in F2P suffers from the same fate as Role-Playing does in the term MMORPG.  The context of the phrase changes everything.

Any MMORPG player should know that the RPG portion harkens back to the old-school RPGs where the player guided a character through the story.  While they got to make some decisions and guide some conversation what defined these early RPGs was not the character the player was guiding but the statistics which defined what that character could/could not do, that governed interactions of that character and his/her equipment with the outside world, etc.  So thinking Role-Playing in MMORPG is about playing a role misses that it is part of a larger phrase which describes a style of game which nominally was about actually playing of a role.

So, too, does Free in Free to Play get modified accordingly.  We already have a term for games for which a player does not spend any money to purchase and or play.  It’s called Free.  One of my favorite free games is Angband.  An ASCII graphic dungeon crawler (early form RPG, really) which was originally released 20 years ago.  It was free then, remains free now.  Give it a whirl, you’ll never have to pay anything for it.  Clearly if Free means Free then attaching to Play means we’re intending a different meaning.

Free to Play is a revenue model which is intended to be the opposite of Pay to Play (P2P).  In the P2P model one must have an active subscription before being able to log into the game to play.  The F2P model does not require an active subscription before the player is able to log into the game to play.  That’s it.  At no time is the implication that all portions of the game, all content in the game, is free.  Again, we have a term for that.  Free.

In the article I linked the author points out that at some point you have to pay for content in LotRO.  While technically this isn’t true, for practical purposes he is correct.  But this in no way invalidates the F2P model.  Currently I subscribe to LotRO.  I simply find the subscription much easier to handle than the a la carte purchasing of content.  However if I cancelled my subscription tomorrow I would not be prevented from playing.  I could still log in, still progress my character, still group with my wife’s characters, still be in the same kinship, still be an active participant in the game.  I am still free to play the game.

Having a series which shows which portions of a F2P game are available for free and which aren’t is a laudable endeavor.  However, presenting some F2P games as more or less free than others is to feed a misconception that the games themselves are intended to be free in their entirety, not just the activity of being able to play the games.

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