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Free-to-play is an MMO strength, not a weakness

Age of Conan has joined the growing ranks of high-profile free-to-play MMORPGS. Is chasing the micro-transaction dollar a sign of impending doom, or the future of the genre?

Age of Conan will shortly stand alongside the likes of Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Champions Online as an MMO that's dropped out of the primary subscription game.

As the indentikit headlines roll in, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there's no room in the subscription-based MMORPG world for anything but World of Warcraft - or that the subscription model is on its way out for good.

Neither supposition is accurate.

The elephant in the room

World of Warcraft is a phenomenal success, and its presence on the MMORPG scene probably means no other game will ever crack even the 5 million player point.

Perhaps the problem is a limited player base. Publishers are trying to break into casual and social gaming precisely because gaming is still a niche hobby, and the market isn't unlimited.

This is even more true of MMORPGs, which require a substantial ongoing commitment of time, energy and - in this case - money. There are fewer people willing to sit down to a raid every single week than to fire up Call of Duty for an hour a month.

Of these people, World of Warcraft clearly commands the majority. Its user-base approaches that of any dozen other major MMORPGs combined at 11.5 million active subscribers. Assume, as the statistics suggest, that a large number of subs have accounts for more than one MMORPG, and you start to understand how influential World of Warcraft really is.

Every new MMORPG on the scene is largely competing for a slice of World of Wracraft's player base, plus a small number of converts likely to end up investigating the behemoth once they've swallowed an entry drug. Obviously, this makes it difficult to muster the numbers of paying players to maintain the substantial costs of running an MMORPG.

The "other" MMORPGs

Hard - but not impossible. The original Lineage has maintained a subscription model since release in 1998, and is only now closing down its Western servers after dropping from over 3 million players to under 1 million.

Lineage II never reached the heights of its precursor, and is also suspected to be flirting with the 500,000 mark. It maintains a subscription fee, and Lineage III is on the horizon.

Runescape, the other heavy-hitter, was last seen at well over 3 million players. It maintains a tiered system of free play and subscriptions.

No other Western MMORPG has managed to hold onto player numbers above 1 million for any length of time. So is that it? Is there just no room up there for more games?

Yes - and no. Below the half-a-million mark, we find dozens of games jostling with each other for a slice of increasingly smaller player bases. Of these, a surprisingly small number are free-to-play, with Lord of the Rings Online the most successful of those.

Final Fantasy XI, Eve Online, Warhammer Online, Aion, Everquest I and II, Star Trek Online, Dofus, City of Heroes and Star Wars: Galaxies all sustain themselves on subscriptions, and while player numbers aren't stable, they're obviously bringing in enough revenue to keep themselves in business.

These games are proof that there is room for more than World of Warcraft, even with subscription fees, and provide hope for newer competitors like DC Universe Online and RIFT, as well as upcoming punters The Secret World and The Old Republic.

Why accept the kiss of death?

Going free-to-play isn't a bad bet, though. Although providers are wary of advertising their exact player counts, rough and ready estimates can be harvested. Age of Conan, which peaked at around 700,000 subscribers in mid-2008, is now hovering somewhere in the 100,000-150,000 range.

Similarly priced to World of Warcraft, Age of Conan's average monthly subscription cost of $14 means it was bringing in, at most, around $2,100,000, which sounds like a lot - but compare it to the ongoing costs of maintaining bandwidth, servers, and full development and support teams, and you're seeing little in the way of return on initial investment.

If Age of Conan follows the success it by Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeon and Dragons Online, it could see that figure double, treble, or explode even further.

Age of Conan could see that figure double, treble, or explode even further

Lord of the Rings Online had around 200,000 players when it went free-to-play in late 2010, and while Turbine have gone silent on player numbers since then, it quickly announced it doubled, and then tripled revenues after losing subscriptions.

Dungeons and Dragons Online topped out at 90,000 players, but galloped up to over 100,000 after dropping subscriptions and making the game client free. Revenue quintupled.

APB: Reloaded, the relaunch of failed MMO All Points Bulletin, looks set to do the same thing, with over 250,000 applicants for its closed beta demonstrating massive interest in the subscription-free re-release.

Free-to-play games are rapidly shedding a stigma of being cheap and exploitative - it's a viable route for core MMOs. Some of the attitude change can probably be put down its increasing prevelance; we're starting to feel that a micro-transaction here and there is normal and acceptable, and seeing more and more examples of genuine path-smoothing and customisation. Even in tiered subscription models, themselves less common than in the past, "pay-to-win" is dying out.

The spread of free-to-play to other genres like shooters - APB Reloaded, Battlefield Heroes, and Warface for example - is also helping separate the concept from that of "grind-fest", an unfair reputation earned for it by a small number of MMORPGs.

There's clearly room for both models going forward. More interestingly, there's an obvious strategy for new MMORPGs to be found in the sudden success of free-to-play conversions. Plan on a big launch - Star Trek Online was said to have something like 1 million subscribers within its first month - to earn back that horrid initial outlay, and then when the hype dies down and you need a steady income, there's reliable old free-to-play waiting for you.

It's also likely we're going to see more straight free-to-play MMO launches going forward, especially if APB does well this time round. Bundled in with the upcoming whistle test of The Old Republic's subs launch later this year, the successful mix of subs-to-free, free-to-play launch and subs-launch models clearly shows there's life in the core online dog yet: free-to-play shows maturation and buoyancy for MMOs as a business, not weakness. You can be sure console developers wish they were afforded such flexibility.

Now free up some hard drive space to download Conan this summer: that barbarian isn't going to level itself, you know.

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