WoW: Free to play?

My latest session was a short one. I did make it to Outland, but only for a few seconds, experimentally, before returning. The portal to Outland is located in a zone called the Blasted Lands, which I had never visited before, and so I got caught up in the Blasted Lands quest chain. It’s the completist in me: even though I know I’m never actually going to complete this game, I am by nature incapable of passing up a quest. I’ll probably have more to report on actual Burning Crusade content next time, possibly including some kind of answer to the question of who exactly is doing the burning and why.

In the meantime, let’s talk a little about the one recent major change to the game (other than opening up BC) that happened while my attention was elsewhere: WoW becoming nominally “free to play”. “Free to play” is a major buzzphrase in the industry right now. In particular, it seems to be the business model behind nearly every viable modern MMO other than WoW. My thoughts on it in WoW are that they’re doing it wrong, but also that it probably ultimately doesn’t matter that they’re doing it wrong.

How are they doing it wrong? By ignoring everything about the (by now well-established) free-to-play business model other than letting people play for free. The usual approach, as far as I can tell, is to sell things that can be used in the game: special items that can’t be obtained any other way, or extra game time per day if that’s limited, or even just outfits with no gameplay effects. WoW‘s revenue still comes mainly from subscriptions. There doesn’t seem to be any way for a free player to pay Blizzard 1Anyone can pay real money for in-game gold by buying it from a gold farmer, but that’s not really relevant here, because Blizzard doesn’t profit from such transactions. for advantages in the game while still remaining a free player. The only way Blizzard profits from free players is by turning them into subscribers.

And that’s really been the WoW business model all along. There’s always been a way to play for free. If I recall correctly, they used to offer 30-day free trials, then reduced it to 14 days, and by the time I gave it a whirl, it was down to 10 days. Well, now they’ve bumped the trial period up to infinity days. This is probably a smart move. Playing with a trial account still caps your character level to 20, and my own experience was that I reached that limit well before my 10-day trial ran out. So for the people who are going to play up to the limit and then quit and never think about it again, nothing has really changed. But for people who are tempted to progress further, removing the time limit prolongs the temptation.

To put it another way, the trial accounts are, for all intents and purposes, a form of shareware. Shareware, when it imposes limits on non-registered users at all (as opposed to just begging for voluntary donations), generally works in one of two ways: by limiting the amount of time you can spend in it, or by limiting the content you have access to. WoW trial accounts used to impose both of these restrictions at once, which in retrospect was an odd decision. Now they’ve switched to limiting only the content. But at the same time, they took the opportunity to drum up some media attention by jumping aboard the free-to-play bandwagon, even though it’s still not free-to-play in the same sense as Maple Story or Kingdom of Loathing or Team Fortress 2 (itself a recent convert to the F2P model).

I suppose the big question, then, is whether or not it worked. Was there a big influx of newbies? I don’t know; I haven’t spent time around the newbie zones. It would please me, if not Blizzard, if there were a lot of new players with perpetual trial accounts now. One of my biggest annoyances with the game is that most players seem to be old-timers with level 85 characters that I can’t effectively group with or fight, until and unless I buy two more expansions and spend a lot of time leveling up. Having a large number of under-20’s around would counterbalance this in my mind, and also give me something to look down on.

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1. Anyone can pay real money for in-game gold by buying it from a gold farmer, but that’s not really relevant here, because Blizzard doesn’t profit from such transactions.

7 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 7 Aug 2011

    I wouldn’t describe having an unlimited duration trial as being free to play. Games that have switched to a free to play model have typically made most of the game’s content available without any initial or monthly investment. They then profit off things like selling any remaining content piecemeal (zones, quests, dungeons, classes, etc) and selling consumables that speed up play. 1-20 isn’t even close to the full WoW experience.

  2. Eytan Zweig on 7 Aug 2011

    malkav11 – That’s what the second and third paragraph above say.

  3. malkav11 on 7 Aug 2011

    Not really. They’re not “doing free to play” wrong, they’re not doing it at all.

  4. Carl Muckenhoupt on 7 Aug 2011

    You seem to want to argue. I’d oblige, the only way to argue with your position would be to abandon mine.

  5. malkav11 on 8 Aug 2011

    Well, what I’m trying to get across is that as far as I can tell, Blizzard themselves have never referred to this unlimited duration trial (the WoW Starter Edition, apparently) as “free-to-play”, so it’s really pretty much just a bunch of misleading articles from enthusiast websites giving it that label and perpetuating the misconception is just going to get people’s hopes up unwarrantedly. Anyway. It’s not really a big deal.

  6. Carl Muckenhoupt on 9 Aug 2011

    Blizzard is definitely calling it “free to play”. Here’s a screenshot of a flash-based banner I saw on this very site. Here’s another.

  7. malkav11 on 9 Aug 2011

    I stand corrected.

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