Community Soapbox: Why free-to-play is not always better than a subscription

Star Wars: The Old Republic

By on February 12, 2014 at 2:10 pm

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That’s right — free-to-play is not better than a sub. Never will be. Never really was. Why? Well, there are a few reasons.

In my opinion, the best F2P games out there currently are RIFT and Lord of the Rings Online. Why is this? Because both games have ways for you to not have to pay a cent — even when buying from the ‘real money’ shops. They both do things a bit differently, so we will start with LOTRO.

LOTRO was one of the first MMOs to change from a subscription model to F2P. And they did it to great success, with the game’s profits doubling in three months. The reason they pulled this off, though, was not simply because the game was now free — it was because they treated their playerbase with respect. How did they do this? With money, my dear friend, with money.

LOTRO‘s way of respecting the players was a fairly simple one. They allowed players to gain Turbine Points (the in-game ‘premium’ currency) without paying for it. They achieved this with achievements! You have a log book which lists things you can do, and how many Turbine Points you can get by doing it. This not only gave players who did not want to spend money a way to use the in game shop, it also pushed people who were on the fence in to doing so (my theory, anyway).

Look at it like this: You want something worth, say, 500 Turbine Points. You have gained 450 points from doing the achievements. This could then go two ways — on the one hand, you might just go and farm the remaining 50. On the other, you might just think “Oh well” and spend the money to get the 50 you need. And this is where the LOTRO developers got it right.

From a developer point of view, F2P is not about the game being free. It’s about encouraging the players to spend money on the game as they play it. And Turbine nailed it.

Fast forward a few years, and RIFT has gone F2P too. Unlike LOTRO, I had played RIFT under a sub, and I recently jumped back in last year to see how things had progressed. I was very happy with the way things were. Like LOTRO, there were ways to gain real money, but it was not as regular as LOTRO. However, not only had the RIFT devs taken a page from LOTRO, they took a page from Guild Wars 2 as well by allowing players to buy parcels of real-world dosh to sell to other players at the auction house for in game money. This is similar to what EVE Online does as well, and it’s a very effective way to do things. RIFT also gives you the expansion as part of the F2P deal, so you do not have to unlock any areas of the game with real money — something LOTRO has not done.

However, these games went F2P years apart, and are by no means the rule. They’re not even the exception to the rule. They exist in their own rules, leaving all other F2P MMOs in the dust.

So, now let’s look at some bad examples of a F2P game — and I will start with the worst one of all: Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Now, don’t get me wrong. The game itself is pretty damn good, with hours of gameplay if you play one of every class. But there is one problem the game has — it is way too restrictive. Here, look at this list of what you get for each tier. I would like to point out that this has not been updated for a while, and does not include the restrictions on the new PvP space combat, or the fact that you now get the Hutt Cartel expansion for free if you are ‘preferred’.

As much as I love playing SWTOR, there are things about it that I can’t get over. The first of these is that they have restricted hot bars. As a free player, you get only two. A ‘preferred player’ gets four, and a subscription player gets the full six. This should never, ever have been made a restriction. On top of that, as a subbed player, you can buy even more quick bars. And that’s just the start. The horrid list of restrictions also includes warzones, flashpoints, items you can equip, and more. In the case of SWTOR, you are better off just subscribing if you want to play it, as the F2P restrictions will cost you about six months worth of sub to unlock (my estimate).

It’s simple: The whole point of F2P is to make you spend MORE money. “Oh, I am not subbed, so why should it bother me if I spend tonnes of money on in game items?” you say to yourself. But if that one in-game item costs $25, and a sub for a month costs $15, why would you bother paying for the one item when you can have a month of everything at a cheaper price?

There are games on both sides of the field. EVE Online and WoW are still going strong, and I do not see the sub model going away. In fact, I don’t think it should. A sub means that the devs know how much money they are getting that month. They know how long people are subbed for, and how much money they have to work with. It means they can do things without worrying if it’s going to be in the budgetor not. A F2P model does not provide that certainty. I put it down to this: If you want to support the developers, subscribe to their game. If you just want a another free game, then maybe you should think about why that is.

There is no such thing as free — only the illusion of it. And F2P games do that illusion very well.

36 comments (Leave your own)

Not a bad piece, but it feels like you argued against your premise of “free-to-play is not better than a sub. Never will be.” by talking about free to play games that work well as F2P without contrasting to why they were better under/if they went back to subscription based, so we (as a reader) don’t have a point of reference to agree with your premise and arguments or not.

For me, much you like it seems, I think models can work, it just depends on execution.


There is no such thing as free — only the illusion of it. And F2P games do that illusion very well.

i would like to think there are some games that are an exception to this rule


What about path of exile or Team fortress 2 models. Only cosmetic items are purchasable. Both games seem rather profitable.

I think the next real big mmo success will be purchasable (seller could make it free) user made content – whether it be quests, dungeons, cosmetic items or even building schematics if player housing is present.


I’ve always felt the pricing on subs is a bit too steep. Paying $100 for the game then paying 30 odd bucks a month for a sub is too much. Either the games should be free and the sub expensive or charge full price for the game and the sub should be cheap.


It’s not a fair statement to say F2P will always be worse than Subs, you even go on to say that there are good F2P games in the next paragraph. This opinion piece shows just one game in which you think F2P is poorly implemented, and the only benefit you had to subs is a budgeting one (a point you didn’t really elaborate on).

Why is there no mention of TF2, DOTA2, Path of exhile or Planetside 2? All of which are excellent examples of how F2P can work. The flaw isn’t in the system, but how the it is implemented.



Out of curiosity what games are $30/m? I think EVE and WoW are ~US$15 (although a quick look has EVE on special for $8-10/m at the moment).

I can’t remember what I paid for WoW at release so not sure if it fell into the cheap buy price or not. From what I can see you can get WoW Vanilla, TBC, WotLK, Cataclysm for US$30 in a pack and then buy MoP on top of that.



Usual $15/month subscription for TESO. The base game is expensive from AU stores, but deals can be had online (I paid $60).

Only way I can think of a sub that reached near $30 a month in sub fees would be when the AU dollar was very low on a $20/month game or something?


While I appreciate you playing devil’s advocate on the ‘F2P is the future’ argument, and understand why you looked specifically at MMOs, there are definitely titles where players ‘win’ in the F2P market.

I’d argue DotA2 and PoE are probably some of the best examples, allowing you full access to the game, with the ‘cash’ items being predominantly cosmetic and a way of supporting the devs. I’d also put LoL in this category, but understand that for some, not having the full roster from the start is ‘limiting’ the player and ‘pushes’ them to invest money to buy champions. Either way, all three can be played and enjoyed fully without investing any money, and if you don’t, you won’t be at a disadvantage to those who have (assuming all things are equal).

Although I have played neither TF2 or Planetside 2 in quite some time, I’d argue that while you can no doubt enjoy both games without investing money, you definitely get an ‘edge’ by doing so. I had a couple of friends invest decent chunks of money into Planetside 2 to unlock stuff because the rate at which you obtained certs was pretty damn low. Obviously it is personal choice as to whether you invest, but it definitely felt like the system encouraged it (more so than other titles at least).

Ultimately, I think F2P has its place, and as it has been said, it really depends on its implementation. Alternatively, if you make a solid enough title, then a subscription can be warranted, however I am personally yet to find one since Rift, which is now also F2P. If your product fails to fit into either of those ‘categories’, it seems like a Guild Wars 2 buy to play approach would be better; given today’s ‘market’, it is one hell of a hard sell to get subscription through on a mediocre gaming experience.


The author really seemed to be focusing on MMORPG’s more so than general free to play games. I don’t think any games outside of MMORPG’s have ever actually had a sub?

I personally don’t see how people can put them in the same category as moba and fps titles.

I’m pretty much the same in regards to the games he listed. I think the only 2 free to play mmorpg’s I enjoyed were lotro and rift.


Neither myself, nor anyone i game with has any objection to paying $15 a month to play an MMO (seriously, a large meal from KFC is what now? $13?), the problem is that the game needs to be WORTH PAYING FOR!

The problem is not with the sub model, it’s with the quality of the games that are being released, the reason the majority of F2P increased their profits after the change is that they were too mediocre to pay for but people are a sucker for shinies.

IMO the best model needs to be a sub with some form of buyable content, the problem is that it can’t be content that effects the game (and that includes changing armour appearances). I’m so sick of ideas like in Neverwinter where gold is basically useless and the only currency that matters is the one you’re time restricted in farming and most people end up buying.

no to paid bag slots

no to paid areas

no to purchased currency as the auction house medium.

I’m honestly starting to hate the idea of any games that have the ability for you to purchase things with real money, restrict that shit to non-combat pets and sparkling no-stat sunglasses.


nekosan: (seriously, a large meal from KFC is what now? $13?), the problem is that the game needs to be WORTH PAYING FOR!

Yeah pretty much. Food we’re always going to need. An MMO is a luxury product so it should be the best god damn thing ever to justify $15 a month. In my eyes that’s 3 other Indie games a month I could’ve otherwise bought for the price of this one game per month. So it’d have to be pretty god damn fantastic.

With the way TOR did their F2P is mindbogglingly stupid. Having to pay for basic UI courtesies is just not on. I can barely tolerate the inventory/bank slots pay system in most F2P games these days.. Nevermind how ludicrously unfair TORs out of the box inventory slots are to begin with.. like seriously how the fuck you expect me to carry shit when I have only 2 bars of inventory and you keep shoving trash loots in my face all the damn time. And that was even bad when it was on Sub.

The best thing for TESO to do is drop the sub entirely. They’re already going to do the pay to play per race thing so maybe they should just stick with that as their business model and not go any further, I mean it worked for LOTRO and it seems TESO is being setup to go that way anyway. The other idea would be to keep going with the whole paid mounts thing, not sure if that would annoy more people in the end though. But I think the worst thing for them to do and lets not rule this out entirely is that they’re going to force you to pay for new regions… which having looked at the way the world map is structured atm looks like that’s something they are considering doing.. which is very concerning.

I hope that Wildstar is able to sustain the sub model a lot better, its using EVE Onlines Plex system.


What about path of exile or Team fortress 2 models.Only cosmetic items are purchasable.Both games seem rather profitable.

I think the next real big mmo success will be purchasable (seller could make it free) user made content – whether it be quests, dungeons, cosmetic items or even building schematics if player housing is present.

First Point: TF2 is NOT only cosmetic. You have not seen the shop latly if you think its still like that. Path Of Exile, I am not sure on. :P

Second Point: May I point you to EverQuest Next? It is pretty much what you are talking about. At least, from what I have seen, it is.

Also, EVE players kind of do that alrady. The game is based around the players doing everything, and this makes for really interesting story’s. They have a section on the EVE website where players can do story’s about things that have happened to them in EVE. Some of them are about massive battles, why others are about spying, or just about random things that have happened.


I hope that Wildstar is able to sustain the sub model a lot better, its using EVE Onlines Plex system.

The reason EVE works is because the whole market is player based, so the price is dictated by the players them self. It will be interesting to see how Wild Star pull it off, but I don’t think it will be as well as what EVE has done. You need to remember that EVE is in a class of its own. The whole player base of EVE is different to every other MMO out there, simply due to the way EVE is.


Totally agree with the last bit. Games with subs should not need cash shops. Simple as that. Your already paying a sub, so why should you have to pay more?


Just so you know, any game you own on STEAM, Uplay, Orgin, or even physically are technically a one off subscription fee. I am note sure how far this goes back, but its a pretty stranded thing now.

I was going to mention some none MMO games, but decided against it for that reason. You really can’t put them in the same basket. Different games, different ways of doing things.


All games with subs in Aus are $15 AU per month. There are no games that have a $30 AU sub, as far as I know. If you find one, point me to it. Otherwise, don’t scream and shout.



All games with subs in Aus are $15 AU per month. There are no games that have a $30 AU sub, as far as I know. If you find one, point me to it. Otherwise, don’t scream and shout.

This really depends on the company. In my experience, it has been based off USD, so the price fluctuates a bit as the dollar rises and falls. Furthermore, some companies (cough squaresoft cough) put their monthly fees in Euros for Australian players, which are then converted to AUD. A basic, one character per realm account was costing me $16-17 per month, while the USD price for the same service was ~$12.

In regards to the targeted subject matter (ie MMO focus), I don’t think it is unfair for others to compare other non-MMO F2P games, as the term/model is so broad now. Furthermore, when you consider Planetside 1 was a Subscription game, it makes Planetside 2 a legitimate contender even under the MMO or ‘subscription’ game market.

That said, if Jagji addressed all facets of the F2P market, it would have made for one long and possibly convoluted article, so that is where us readers can discuss and fill in the gaps. :)


TF2′s Store is primarily cosmetic items which you can earn for yourself by playing the game. Things like crate keys are not essential, don’t grant any items with an advantage over any other player and the keys themselves can be traded with other players. You don’t need to spend a cent to be competitive in the game.

Article is kind of a no-brainer to me. Some F2P games have better item shops than others, some give more for your subscription than others and the quality of the game can’t be assessed based on their F2P or sub status.

Basically the whole article can be summarised thus: Some games are better value than others. Not really that surprising, is it?


Come to think of it, it has been many years since I held a sub, my $30 figure is me reliving the old days of U.S. 60 cents to one Aus dollar before our dollar matched the US dollar.

Seems most are US $15 or 13 Euros (which is about $20 Aus) a month, which is reasonable at the moment, problem is if our dollar falls again our price starts to rise again.


For me it is not so much “better” but “value for money”. I’ve played a lot of games that are both sub or F2P and the funding mechanic typically has little to do with my enjoyment in the game. For me the bigger issue is game time…bear with me. If I’m paying AU$15-20 a month for a game, and I bought the game for AU$100 (or whatever) I feel obligated to play more of the game to justify the expense.

When I was playing WoW, if I didn’t log in for a week I’d feel like I had to “catch up”. My main game these days is Guild Wars 2, following on from Guild Wars 1. These aren’t games for everyone, but I can play it as often or as little as I like and it isn’t deducting cash out of my wallet or making me feel like I’m wasting money. If I want to spend real money on gems, I can do that too.

I think you’re splitting hairs with the defence of your article. It is based on a gross generalisation. There are some truly terrific f2p titles, and there are some really arse backwards terrible f2p titles (SW:TOR). Both f2p and sub games need to attract players to raise funds.



A game has to be pretty goddamn fantastic to be required to pay $15 a month for it, just $3.75 a week, really? what has todays gamers become…

Reading that honestly made me sick..


whiskiz: A game has to be pretty goddamn fantastic to be required to pay $15 a month for it, just $3.75 a week, really? what has todays gamers become…

Reading that honestly made me sick..

Go to hell then you shill. Meanwhile I’ll be paying my Electricity and Rent for the month. I don’t know about the rest of you but I don’t have $15 a month to go throw away at some shit house MMO like TESO, I’d rather ensure my family has lights.


jagji: First Point: TF2 is NOT only cosmetic. You have not seen the shop latly if you think its still like that. Path Of Exile, I am not sure on. :P

Path of exile definitely is just cosmetic – still playing it. But it has been ages since i’ve played TF2 it used to be just the hats at least that is what my memory recalls. I humbly take TF2 off the table and offer Dota2 instead :P

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