After 13 years, Sony Online Entertainment has made the decision to turn their flagship product, EverQuest, into a free-to-play game. This isn’t terribly surprising considering the state of play right now in the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) industry. In fact, EverQuest II had already made the same decision months earlier, and had seen its numbers increase.
It used to be the conventional wisdom that designing your game as free-to-play was a sign of a lower quality product, and that premium titles just didn’t do that. The big boys used to laugh at upstarts like Runescape, a free-to-play game with primitive graphics and packed with millions of homicidal teenagers. That is, until they hit one million registered players and started upselling additional content.
Then for a while it was considered a failure when a game designed to be subscription-based later made the decision to go free to play, with upsells, or velvet rope features. But then games like DC Universe Online and Lord of the Rings Online saw huge increases in players when making that decision, and, lo and behold, became profitable.
SOE’s John Smedley saw all this coming back in 2005 when he created Free Realms. I was fortunate enough to have been the producer on that game for the first six months of its development, although the game they finally released in 2009 bears little resemblance to what the very small team I was leading had accomplished when I left.
Even the 800-lb gorilla called World of Warcraft is free to play now, for the first 20 levels, at least. The guys over at Penny Arcade wrote a comic speculating about the impending free-to-play status of Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game with a rumored budget over $300 million (and supposedly 700 developers!)
If you follow the EQ link you can see the particular strategy that EQ has taken for its velvet rope. Personally, I think they are going to make a ton of money (again). It’s a good game, with all its quirks; it was in many ways the one that started the MMO revolution (although there were others before it) and I’m proud to have had a small part in its development.
But this seemingly unthinkable change does make some people in my profession nervous. I’m working at a studio dedicated to making a premium MMO and the landscape has changed significantly since we started this endeavor. For those who have read (or seen the movie) Moneyball, you may recall the reactions of the scouts and other baseball personnel when Billy Beane started implementing his new ideas. These things are often messy.