Pay to Play vs Free to Play – Why WildStar Needs its Business Model

Pay to Play vs Free to Play – Why WildStar Needs its Business Model

Posted by on May 20, 2014 in Featured, Opinion | 4 comments

The topic comes up a lot, almost daily on the forums and elsewhere. The discussion almost always assuredly ends in one of two ways,  either that the people championing F2P are too cheap or the P2P business model will fail in similar fashion like others that have tried it. Neither stance is very constructive and don’t touch on why different games have different business models. Let’s take a look!


First,we need a little history. Let’s travel back into the late 90s and early 2000s. The MMO business was in its infancy with the likes of Ultima Online and a few years later, Everquest. Both games were new to the industry and both were testing the waters with what we know now as the typical MMO development cycle and payment model. What these developers quickly noticed during initial development was that simply selling boxed copies of their game, no matter how successfully so, would not cover the cost of sustaining their playerbase.


MMOs are expensive to run, very expensive. Here are the most glaring costs:

Servers. Many, many servers. They’re obviously used to host individual parts of the game world on each “realm”, but these days we also need dedicated instance, PvP and login servers as well. Not to mention servers for website hosting or billing. Running a server farm isn’t cheap, nor are the engineers that you pay 24/7 to monitor and maintain them.
Development costs. MMOs not only take a long time to initially develop (WildStar took nearly 9 years), but they also require continual development after release. Where most developers (even online multiplayer games) move their members on to other projects after release, MMOs need them to stick around and often grow in size as development needs increase. This is in stark contrast to other online genres such as shooters, RTSs and MOBAs.
Community, customer support and other miscellaneous staffing. Where publishers or a small team within the developer typically pick up the support role in most genres, MMOs require a significantly larger support team. There’s many reasons for the disparity, but it mainly boils down to the fact that continual development equates to continual support.


The minds at SOE and EA settled on subsidizing the above costs with a monthly subscription. It worked well, Everquest was wildly popular in the PC scene (for the time) and Ultima continued to grow. The constant cash flow ensured future content released on a somewhat regular schedule. Said content was nearly entirely focused on end-game PvE. Structured PvP, solo content and the general idea of novelty item collection hadn’t come to be yet.


Next up,we have the current business models today. There’s three, used to varying degrees of success.

Free to Play. Arguably the most common business model when we look at new releases. In most cases, the game is fully opened to all players at no cost, with optional perks, gear, bag space and other similar items up for purchase via real world cash. Players using the cash shop subsidize the cost of the nonpaying players.
Buy to Play. Seemingly the only games using this model come from the Guild Wars series. The idea here is to charge for the initial copy of the game and nothing else, no subscription fee! Continual development, server costs and staffing are subsidized by in-game purchases, similar to the free to play model. It’s worth noting that there aren’t any “pay to win” aspects with their cash shop that give players an edge in GW2′s focus, PvP.
Pay to Play. The one that started it all. It consists of an initial box cost and a recurring monthly subscription. Cash shops are typically nonexistent or very limited in scope. The idea is that all content and quality of life items are made available to all paying players.


Some claim that Pay to Play is dying, I disagree wholeheartedly. The titans in the genre (at least in the west) are mostly all Pay to Play. We obviously have WoW still using it with millions upon millions paying that monthly subscription. We have EVE that’s still kicking strong to this day, still growing in population. Then there’s the fact that the nearly 17 year old Ultima Online and nearly 15 year old Everquest still continue to charge subscription fees while delivering content updates and expansions. Before anyone points it out, yes, I realize that these are older titles. Let’s get real though, there hasn’t been a solid Pay to Play effort in the MMO space for a long while. (Most) games that have released with a subscription model in the last five or so years have indeed failed or reverted to Free to Play. However, were those games a valid effort with a polished and fulfilling endgame to keep players around? I don’t think so. SWTOR had an absolutely horrendous release riddled with bugs and a lack of endgame content. Rift is another that seemingly failed to deliver on other points, mainly optimization and the lack of any defining traits in contrast to the rest of the genre. I’m not going to dwell on the others, as their fates were similar.

What has made WoW, Everquest, EVE and the others successful with subscriptions, even to this day? Polish, content, defining characteristics and direction.


Let’s bring it home,different business models suit various games in different ways. What may work for one does not necessarily mean it will work for all. What are WildStar’s two headlining features? Great combat and a thorough, challenging and continually updated endgame. If we look at the core philosophy of most Free to Play games we often see the opposite. We see an enthralling leveling process that often nudges (or hurls in some cases) players to their cash shop for quality of life improvements. When it comes to endgame, they’re almost always seemingly lacking, many times avoiding it completely. These games need micro transactions to survive, and endgame certainly isn’t where the money is at. Bag space, bank space, cosmetics and experience boosts is where they find it.

Take that Free to Play philosophy and apply it to WildStar. What do we get? We get a game that claims focus on competitive and challenging play, but with a cash shop. Suddenly the mats you need to craft optimal gear are behind a paywall, your precious bag space while raiding quickly fills up unless you pony up the cash and your best-in-slot raid gear intentionally looks bland because all the cool looking skins are in the cash shop (gee, thanks for rewarding my effort). Almost forgot! All those nifty decor and mount customization items? Yup, paywalled.

Most importantly we have developmental resource allotment. For a game that focuses on the endgame as hard as WildStar does, do you want designers suddenly splitting off from endgame content to focus on the real moneymakers, cosmetic items? By a mile, that’s what generates the most income for Free to Play titles. Would you rather have focused development on fancy clothes and endgame as an afterthought, or have focused, continual endgame content released on a regular basis? I sure as hell know what I want.

What we’re getting at here is that WildStar needs their Pay to Play business model. The developers claim to strive for the best endgame experience they can offer. Sweet! They need manpower and a steady stream of income to achieve it. This is where your $15.00 (or less in other countries) comes in. In exchange for that 50 cents or less per day, you’re given everything the game has to offer. More importantly, you’re given the most fair, balanced and focused endgame content possible.

Carbine needs our money, and from what I’ve seen so far, I’m happy to give it to them.


Oh, and did I forget to mention C.R.E.D.D.? You know, that thing where you can pay for game time with in-game currency? Yeah, that exists.

  • Jack Turner

    Great Article. I agree with the Pay to Play model completely, if they’re going to provide us with great end game content and regular content updates they can have my money.

  • Cobblars

    100% – I have no problem spending money each month to help support my hobby. However, like all investments, you want to see a reward for that loyalty and as you describe, this needs to be in the shape and form of regular content updates.

    There is nothing worse than clearing all available content knowing you are still a few months away from anything different appearing onto the horizon. This only encourages players to drift in and out of the game and to finally find themselves not bothering to come back.

  • Tom

    Depends what you consider F2P. If you don’t subscribe, you don’t get your max level abilities. It pretty much bars you from the only source of endgame content in Everquest, raiding.

  • Tom

    Agreed, the “less” terminology was used in reference to the actual number, not the current values of different currency!