Psychological Advantages of F2P

by Tyler Edwards, July 12, 2013

The last few years have seen a seismic shift in the way MMOs operate. For a long time, it was just assumed that a game required a subscription to play. The exceptions were low quality imports with greedy monetization schemes designed to rob players blind.

But now, everything is reversed. The subscription model is in heavy decline, and free to play (F2P) - along with its cousin, buy to play, which has players buy the game but then requires no fee to keep playing - has become the dominant way of doing business for much of the industry. Even high quality games are going F2P left and right, and only a handful of old guard games - most notably the venerable World of Warcraft - are still holding onto their subscription fees.

Whether this change is good for MMO players or not is the subject of hot debate, and that question won't be resolved today. But we can look at why the model has become so popular with developers and players alike. There are certain advantages, many purely psychological, that make F2P games feel more welcoming than games with subscription fees.

For those who are anxious about the rise of F2P, or those who just want a better understanding of why the model got so big so quickly, this article will discuss some of the benefits that make the F2P model inviting to gamers.

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Free to play... or not

One of the greatest advantages of F2P is the freedom to not play a game.

Now, that sounds pretty strange, doesn't it? If you enjoy the game, you want to play it. What's the advantage of being able to not play it?

One is that most people these days don't play just one MMO. In the early days of the genre, there simply weren't that many games, so it made sense to devote yourself to just one. But these days, there are dozens of MMOs, and many MMO fans now split their time between at least two or three different games - not counting any single player games they might also dabble in.

A fifteen dollar a month subscription is pretty easy for anyone to afford, but when you play more than one MMO, subscription games become very expensive. Fifteen dollars a month may be cheap, but sixty dollars a month isn't. F2P allows players to split their attention between multiple MMOs without breaking the bank.

There's also a subtle element of psychology at play. Paying a subscription for a game can lead to a feeling of obligation, a notion that not playing a game you've already paid for is wasting money. Even if you can easily afford the subscription cost, the little nagging feeling of money being wasted any time you spend your free time on something else can be stressful. Even if you enjoy the game, it can start to feel more like an obligation than a hobby.

The knowledge that you're free to leave a game at any time without wasting money can be surprisingly liberating. You don't have to feel guilty for "wasting" time on a different game, or putting down the games and doing something else entirely, and when you do play, you know you're doing it because you enjoy it, not because you feel obligated to justify the expense.

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The power is in your hands

Let's make one thing clear: There's no such thing as a free game. Even a F2P game with incredibly lenient monetization is probably going to end up taking some of your money sooner or later. In many cases, players may end up spending at least as much on "free" games as they do on games requiring a subscription fee.

But with F2P games, the amount you spend is entirely up to you. You get to decide what's worth paying for. You decide when and how you spend on your game of choice.

Again, it's not so much a question of what will save you money as it is a question of what's more psychologically palatable. It just feels better when the power to decide what you pay is in your hands, not those of a faceless corporation. Even if you're not actually spending much less in a F2P game, it feels better to be making the choice yourself.


When you buy virtual goods or services in a F2P game, it provides more immediate gratification, too. A subscription fee goes to keeping servers running and development of new content. That's certainly a good thing, but it's very abstract. You don't see the connection between your payments and the game's growth, so the cost just ends up feeling like a tax on your right to keep playing.

But if you're buying items, mounts, or account services, you know what you've paid for. You get immediate and noticeable perks for your support of the game. It makes parting with your cash a much more palatable process - which may be why games experience such spikes in profit after going F2P.

Finally, one key difference between a F2P game and a game with a subscription is the issue of permanence. You can sink hundreds of dollars into a traditional subscription game over the years, but the moment you stop paying, you lose access to everything you've paid for. To say that developers are holding your characters hostage might be a little melodramatic, but the fact remains that you can't play any of the characters you worked so hard on until you pay again.

In a F2P game, items you pay for are yours until the game ceases to operate. You don't lose access to anything you've accumulated if you stop paying. Your characters and all your items are waiting for you any time you choose to return.

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It keeps games thriving

Dropping the subscription fee has helped many a previously struggling MMO get back on its feet and thrive again. Many games have reported massive uptakes in revenue after going F2P, and games like Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online have shown the model can be sustainable over the long haul, too.

This is obviously good news for developers, but it's also good news for players. It means your favorite game can keep running and keep producing new content. It might even accelerate the pace at which new content is added, though some of that content might just be updates to the cash shop.

We can't know for sure if all the myriad games that have gone F2P in the last few years would have been doomed if they'd kept their subscriptions, but they wouldn't have made the change if they didn't believe it would be good for the games' long term health, and the extra money in the developers' coffers can only be good news for the games' fans.

F2P brings in many new players, too, and that can only help the health of any game. More players means more tanks for your dungeon runs, more foes to vanquish in PvP, more people keeping the world alive, and more new friends to make.

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Understanding the appeal

All this is not to say that F2P is a perfect system. There are still more than a few games out there that are just blatant rip offs, and even the more player friendly F2P models may err too much on the side of greed from time to time.

Subscription only models still have advantages of their own, too. For one thing, it puts all players on a level playing field, with the only things determining their in game success being skill and time commitment. Not all F2P games suffer from the "pay to win" problem, but even when they don't, paying players still end up with minor advantages in the form of greater conveniences.

But the sudden and dramatic rise of F2P shows that it holds a lot of appeal for many people. Ultimately, it's not even so much a case of saving money as it is a case of what feels more friendly and accommodating to players. It's a psychological difference as much as it is a financial one.

F2P games just feel easier to get into. They feel more like a hobby than an obligation, and they don't demand you focus all your attention on them.

Given that, it's easier to understand why the F2P model has become so popular so quickly.