Free 2 Play vs Pay 2 Play Games

When it comes to online games, they come in one of a few different flavors: free to play, buy to play and pay to play. Through this article we are going to look at some examples of each, as well as the pros and cons, based on how things have been changing as of lately. By the end, you should have a full understanding as to why things are not necessarily as they seem, and you should be able to make much better decisions as to what type is right for you!

Pay to Play

Pay to play games are usually bought up front, and then have subscriptions tacked on. When one of these games is first released, they usually run anywhere from fifty dollars up in to the hundreds (depending on whether or not you want the collector's edition, where available). To help compensate for this high cost, they almost always come with a “free” thirty days of subscription time. The first thing I want to do is to help get rid of this idea of the free subscription time, because it is most definitely not free!

When you purchase the game, you are purchasing the time along with it. If the subscription time were not required to be bought along with the game, it would be fifteen dollars less than it is now! This means if you were to be playing a game that offers reduced subscription prices for paying more up front, you would actually save money by not having the first thirty days bound to the copy of the game. In other words, you are paying for this time, and (in most cases) at a higher price than you would be paying normally.

This idea of “free game time” appears to be just to make people feel better. Mentally, we look at the two options: one being fourty five dollars and requiring a subscription for fifteen, and the other being sixty dollars and having the first month subscription built in, and our brains tell us the latter is the same deal, when in actuality both of these would be equal. This is what has led people on to the notion of free game time, when really it could not be further from the truth.

Now, away from that tangent, on to subscription costs. Games handle the costs differently, but the main options are as follows:

  • A price for a month to month subscription
  • A reduced price for purchasing more months at a time (three months being cheaper than one month, six being cheaper than three, etc.)
  • A lifetime subscription (this one is actually pretty rare. When it is offered, usually it will be based on around an eighteen month subscription in value)

What these subscription types do is fund the publishers (and developers, if they are separate) of the games on a monthly basis. This gives a somewhat consistent income that allows them to easily know how much can be budgeted for different aspects of their company, such as art, marketing, etc. This is the big reason behind the longer subscription options and having discounts; by giving this option, you are giving them more money in a single payment. Were you to pay on a month to month plan, you would have a bigger chance to drop the game at any point, but if you have already paid for, say a year long plan, you have already paid it up. This gives the company much less risk of losing revenue, and they pass that on to you in the form of a discount.

Traditionally, the pay to play model has been attributed to the AAA titles, being that they cost a lot to create and release (for example, some games take 5+ years with many employees. Rift was stated to cost around 80 million dollars). While there have been some less than stellar games that have released with monthly subscriptions as well, the general consensus is that if there is no subscription fee, it is probably not going to be a very good game. Of course this does not always prove to be true, and in some cases games that used to charge end up going free to play. But in most cases we have found that it is in fact true.

Buy to Play

Games that are considered as “buy to play” are those that you purchase but do not have any required ongoing fees. An example of this would be Defiance. There are also some other games that followed the same method, like Guild Wars 2. The idea behind it is that by purchasing the game, you are helping to support the developers. They then have other add ons and things in their cash shop that allow them to get additional revenue from the players that are interested in those things. For the players that just want to buy the game and do not want to put any money in to anything else with it, they can usually play just fine without buying extras. In the case of Guild Wars 2, for example, anything you can buy for cash is either cosmetic or is simply a convenience item – something that makes the game a little less boring or speeds up certain processes, without becoming a necessity in order to keep in competition with the other players.

The buy to play method is not very common. Usually games will use one of the others. Guild Wars 2 and Guild Wars 1 were both run under this method, and both games have had a thriving community as a result. It is worth noting, though, that traditionally the buy to play games came with slower updates, as a result of less funding (due to players not being forced to throw money at the game every month). Guild Wars 2 has shown that this is not really needed, and that with proper marketing and a great sales shop, the company can easily make enough money to fund the game and future updates, without having to slack off.

It is also worth noting that usually the buy to play games charge for extra expansion packs that bring on new content, like new zones and classes. Again, this is not always the case, but more often than not it is. For example, at this point we are still not sure what is going to happen with Guild Wars 2. There has been no information released about an expansion yet, but most players do expect one since the original Guild Wars had one. When and if this is released, we can assume that there is going to be a fee attached, likely $29.99 or so (as is the norm for these things). Essentially the expansions are set up in such a way that they offer more content and push players to buy in to them, but are usually not a necessity and so there is still some choice there.

Expansions can also come in the pay to play games, as well. Usually these are released as free content, being that you are paying almost $15 a month for the majority of games, but in some cases they can also come with an additional fee. A couple of games that come to mind that use this mind set are Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft. The game Rift also worked in the same manner in the beginning, up until the game switched over to a free to play model. In any case, the paid expansions are not always a sign of a buy to play game, but they usually are.

Free to Play

Free to play games are generally more low quality games that are designed around finding a way to entice players in to purchasing items out of a cash shop. These are the games that are often classified as “pay to win,” where there are items being sold that really make a difference in how competitive players are among one another. A big reason for this is that the game company needs to get income from somewhere, and usually they feel that the best way to make this happen is to take away the choices, and instead allow people to feel as if they are making the choice to buy, when in actuality the game is forcing them to do it. This gives a lot of these games a more low quality feel, and turns away many players that would otherwise enjoy playing a new game. For most of us, there is just not as much fun in a game where cash is what determines who is the strongest and there is no way to compete with it.

These games are also often low quality when it comes to their design, layout and content. Being that the games are released as free to play games, meaning there is no initial cost, the game developers have to take care of everything without a nice bankroll (unless they are being financed by existing games they have created in the past or by investors). The effect of this is that you end up with what is, for the most part, a lower quality team, and the games and their quality show. Some players love the feel of these games, and others try to avoid them at all costs. I think a big part of it is determined by the games each person is used to and what they are looking for in their next journey.

When we talk about free to play games being lower quality than the other forms, there is one important note to make: we are not talking about the AAA titles that have gone free to play. Games like Rift, TERA and SWTOR are all free to play now, but all of them are still up to high quality standards. We can assume that this is derived from the fact that they were all created with massive budgets, had solid teams, and were originally launched as a pay to play game, so they have also earned a lot to put aside for the future expansion. This is no way means that the free to play model is going to work well for them, but rather that the games themselves, and those that are behind them, are definitely high quality.

The Hidden Costs

Players often skip the hidden costs when they are looking at how much they are going to be spending to play their games. While we have this idea that free to play games should be, well, free, that is not always the case. Along with this, buy to play games often have their own tricks as well. And, as of lately, even the pay to play games are coming with their own cash shops. Understanding the hidden costs to playing these games is important, as it really helps to put things in to perspective.

First of all, probably the best way to financially prepare for any game, when dealing with MMOs, is to budget for it whether you plan to pay anything or not. If you are in a pay to play game, budget $15 a month for it. If you are in one of the others, budget the same amount (or slightly less if you wish). Generally speaking, it is just more efficient to go ahead and assume that it is going to cost you $15 a month. Even if you do not end up spending that much, having it set aside in case you do is important.

When we look at the pay to play games, for example, and the costs required in order to keep up with your competitors, you can look at it in terms of how much you would be paying anyways, were you to be in a pay to play game. In this case, you can say that if you end up needing less than $15 a month in order to keep up with your competition, you are playing a game that is cheaper than going with a pay to play variant. At the same time, if you are spending more than this, it ends up being more expensive than the alternative. To keep things on the same level, though, you will want to focus on spending about the same amount you would be anyways. This actually helps keep yourself budgeted and on track, and it also makes moving to a new game and transitioning much easier, since it will not matter if you go to a pay to play game, being that you already have the money set aside. All you will be doing is altering where that money is going (from the old game to the new one). So in reality, you can spend the same amount.

The hidden costs come from the cash shops, where players are often nickle and dimed. It is easy to forget how much money you have already spent and keep it going. There have been people that spend hundreds of dollars a month on their games, and some are not even aware that it is happening. With pay to play games this usually does not happen, just because there are rarely any items that are needed in order to play, and therefore there is a lack of motivation behind spending extra (and this makes it much harder to spend more than you plan to). It is always important to keep your budget in mind, know what you are spending and how that compares to what you are able to spend. Getting in debt over a game is a bad idea, and being meticulous about how much you spend, how you spend it and where you spend it is an important part of keeping this from happening.


All online MMOs are going to come in one of three forms: buy to play, pay to play or free to play. Each of these comes with its own pros and cons, and there are great titles of each type. Understanding the type of game you are playing and where the financial motive for the game company comes from helps follow the game's decisions in terms of how it runs. For a game that is free, for example, it is usually going to have to try to get players to purchase items in the cash shop by offering up awesome items that really push the bar and alter the game play enough to make it worth being bought. This creates a pay to win scenario, where the players with the most cash are often much more competitive than those that are not willing to throw down money in to the game. On the other hand, games that run subscriptions usually do not have any cash shop at all, and those that do simply offer up items that are cosmetic or do not really alter the game play, such that you are just as competitive whether you buy in to cash shop items or not, and your game play is not going to be negatively affected by not doing it.

Really, when it really comes down to it, there is no right or wrong revenue method. Different players like different types. Some love the pay to win method, for example, while others will completely avoid games and move in that direction. It is really up to you to decide which one you like more and then follow that. Just be aware that even in the same type, different games may take different approaches. TERA, for example, was a pay to play game that still had a cash shop that had some pretty big impacts on the game play (and, while it did not create a pay to win scenario, it still made a big enough difference that a lot of players were buying items off of it and it did affect the economy). Just stick with what you like and you will be fine!


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