Pay to Play vs Free to Play


MMOs have been around for over a decade, but they weren’t always given the respect and popularity that they currently hold. Originally exclusive to the PC, MMOs were playing second fiddle to adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. With the advent of online services such as Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, even more games began to fall under the umbrella of Massively Multiplayer Online game, but for those that began with Everquest, Runescape, or Ultima Online, MMOs will always refer to epic RPGs that take place in an epic, expansive world. Thanks in large part to World of Warcraft, the MMO style became one of the most popular types of videogame in the world, with many companies creating their own MMO experience. As the market became more and more crowded, the Pay to Play subscription model became less feasible. As the Free to Play model started to show promise, many MMOs that released as subscription games swapped to the Free to Play model. But which version is better for the player? Certainly it would be preferable not to have a pay to play a game, but freedom comes with a price. Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of each option.

Pay to Play

The subscription model is the plan adopted by the most successful MMO of all time: World of Warcraft. Once boasting over 10 million subscribers at a $15 monthly subscription, the amount of money earned by the game is astronomical. Unfortunately, World of Warcraft is a bit of a big fish in a small pond. Due to the massive number of players subscribed to World of Warcraft, it’s become nearly impossible for other games to sustain the model. Games like Rift, Aion, and Star Wars: The Old Republic have all adopted the free to play model in recent years to varying degrees of success. While there’s very little notable difference in quality between Pay to Play and Free to Play games, players that are paying a subscription often have unlimited access to everything in the game, though aesthetic pieces can be purchased from in-game shops. As a less quantifiable bonus, you never have to wrestle with yourself when playing a subscription based game. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waged an internal war about whether or not it’s really worth $5 just to color my armor red (spoiler alert: it is).


  • Players are able to take advantage of everything in the game except certain options that are purely aesthetic
  • Never struggle with whether or not you should buy that armor color pack


  • Monthly subscription (usually $15) costs about $180 a year to play the game, the retail price of three new games
  • Difference in quality not necessarily worth extra price tag

Free to Play

The Free to Play model carries a bit of an undeserved stigma. When a game that was previously subscription based goes free to play, the gaming community often regards it as a failure, as though it wasn’t good enough to keep a large subscription base. While this is partially true, the decision to go free to play is rarely because a game isn’t good enough, and is certainly not a failure. For example, Star Wars: The Old Republic adopted a hybrid Free to Play model (most Free to Play games offer a subscription option; why wouldn’t you take that money if you could?) and ended up making $139 million from its in-game store, the Cartel Market. This in addition to the money earned from subscriptions makes Star Wars: The Old Republic one of the highest earning videogames in the world. Of course, it’s almost impossible to mention the Free to Play business model without talking about the most popular videogame in the world, League of Legends. With earnings in excess of $600 million, it’s hard to think that Free to Play games are failures. Unfortunately, this money has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it comes from developers denying their player base or hindering them in certain ways. League of Legends does a fantastic job of primarily enticing players with skins, purely aesthetic items that have no bearing on gameplay. However, Star Wars: The Old Republic handicaps the rate at which Free to Play players earn experience points, meaning it will take these players much longer to reach the level cap and the endgame content. Free to Play players also suffer restrictions to their inventory space and the amount of money they’re allowed to carry at any given time.


  • Are you kidding? It’s free!
  • Microtransactions allow players to maximize the efficiency of their dollar


  • Players are often hindered or handicapped to entice them to pay money
  • Each transaction becomes a cost-benefit analysis

If I’m completely honest, I really can’t make a convincing argument for a Pay to Play game, unless it’s the only option. If you’re a Warcraft fan and you’ve played World of Warcraft your whole life, then by all means, keep paying, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the game. But if you have no allegiance to a particular title or you’re just starting to browse the different MMO options, I can’t recommend a Free to Play game highly enough. As the model has grown in popularity and acceptance, it has also become more refined. Very few games suffer from the “Pay to Win” problems that early microtransactions introduced, and developers have become adept at balancing the differences between subscribers and Free to Play players. Most Free to Play games are so good that it’s hard to justify the price of subscribing, especially since the only thing subscribing tends to save you is time. If you’re a hardcore MMO player who logs upwards of 15 hours a week, then the price of subscription is likely worth it for you. The unrestricted access will allow you to play for hours on end and never run out of things to do or restrict the amount of grinding and farming you can accomplish. However, if you’re a more casual fan who plays when you feel like it, you’re really not missing out on enough to merit almost $200 a year.