Free MMORPG business model: AO and Knight

Funcom’s Anarchy online is the first big name MMO to open up its service to non-paying customers.

This is the second company to open their high development cost MMO to non-paying customers in the attempt to get revenue from them after they join. Knight Online became “Free-2-Play” with the intention of marketing its “Power Up” store as a means of paying cash for gameplay advantage.

Now, with Funcom, we have the same model, only they’re pushing the sale of their Expansion pack content. As of now, they are running this as a marketing campaign that ends 1/15/2005. Players can play the vanilla AO without any of the newer content for free, while access to the Shadowlands and Notum Wars areas coerce you into paying a monthly fee on par with newer MMO’s ($14.95).

Are these companies crazy, or is this sort of marketing a Good Thing for profits? I’m wondering if older MMO’s, like Ultima Online and Evercrack are considering this sort of move now that the Buzz factor surrounding them has died down. Personally, I would hope that this sort of program proves successful for them, I rarely try out a new MMO primarily due to the Buy-In problem created by having to pick up or order a physical copy online.

I think as long as you have the bandwidth, you’re not taking a hit on product distribution (AO is being distributed by BitTorrent), and you don’t expect a hit in the CS department, it can’t do anything but help. No matter how abysmal your conversion rate is, it’s still customers you wouldn’t have any other way. Now, if it starts upping your bandwidth cost, or costing more in support dollars (personally, I’d distribute a client that had in-game support completely turned off as a condition of the free usage) then there’s an obvious break-even point. But until then, it’s probably a good idea (aside from worries about “perceived value” of your product, I suppose).

I’ll try AO again when they pay me 14.95 an hour to play it.

I’m sure there’s a way to make it work, but I’d guess it’d have more to do with having a very very fancy lobby and some clever, transparent use of instancing or something.

That’s really something… a full year of free play. Hope it works out for them, I want funcom to stay in business long enough to release the longest journey2.

It’s definitely interesting. The assumption is that eventually you’ll join a guild and want to either (a) do high level PvE (Shadowlands or Alien Invasion) or (b) PvP (Notum Wars) at which point you turn your account paying.

The kicker would be CS. There’s a vast array of issues that crop up when you don’t ask for verifiable information (like a credit card) before letting someone into your game.

Funcom might have been experiencing flat or negative growth for some time now, so why not give away the basic game? That would be my guess.

I think it’s a solid idea. The players who jump on this offer are likely to be MMO players who are used to paying a monthly fee. Converting them to paying customers won’t be that hard if they like the game.

I also wonder if the release of EQ2 and WoW have anything to do with this?

I jumped AO’s ship when EQ2 came out, along with quite a few other people. From what I understand their lead designer recently left, along with their community manager. I’d be desperate if I was in their shoes. Ironically, AO is a much better game without the Shadowlands expansion, so not getting that as part of the freebie package is actually a bonus.

Does it have flyable spaceships? No? Thanks, but no thanks…and don’t bring up the crap that is JTL. ;)

As for AO, the question is whether the original game without the exp packs is even worth playing for free. And yes, CS is a factor.

I started playing AO about 3 months ago, and it’s enjoyable for me. I got a deal right before the release of the newest expansion (Alien Invasion) – $10 for a 30-day trial of the original game and all previous expansions. Since the newest expansion tends to be weighted towards organizations (guilds), and I knew large guilds aren’t part of my playstyle, I figured I could skip the new content.

I’d recommend anybody who was a fan of original EQ give AO a try. With the free offer, you have nothing to lose but time you would be spending in WoW or EQ2. It would also help if you know people, or are comfortable soloing, because hardly anyone spends time in the original game world (Rubi-Ka). This could change as a result of the free trial. You won’t lack for content with just the original game. Rubi-Ka has a lot more atmosphere than the first expansion (Shadowlands), which added two new classes, a bunch of outdoor environments, and a quasi-mystical set of monsters. On Rubi-Ka, you fight robots, cyborgs, & mutants. In the Shadowlands, you fight sci-fi variants of angels, dragons, and golems, but with guns and lightsabers instead of bows & swords. Shadowlands is repetitive, but the experience value of monsters in the Shadowlands is about twice that of Rubi-Ka. When you have 220 levels to get through (200 in the original game), you can’t blame people for trying to power through some of them.

AO has a steep learning curve, which is part of what appealed to me about EQ. Searching around the official forums will yield lots of useful information and utilities that are not at all apparent in the game itself. I like games that reward you for seeking out obscure information. While the graphics are outdated, I’ve found the game more interesting than the Star Wars MMO, which was pretty, but strangely souless. I originally planned to just play for 3 months (four counting the original 30 day trial), but now I’m thinking about dropping my DAOC account and keeping AO longer.

I’ve put about an hour or so into the game tonight and while it seems basically same as most other MMORPGs it does seem worth the price. I am happy to play for free especially since a couple of my friends are also gonna get down on it. Looking forward to playing more but school work calls for now.

It would be nice if the free trial added population back to RK as I grow tired of hecklers in SL. It is actually more efficient to hit RK and do Lvl 200+ missions once you get into the 120-150 level range though, but people still seem to stick to hecklers until they can move on to Adonis.

Quick, get a priest… he’s talking nonsense, he’s obviously possessed.


Yes, hecklers are boring. I definitely had more fun with my 146 NT running QL 210 missions in Home. Putting my Tier 1 set together was probably the most interesting thing I did in SL. I have a luxury apartment in Jobe that collected dust most of the time; we all hung out in West Athen BY4.

I cancelled my account in May, came back in September to check out AI, then left again. The new starter area was an improvement, but the player cities and alien attacks didn’t really do it for me. Most guilds worth their salt had the cities built on the first day, which made the achievement feel rather hollow. And then we continued to hang out in BY4 anyway.

If FunCom wants to keep this franchise going, they really need to start thinking about making a revamped AO 2, and stop wasting time with these goofy expansions.

God, I hate the new starting area so much. The old one was approximately one million times better.

I don’t know about that. I can see that it might grate on you if you’ve already levelled eight different professions–but if you’d never played before, I would have thought that the addition of some structured quest-based activity would be a benefit. Plus, you actually come out of the starter area with some decent gear. I have to think that’s better than watching the n00bs breeze out of the old training areas in the backyards, many of whom, after doing the minimum amount of work required to get out, immediately proceeded to beg for credits.

/me shrugs.

AO’s model could work. It’s a nice game now they ironed out the bugs, and it could draw in a few people that are tempted to MMPORPG, but haven’t yet persuaded themselves that a monthly fee is for them. The Knight’s model is totally unappealing. I have absolutely no interest in playing a game where people can out-spend me to out-play me.

Quick, get a priest… he’s talking nonsense, he’s obviously possessed.


RK = Rubi-Ka, the original game world.

Missions = Randomly generated dungeons. Was AO’s premier spot for hunting before Shadowlands came out.

Hecklers = Large, blobby green monsters in Shadowlands (the second expansion) that give roughly twice the XP of everything else in the game.

Adonis = The 4th Shadowlands (they’re arranged in order of difficulty) zone out of 6 and the most popular spot for hunting Hecklers from levels ~180-220.