This may seem like an odd topic for a debate thread, but well... read on.
As you're probably aware, there are 2 main business models for MMOs - subscription (where you buy the game and pay a monthly fee for server access, or in some cases, get the game free and pay just a sub) and cash shop (where the game is "free", but many items cost real rather than in-game money.) Occasionally, a hybrid of the 2 is used (usually the game is a free download, the subscription is cheaper than normal but present, and the cash shop plays a smaller role than normal, but is also present.)
"Free" MMOs face 3 very problematic facts:
1. They want to make the same profits as subscription ones.
2. They NEED to make at least a good percentage of those profits to stay in business.
3. Most players, given a choice, won't pay if it's truly optional... but will still cost as much money to keep in the game as a paying player.
What this means is that those who DO pay need to make up for those who don't... to the point that the average paying player needs to pay several times what he would for a subscription game.
This is an obvious problem, as while players who loby the game and have the cash will happily pay into the game, they won't be willing to spend much more than they would on a normal MMO. That means you need to make your cash items attractive enough that people will buy them because they actually want to use them heavily in game, not just because they loby the game and want to support it.
I've seen several games try to keep things relatively sane - selling expensive mounts, items that save time but that don't actually make you stronger (things like the ability to teleport to the entrance of anywhere are particularly common), +xp items (gets you up faster, but doesn't give any actually advantage over other max level players), things like an auto-loot function (ensures you don't lose loot, but doesn't make anything drop that wouldn't have), etc. What I generally find is that games that start with only these sorts of items quickly change to selling actual gear, and items that make a HUGE difference... and then often releasing new areas of the world that pretty much require the cash items to survive - or worse, locking them if you don't buy a (usually rental) item that looks an aweful lot like a subscription on top of a cash shop. In either case, these games tend to start out very promising, and burn out as the cash shop gets more and more insane, eventually losing most of their playerbase. Even people who WILL pay tend to leave at that point, since it becomes impossible to keep a guild active and MMOs aren't fun when there's no interaction with other players.
Obviously, some companies just don't care. They know they can gouge players for a few months, and that they'll kill the game doing it, but then they're just grab another game and do it again. (Companies importing Korean games are especially big on this, since of course, they never have to actually make the game.)
Sometimes though, it really does seem like a company IS trying to run a fair game, and really doesn't want to screw their players... but the money simply isn't there. The result is that they're forced to try more and more desperate measures, and the result is well... the same thing as the gouging companies, it just takes longer for it to happen. (This is especially annoying because it's impossible to tell a company that did this because they had no choice vs. one that planned it from the beginning to hook more people in before setting off the trap.)
Having played more than a dozen online games
that use the "free" model (mostly MMOs, but a few others as well), I have yet to see a single one other than browser games pull it off successfully (and browser games of course have a MUCH lower cost of operation.)
I currently think that's it's TECHNICALLY possible, but because it's such a delicate balancing act, it's extremely difficult. I have yet to see it working in action.
Do you think it's actually possible for one of these "free" games to succeed without being horribly broken? If so, how do you think it would work, and more importantly, if you've had better luck than I have in finding one, can you think of one that did it well, and describe what they did differently from the rest?
(For the curious - there's 2 reasons I'm running this thread. One is simply because it's often discussed topic, and I think a good change from the usual political crap, and the other is because, as an alliance where we have a LOT of people who are adverse to subscription games, discussion of this topic is quite relevant to the alliance, and where we can bring it in the future.)
Edit: I changed the words "more than a dozen online games" to be a link to a post listing said games.