Sunday, June 20, 2010

Microtransaction Lock-In in W101, DDO, and soon LOTRO

Tipa took her second Wizard 101 account free to play (or "pay as you go" as they call it over there), and has run head-on into an issue I'm seeing the opposite side of in DDO.  Quoth Tipa:
"The problem with buying zones à la carte is that after, you’re locked in. If you change your mind and decide to subscribe once again, you’ve wasted all that money spent unlocking zones one at a time. The only possible way to protect your investment is to keep buying zones at $2.18 each."
This happens when a game offers a rental subscription option alongside the option to purchase permanent unlocks (whether of content or features).  As the player pays to unlock more pieces of the subscription, re-subscribing in the future becomes less attractive because there's less left for the player to rent that they don't already own. 

The Sub Vs Zone Balance in W101 and DDO
Unfortunately for Tipa's wallet, KingsIsle has priced W101's zone unlocks in a way that makes the subscription a much better deal for players who consume a lot of content.  On paper, a $2 zone unlock sounds fine compared to a $10/month rental subscription, but the crucial question is how long that zone will last.  Apparently the answer is not that long if you chew through content the way Tipa does - she ended up dropping $50 in two days.

Over in DDO, Turbine is having the opposite problem because their adventure packs are actually priced at a relatively low level compared to the VIP subscription.  Turbine has increased the monthly VIP Turbine Point stipend to 1000 TP for the summer in an attempt to sign up more players.  At the non-sale exchange rate, that's $10 worth of Turbine Points as a throw-in for the $15 all-access subscription, but I'm still not interested.  I already own access to 9 of the game's 23 adventure packs, along with the Monk class, the Warforged race, and several things that even VIP's have to pay extra for.   If I did go VIP, I don't think I'd even encounter any content that I do not already own during that first month. 

Why Turbine wants subscribers
Why, you might ask, should it bug Turbine if I keep buying things straight up instead of renting them via the subscription?  The problem is two-fold. 

First, DDO's currently high stated revenue is unsustainable because so many of the game's top-selling items are one-time purchases.  At the rate Turbine has been releasing new adveture packs, they're looking at $2-4/month in income from players who do not purchase anything more than the adventure packs, and even that is conditional upon Turbine convincing the player that they WANT this month's pack. 

To fix, this, Turbine would like players to get more into the habit of spending money on consumables, fluff, and other things that players might pay for each and every month.  This is why the subscription gives players a starter balance each month.  The store does not even allow players to see the prices of purchasing the content they are currently renting through a subscription.  Instead, they want to encourage players to think about other uses for their increasing stockpile of points that do not involves saving them to fund a future "upgrade" from the VIP subscription to a Premium Free To Play account with permanent access to all the crucial content.  Unfortunately, the problem remains - as long as I know that my points CAN be used to purchase new content in the future, it's going to be very difficult to convince me to spend them on fluff. 

(In fact, the purchase restrictions make me inclined NOT to subscribe temporarily, as subscribers cannot take advantage of sale prices on content that might no longer be offered when their subscriptions expire.) 

Lock-In or Lock-Out For LOTRO?
The real interesting question, though, is how this issue will play out when LOTRO becomes free to play.  I started writing this post under the assumption that LOTRO would naturally follow the same path that DDO does - with a cheap free-to-play option that leaves the subscription relatively unattractive.  After examining the retrictions on free players more closely, I'm no longer so sure. 

If you are a former subscriber, you will sign on to find that two of your five bags, most of your trait slots, some of your character slots (which you may or may not be using) and all of the content from 15-50 (other than some skirmishes and all epic book quests) locked. You will be stuck with a 5G gold cap, and will need to pay to unlock the new cosmetic outfit wardrobe storage system.  Once you pay to unlock these things, that investment might seem to create a lock-out incentive that renders the subscription obsolete.  However, does any of this stuff really matter enough to make players run out and fix it? 

I already own a horse and a house, and I cook my own food.  I don't need to buy gear from the auction house, so my only expenses are repairs, rent on the house, food ingredients, and occasionally Athelas potions.  I can cover those expenses with the free slots left in three bags, and the rest of the vendor trash can rot.  If unlocking the trait slots is expensive, perhaps I should take Turbine's acknowledgement that trait grinding is boring enough to be worth paying to lessen the pain as an invitation to skip the grind altogether, instead challenging myself with slightly tougher gameplay via a slightly weaker character. 

The fact is that content is the only thing that I'd think about paying money for under the free to play system.  However, here's where the differeing playstyles in LOTRO versus DDO change the situation.  DDO is designed around repeatedly running the same dungeons.  Between loot and the adjustable difficulty settings, there's plenty of reason why players would actually want to retain access to the content after they complete it once. 

By contrast, most LOTRO quests cannot be repeated, and there would be relatively little reason to do so if it were permitted.  In this model, the value of continuing to have access to the content is diminished.  Depending on how the prices work out, it might make sense to pay to rent content when I'm actively using it (either because there is new material available, or because I want to take an alt through the 15-50 range).  In that model, I'd basically be using the free access for permanent "welcome back" status for the purposes of talking to the guildies and whatnot, rather than actively attempting to obsolete the subscription.

(Also, LOTRO has several features - monster play and rested exp currently - that are not available to non-subscribers.  That could always change if there's a market for them, but it could also be an intentional effort to preserve the appeal of the subscription.)  

Anything is possible until the prices are finalized, but it certainly looks like Turbine has learned something from their first forray into Free to Play. Time will tell which version of the model they ultimately prefer. 

11 comments:

spinksville said...

I really like the notion that a player might have periods of actively playing the game, and periods of quiescence when they're just logging in to chat/ do some light trading or gathering etc.

It also seems like a natural way to play as content is patched in. So being able to pay for some rental when there's new stuff to play and then let it run out might work really well for some players. Plus of course there might be some appeal from cosmetic items even when the player isn't all that active. They're still connected to the gameworld.

Green Armadillo said...

@Spinks: Exactly. The last point may be the key, because you can't sell microtransactions to people who aren't playing the game at all. Under the new system, I could drop by for guild social events and generally maintain ties on the server. That creates an opportunity to sell me stuff that would never have existed if it was going to cost me $15 to get in the door.

Stabs said...

I can see the value of making both subs and f2p viable options. The biggest advantage is that some players see themselves as a certain type and won't play a game that doesn't let them sub or play a la carte.

But I doubt they will weight Lotro towards subbing. I can certainly see it being more sub-based than DDO but not much more. They really won't want to mimic what Warhammer and AOC have achieved with their play the starter area free forever schemes.

Borror0 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Borror0 said...

Green Armadillo said:
"Turbine has increased the monthly VIP Turbine Point stipend to 1000 TP for the summer in an attempt to sign up more players."

For completeness' sake, I'll mention that this is not the second time Turbine offers this deal but rather the second time. The first time was from November through January.

Green Armadillo said:
"Also, LOTRO has several features - monster play and rested exp currently - that are not available to non-subscribers."

According to Turbine, Monster Play is unavailable to F2P players for of two reasons:
1. A surge of new players to the single instance that is the Ettenmoors would lead to unenjoyable gameplay (read: massive lag).
2. Given the nature of F2P games, most MPvP players would end up being creeps (which players gain access to at level 10) rather than freeps (who can only enter Ettermoors starting level 40).

Another point that they didn't mention, but is obvious when you think about it, is that MPvP players don't generate revenues unless they pay a subscription: if you're a creep there is no need to buy any content, ever.

Borror0 said...

Green Armadillo said:
"The problem is two-fold.

First, DDO's currently high stated revenue is unsustainable because so many of the game's top-selling items are one-time purchases. At the rate Turbine has been releasing new adveture packs, they're looking at $2-4/month in income from players who do not purchase anything more than the adventure packs, and even that is conditional upon Turbine convincing the player that they WANT this month's pack."


I want to contest this is a problem. The cost of buying all adventure packs, at the most effective pricing, is of $118.50 which is approximatively eight months of subscription time.

However that is putting aside all other stuff, such as additional races, 32 point builds, additional classes, extra character slots, etc. that most players will buy. I expect any long time player to buy about for at least 167.20 dollars if not more (which is actually $200, because that person is likely to buy t

At that point, you're getting pretty darn close to LOTRO's lifetime and that is without factoring consumables, further additional character slot (which, trust me, are like crack to veterans), tomes, respecs, and so on.

Green Armadillo said...

@Borror0:
LOTRO's lifetime sub started at $200, was mainly offered at $300, and required separate purchase of both of the game's expansions. They're also not planning on offering it again in the future, which would seem to imply that they don't think it's a good deal for them.

As to the pricing it depends on how patient you are. If you wait on the 6900 TP/$50 deal (which seems to pop up about once a month these days), and then wait on sales to spend those points, you're much better off.

After the PAX bundle and the 30% AP sale the week the Warner deal happened, I own both races, both classes, 32-point builds, and nine adventure packs, with points left in the bank for one more. My math says that another 6900 TP bundle, spent when stuff is on sale for at least 20% off, would buy me ALL of the remaining AP's and the Shared Bank. That does not include future AP's or character slots, but it also assumes that I buy absolutely everything. Scratch a few unpopular AP's and I'd be left with some spare points after spending only $100 on the game.

Yeebo said...

I am right there with in only being inclined to spend cash on permanent account additions such as classes and adventure packs. However, even for a stingy player like me, there are two one offs that Turbine has gotten me with, Stat Tomes and Collectible Bags.

I've only bought one stat tome so far, but they are really tempting once you hit seven. Every time I give in and buy one, that's roughly five bucks Turbine gets from me. In the content I'm playing currently they don't drop at all, and I have nowhere near the money to buy one on the AH.

The other item is the huge collectibles bag. If you pick up collectables at all, you will quickly end up running out of bag space if you don't have one. That's another $3-4 per character for me (I've bought two so far).

You could ignore collectibles, but to do so is to cut yourself out of the crafting system and some nice minor item buffs, in addition to passing up free wands, scrolls, and ammo.

Yeebo said...

Edit: I should add that you can also buy mid sized collectible bags in game. However those are enormously expensive at low level. Like tomes, I expect to be able to afford them once I have a higher level character, so it may be a moot point for me eventually.

Borror0 said...

@Green Armadillo
The special pricing comes up each time there is a convention, so that means PAX, GenCon, E3, etc.

Then, about the lifetime thing, my point was more that Turbine has an history of offering cheaper deals for long time commitment. It's not only lifetime. There is also the $30 for three months deal that has been offered time and time again.

I would wager Turbine found these type of deals more profitable than what people might think.

The reason they won't offer lifetime again is that it's less profitable than making everyone buy each pack when you consider how much TPs they get for free each month. Not to mention, it is an issue preventing them from allowing sharing TPs across eStores.

Tesh said...

"Unfortunately for Tipa's wallet, KingsIsle has priced W101's zone unlocks in a way that makes the subscription a much better deal for players who consume a lot of content."

It's not really about *how much* content you consume, it's about how *fast* you consume it. There's a difference.