Tuesday, September 25, 2012

F2P: Necessary At All Costs?

One-man Indie MMO producer Eric at Elder Game has a math problem.  The costs that he faces for hardware alone mandate that his game must maintain a certain benchmark in revenue per user - below that threshold he must add additional servers faster than he gets revenue with which to pay for them, and the game actually loses more money more rapidly if it becomes popular. 

This is no academic blog discussion - Eric has been doing unpaid work on this project since at least June 2011 and will only see a return on his considerable investment if the game is successful.  And yet, he considers and immediately dismisses the idea of NOT supporting free players.  Supporting free players is "a fact of the market" because the amount of competition in the genre makes it "hard to keep people around unless you have a compelling free-play option".  This decision made, Eric will do his best to optimize his server code and assume the risk that his business model will render the product literally unsustainable if the proportion of non-subscribers is too great. 

Readers of this blog will know that I am no great champion of the mandatory subscription fee.  However, two factors make me wonder if it would not be the lesser evil in this case when you consider A) the potential consequences in terms of sustainability and B) the fact that the one-man team now needs to take time away from making the best game possible in order to plan how to support a free and a subscriber tier, with the relevant billing and game mechanics in place.  Incidentally, I'm hardly the game's target demographic - it sounds more sand-boxy and group oriented than my usual far - but the model he's describing sounds like precisely the type of optional subscription model that I generally DON'T end up paying for. 

All of that said, I'm not certain I can say that his premise is wrong.  Having a monthly fee is not a complete deal-breaker for me, but I am increasingly biased in favor of games whose business model does not meddle so directly with when and how I play the game.  Case in point, the Secret World, which is still limping along with both a box price and a subscription fee, rolled out a free trial program recently.  There is no rational reason to complain about a trial that does not cost money, but I find myself unusually irked that the terms say you only get the fourth and fifth days of trial time if you play enough during the first three. 

Perhaps we really are at the point where a free to play option is actually essential because the alternative is too restrictive on players' ability to try your product.  If so, perhaps Eric is going to need a bigger boat. 


Yeebo said...

On TSW: That's the "free trial" they have had going for a good while. Not sure why they announced it as something new last week. Maybe current players had to invite you to it until now? Not at all sure.

The decision to make it a three day trial unless you set aside your entire weekend to play it is stupid imo. The game has a steep learning curve. Even if you do decide to take off three days of your life, as a new player it's by not at all certain you will be able to finish 30 quests in 36 hours.

In any case, taunting new players with steep challenges during the initial learning experience seems exactly opposite to a sane strategy for getting new players to me.

Magson said...

Yeah, 30 quests is actually quite an achievement. A friend and I who play invited a 3rd. We played 3 evenings with him and blew him through quest after quest after quest in Kingsmouth (I'm QL10, my friend is QL6, so we were vastly overpowered for the zone, so we did things fast) and our "trial friend" still only had 27 missions completed after the 2nd night. He was able to get ot 30 on the 3rd evening and thus get the 2-day extension, but as a result of that I think it'd be pretty difficult for a newbie with no friends who's trying to figure the game out to get to 30 in 3 days unless they put in some fairly long days.

Kevin Brill said...

My question would be, at what price point are you okay with a monthly subscription? $14.99 seems to be a product of the current market, but 15(!) years ago, UO was $9.95. I wonder what the sweet spot is for a monthly sub to keep people playing, but not overwhelm the hardware? I guess it would vary based on the code, but I would be a lot more flexible in paying $4.99/month for an indie game, than $14.99.

Green Armadillo said...

@Kevin: I agree. In this particular case - an indie developer who has legitimate server costs - I would RATHER pay $5/month than see the developer spending his time working on payment model stuff.