Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Liberté, égalité, free-to-play

Rohan has a post up categorizing what he dubs "payment methods".  This is a more systematic approach to a question I tackled colloquially - you are what you sell.  Current players appear to dislike almost all of the options that Rohan has described for how it appears that SWTOR plans to make money after its non-subscription re-launch.  I would suggest that the real issue at hand is that the changes upset the balance of how the game is developed - and how the developer will value these customers in the future

As long as the angry mob is out anyway, let's break out the guillotine and look at this question with the motto of the French Revolution.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité - Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood
Under a subscription MMO model, customers are relatively equal in value.  Longtime subscribers are going to pay more in the long-run, and may serve as pillars of the community in a way that retains more than just their $15.  However, when it comes to the quarterly earnings call, each customer's $15 is the same. 

If anything, this equality motivates companies to focus on endgame. The raider is most likely to quit now if they are out of content, and most likely to be retain-able if the studio makes more raids.  The solo player may also quit when they run out of content, but they might re-roll instead.  Worse, the developers might spend their effort on more solo content only to have the solo player beat that content as well and quit anyway. 

The non-subscription model adds variety to the payment models, and, in so doing, adds Liberty.  A non-subscriber might pay less than $15, while non-subscribers and subscribers alike can potentially choose to pay MORE than $15.  This freedom means some customers are literally worth more than others.

The obvious and most-feared extreme is that the one person who is addicted to gambling for cosmetic items through so called "lock-boxes" is literally worth more than a small guild of loyal players who had been with the game in its previous incarnation.  That aside, having a model where players can pick and choose what they pay for potentially reverses the developer's incentives for the future direction of the game. 

If only a small proportion of players raid - and said players vehemently oppose any mechanism whereby they make themselves proportionally more valuable by paying more money, on the grounds that this would be "pay to win" - then only a small proportion of future development can support them.  By contrast, if the majority of paying customers are located in the leveling curve, that is where the developer must focus their efforts, even if said customers are certain to depart after spending some amount of time in game.

To use another concrete example, the patch will add a new NPC companion, an HK-51 droid.  Bioware hopes that nonsubscribers will pay for an unlock to access the content that awards this NPC.  However, even though companions are basically solo tools that cannot be used in serious group content, the questline requires a max level character and several group dungeons.  Merits of this decision aside, a non-subscription game can ill afford to put barriers between customers and stuff they want to pay for.

With this kind of split in the interests of the playerbase, it should come as no surprise that Brotherhood is in short supply indeed. 


Yeebo said...

I think the decision to make the paid content largely group focused endgame content in SWTOR is slightly insane. I would have paid for permanent access to various planets. There is no way in hell I'll pay for access to raids or more PvP battle grounds per week.

That's not the content I care about, and I have to assume that the bulk of current SWTOR players feel the same. After all, if a deep endgame is what really floats your boat, there are many better options currently on the market than SWTOR. The only thing that the game does better than most MMOs is the leveling game. And they are giving all of that away for free...

Stabs said...

I'd like to pick up on your comment about lock box gambling. I find the subtle insertion of what is essentially slot machine gambling disturbing. I do get that running a dungeon for random loot, randomised a second time to determine which of the three plate wearers wins it is somewhat slot machine like. But mechanics like the locked chests that drop in GW2 which you can buy keys for in the cash shop are a level past that. You pay money for a random loot roll, it really is a slot machine.

In Eve gambling has taken an emergent twist. Players run in-game casinos and lotteries for isk (the play money). Some of these such as the Somer Blink lottery are wildly popular and becoming quite big businesses in their own right.