Thursday, November 29, 2012

Punishment or Gameplay?

"In an earlier draft of F2P, we had it so that F2Pers couldn’t use spacebar inside cutscenes and we almost had a riot inside this building. So we being listening to feedbacks the whole way."
 - Dulfy's transcript of a Bioware Q+A
As context for those who have never played SWTOR, the space bar is used in cut scenes to interrupt the NPC who is talking and make them start their next line of dialog.  This can be used when you have to repeat a conversation - for example if you do a quest over (either an alt or as a repeatable quest) or cancel out of a dialog because you were unhappy with the results.  However, the main association that SWTOR players have for "spacebar" as a verb is for the equivalent of refusing to read quest text.  The only difference is that in SWTOR, that "text" is the result of expensive voice acting that had a huge impact on the game's budget.

Having explained that, I have absolutely no idea what Bioware's business people - who unlike myself are presumably paid a decent salary to know what they are doing on this front - could be thinking.  The very idea of using the hallowed "fourth pillar", Bioware's epic story, as a punishment that non-subscribers would have been forced to endure boggles my mind. Bioware has not been afraid to think outside the box for good or for ill - and more often (e.g. restrictions on hotbars) for ill - but this one is absurd. 

During the past week, including the Q+A, Bioware has relaxed more of the restrictions imposed on preferred non-subscribers (i.e. lapsed players and those who have spent money in the cash shop).  Preferred players will now have four hotbars - the number the game launched with - and six character slots (up from two currently, and close to the eight that subscribers had at launch, though this limit is supposedly per account rather than per server).  

On the one hand, they're willing to give away a tremendous amount of stuff that would have been worth paying for.  However, they're on the record as unwilling to budge on things like credit caps, mail restrictions, and content pass pricing that greatly reduce how attractive it is to pay for anything as a non-subscriber.  I get that Bioware is very afraid of being dependent on creating new content for revenue, and would prefer for players to subscribe.  It just seems strange that every change they make shifts the game away from a state where people who won't subscribe are still paying for the game and closer to a state where a single one-time payment is all most players will ever need, want, or have the opportunity to make. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is the SWTOR Credit Cap Killing Unlock Resales?

A few weeks ago, I pondered whether SWTOR's credit cap was going to cause issues for the game's business model.  It's a bit early to tell, but the answer may be yes.

To recap, non-subscribers cannot ever have more than 350,000 credits on their person - in context, it's easy to make over 100,000 credits per day doing endgame daily missions.  By design, every item in the cartel market is available for re-sale, subject to a several-day waiting period to deter fraud.  This includes the items whose purpose is to lift restrictions on non-subscribers.  These items have zero value to subscribers (except if they can be flipped for a profit), so the only real market for them are non-subscribers (who cannot pay more than 350,000 credits by definition) and subscribers who are stocking up because they plan to let their subscriptions lapse in the near future.  The latter demographic is limited because the game's model in general discourages people from playing at all while unsubscribed.

Right now, the market is distorted by large grants of cartel coins that were granted to existing subscribers, many of whom seem to feel that these should immediately be spent, rather than saved to pay for future additions to the marketplace.  As a result, my server at least is seeing the global trade network flooded with unlock items that cost several dollars worth of cartel coins but that cost well under 350,000 credits.

An especially egregious offender is the unlock for access to Section X, the new daily quest area and also the home to the quest to claim the HK-51 droid companion.  This unlock costs 600 cartel coins in the cash shop (roughly $5-7 depending on your exchange rate), but the item is also available as a (presumably unwanted) reward in the "cartel pack" gambling boxes.  As a result, unlocking this area for my main would currently cost me rough 75,000 credits, or less than the credits that I can earn back by doing all of these quests once each.

The sector X unlock may be a special case because of the decision to include it in the gambling packs, which players are purchasing in large quantities for the other possible rewards.  Demand for this particular item may be especially skewed because subscribers don't need it and neither does anyone below level 50.  That said, I cannot imagine that a secondary market in which players actually fork over several dollars worth of cartel coins for a day or two's worth of daily quest rewards is in any way sustainable.  If I'm right, either supply will drop to the ground as players realize that cartel coins cost money and stop wasting them, or else something will have to be done about that credit cap on non-subscribers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

MMO Black Friday 2012

U.S. Black Friday is upon us, and there are some discounts to be had.
  • For those willing to brave the stores, WoW's Pandaria expansion will be 50% off.  Blizzard does not feel obliged to offer a similar discount online, so presumably this is in part to help retailers move their boxes.  Not sure if this is technically a sign of weakness, as WoW's last two expansions were not timed right to be discounted on Black Friday, and digital sales are almost certainly a bigger piece of the pie this year.
  • As is traditional, Turbine is offering deep discounts on expansions, including 50% off of the six week old Rohan expansion in LOTRO and 75% off of this summer's DDO expansions.

    Both products bundled various extras that may or may not be of interest to players in order to justify higher price tags ($50 for the cheapest DDO bundle that includes the new class, $70 for LOTRO's legendary bundle, which was the only way to get the sixth inventory bag until recently).  Both become attractive upsells when the price is slashed 50%.  In LOTRO, the $40 base edition comes with the content and 1000 Turbine Points, while the $70 edition comes with the sixth bag (which costs 995 TP itself and is specifically excluded from this week's sale on inventory upgrades), an extra 1000 TP (for a total of 2000), and some various cosmetic miscellany.  At half off, you're getting those extras for $15 and still paying less than the full price on the base edition.  
Various other MMO's have launched expansions probably too recently to offer deep discounts - both Rift and EQ2 rolled out last week.  I don't expect major discounts on Guild Wars 2 because they don't have a subscription fee that would motivate them to dump boxes (though Amazon is currently offering it for $45).  However, we could see some cash store sales in various games that don't have a dirt cheap expansion on offer.  If you know of anything interesting, leave a comment and I'll add it to this post assuming I'm not in a turkey coma or fighting for my life in stores at the time.  :)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

SWTOR: Selling Around What They Can Produce?

As the comments on my SWTOR impressions post point out, the obvious alternative to the approach that Bioware has taken with the game would have been to sell access to the game's solo story content.  The game's leveling content is viewed as the best part of the product, and it would seem counterintuitive to have given all of it away for free.  The catch is that Bioware could NOT afford to get into the business of exclusively selling content because they are incapable of making content fast enough to sustain that model.

When you look at the minority of nonsubscription games that do charge for content - Turbine (DDO, LOTRO) and Kingsisle (Wizard 101, Pirate 101) - typically nonsubscribers have to be treated relatively well.  If you restrict the non subscription experience too heavily, players won't stick around to buy content.  For this to work, your content must be produced in small, repeatable chunks that you can release regularly.  Many of the issues we are seeing in LOTRO - bundling purchases into larger packages, preserving poorly implemented grinds and charging for features that no other company bills for - arise because that game's content is NOT bite-sized, repeatable, or quick to produce.

If you can't stay afloat by selling new content, you have to generate ongoing revenue from people using your existing content.   This is the route taken by the majority of nonsubscription games, whether they were originally designed that way or retrofit in a relaunch (like SWTOR).  For subscription retrofits, this often translates into restrictions that nonsubscribers cannot pay to remove, in an effort to make the "optional" subscription less optional.  If you can continue to retain the subscribers you had, collect some new nonsubscription revenue from people who were not subscribing, and incidentally rake in a ton from cosmetic cash store items, the thinking is that you will come out ahead.  More important to your bottom line, your revenue is less dependent on you ability to generate new content.

If Bioware has erred, their error may be consistency.  You don't want to charge too early and drive players away before they've given you a chance, but perhaps they should have been more willing to let people who still aren't paying more than halfway through the game leave.  What I'm guessing they were most afraid of was that introducing charges for stuff that was free earlier in the game (e.g. quests) would have an especially strong effect on players sticking around.  This fear of inconsistency may be what led to the game only charging for things that were introduced later in the level progression, such as group and PVP content.

Misc Notes
  • While it is possible to play the leveling game completely free, I'd suggest that almost all players who expect to stick with it will benefit from spending at least some money to qualify for the "preferred" status.  The best bang for buck here is to snag the $5 coin bundle and take either a third crewskill slot for your main or a third hotbar and some points to spare.  If you're willing to go to $10, you can snag both the third crewskill and the third and fourth hotbars for your main (or a third hotbar accountwide if you plan to play alts).  Including the perks for the preferred upgrade, this fixes many of the most glaring deficiencies in your leveling experience.
  • The cash shop allows players to pay money to unlock things earlier than it would be possible to earn them through class and/or legacy level.  For example, you previously needed a character most of the way to the level cap if you wanted the legacy level required to pay credits to unlock species for use with all classes.  Now you can pay to have a Sith Pureblood Jedi Knight almost immediately (limited only by the need to get to level 10 first so you can unlock a legacy on which to place the unlock).  It's also worth scanning the character perks tab of the legacy UI, as some options are available for relatively few Cartel Coins and sooner than they would have been if you had tried to earn them in-game.
  • Bioware is trying a few tweaks that I haven't seen previously when it comes to the point stipend for subscribers.  Multi-month subscribers get increased stipend rates, and there's also an increased stipend for subscribers who use an authenticator.  I don't expect to change any purchasing decisions over this, but it's a nice perk for those who are already on board.  
  • Character slots are a big X-factor in the game's business model.  Bioware does intend to add the ability to purchase character slots, and will enforce limits when they do get that up and running.  The Legacy system is a big incentive to stay on one server, but in principle players can go to multiple servers if the price is too high - in particular, some of the cartel store account-wide unlocks are good across servers.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Early Observations for SWTOR's Non-subscription Model

SWTOR's big relaunch day has finally arrived.  The model can and probably will change over the coming weeks, but things have settled down enough to get an idea of what we are dealing with.  I have actually gone into the relaunch with a recently renewed subscription - no, not because I wanted to pay $15 for $5 worth of "bonus" coins.  SWTOR as currently implemented may be the first model where it can make sense to jump back and forth between the two payment options.

For endgame, not so much...
For better or worse, Bioware has made the decision to give away most of the game's content.  This leaves them in the position of trying to convince players to fork over cash for playing the game as a service.  Thus, it does not appear that Bioware is keen for existing subscribers to switch to a non-subscription model and pay less.  There are various things to unlock - including some extraordinarily petty options such as a charge to hide your helmet (certainly not mandatory, just petty) - but the bigger story is what you cannot unlock. 
  • Endgame content requires the purchase of consumable weekly passes per type of content you wish to play.  Even at the most favorable exchange rate, unlocking two of the four types of content (raid, PVP, space combat, flashpoints) will cost you more than $15/month.   
  • Nonsubscribers are stuck with a currency cap that cannot be lifted.  This limit applies not only to credits - the standard currency - but also the various token currencies used to purchase items.  
  • Nonsubscribers are also slapped with a permanent penalty to vendor prices, which includes gear vendors that take tokens.  
  • The cap plus the penalty combine to make it impossible for non-subscribers to purchase certain token rewards, and more generally require 25% more grinding at whatever you are grinding (raids, PVP, flashpoints, etc) for gear. 
There might theoretically be a very specific niche of players (perhaps if you and a group of friends have an appointment to log in and do flashpoints precisely once a month) that can save with the non-subscription model, but most players at endgame will be worse off for the attempt.

Leveling and grandfathered unlocks
Setting aside the endgame, what if, like myself, you are primarily interested in the game for the solo story content?  This scenario is a bit more interesting.

There are certain restrictions that you can't lift (or won't want to pay for) including the currency penalties (you won't hit the credit cap but you may have problems with commendation vendors on planets) and restrictions on travel.  There are also restrictions on your rate of exp gain, but that is ironically a mixed blessing in that I found the game's exp curve to be faster than I needed and skipped most of several planets to preserve challenge.  And there are things you will probably need to pay for, such as access to your crewskills, probably a third hotbar (I don't know that all four that players had previously - or six that subscribers now get - are completely mandatory, but you will probably need a third bar).

Then there are an odd handful of things that can be unlocked in principle, but in practice are cheaper to unlock via a temporary subscription.  Access to races - which are purely cosmetic in this game - will run you 600 Cartel Coins, but your existing characters are not affected when your subscription lapses.   Your first two inventory upgrades can be paid for with 5000 and 20,000 credits as a subscriber, while non-subscribers must pony up 175 Cartel Coins per unlock - 350 total.  In short, if you're looking to start up one - or better yet several - new characters, a one-month subscription may be the way to go.

And finally, there's the question of content.  The new "Section X" content added with this patch will run non-subscribers 600 Cartel Coins.  This content features new daily quests, which will be markedly less attractive to non-subscribers due to the currency issues, and the one-time questline for the HK-51 droid companion.  This sort of content may well be more attractive as a rental than a permanent unlock.

Looking Ahead
On the horizon, Bioware plans at least one major content drop.  It will also be interesting to see whether some of these restrictions get relaxed - either by default or through additional purchases - as  the model matures.  In the mean time, I don't regret my one-month subscription, and I might even see an advantage to subscribing for a month at a time periodically.

I suppose the risk you run - and perhaps the reason why Bioware is willing to make the temporary subscription attractive - is that you get used to the perks that cost money and do not want to give them up.  Then again, I suppose that is a good thing to the extent that it would mean that you are playing the game and enjoying it enough to want to pay. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Optional Is the New Hard

Two years ago, players were complaining that the dungeons of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion were not fun because they were too difficult.  The Blizzard response - that content should possess non-zero challenge - was as accurate as it was irrelevant.  Customers were dissatisfied with the level of fun they were having with the results of the design, not the quality of the design itself.

Today, Blizzard argues that various non-raid activities - such as daily quests and running the looking-for-raid difficulty in pick-up-groups - are optional for raiding because only the very top difficulty setting is balanced so tightly as to assume that players have the best gear available.  I like to call this the "pants optional" argument - no MMO I am aware of has a mandatory requirement that characters wear pants, but very few players opt to go pantless.  The choice technically exists, but is largely uninteresting, as there is almost always (*) no benefit to going without pants and the player would then be obligated to upgrade the rest of their gear to off-set the stats from the missing leggings.   More to the point, every bit by which you exceed the theoretical minimum requirement gives the player - and the group of 9-24 friends they are raiding with - that much more margin for error to help secure victory.

We could sit here and argue the academic/semantic merits all day, but this misses the point for the same reason Blizzard's 2011 defense of the game's difficulty missed the point.  If paying customers feel like they are obligated to do something that they do not believe is fun, it does not matter if the customer is theoretically incorrect.  Lecturing the customer on why they are incorrect, not as good at playing the game as people who are beating the content with the minimum gear, and need to find new friends with lower expectations - however accurate all of these statements may be - is not a good business strategy. 

The structural issues with Cataclysm as an expansion probably would not have gone away had the game's initial cadre of heroic dungeons launched with lower difficulty and shorter completion times.  Even so, it was an inauspicious start to what turned into the game's least successful era to date.  If Blizzard continues to build a game whose core endgame mechanic is upgrading character performance through acquisition of better gear, and continues to require non-raid content for access to upgrades that raid players want, Pandaria may not be off to any better of a start. 

(*) - There have been several eras of WoW in which certain tanking classes were obligated to intentionally lower their mitigation when attempting content that was significantly below their gear level, because their classes were dependent on taking sufficient quantities of damage in order to generate resources.  Several players I knew would remove their characters' pants in this scenario, because it was the quickest and most humorous way to accomplish this.