Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cash and Burn

I'm concerned that MMO Gamer Chick and Tobold are correct in their suspicions about this week's business model announcements.  Two of the highest profile upcoming MMO releases - Wildstar and Elder Scrolls - plan to launch with a mandatory box purchase and mandatory subscription fee despite nearly nine-years' worth of post-WoW MMO launches that have failed to sustain that model.  Both bloggers note that it would be borderline irresponsible for a business launching a subscription MMO NOT to have a back-up F2P plan - indeed, it appears that both titles may be setting the groundwork, with Wildstar's implementation of in-game time card items seen in other MMO's (including the F2P relaunches of EQ2 and Rift) and the cash shop that Elder Scrolls apparently confirmed in a German interview.  

Unfortunately, the same financial incentives dictate that launching with a subscription is an opportunity to extract $60 for the retail box (with $150 or higher price tags widely accepted for collector's editions) and some subscription revenue in the interim - especially if there's a chance to sell people on "discounted" pre-paid six-month subscriptions before they've had the chance to play the game. 

The problem isn't the subscription fee itself, the entry barrier created by the initial box price, the bad press often generated as games visibly fail to live up to their original promises (Elder Scrolls is already making the same promises that they plan to update every 4-6 weeks that so many studios have failed to sustain), or whether the final business model when the dust settles is in any way sensible.  My main concern isn't even that this model puts MMO studios in the business of exploiting hype and vague, misleading information to make a quick buck.  As Bhagpuss points out, these things ultimately have limited impact on the merits of the actual gameplay. 

The real casualty of these cash and burn tactics is the community.  When the dust settles, the tourists have come, overpaid, and gone.  The jaded veterans like myself have waited for the inevitable re-launch and gotten a high quality product at a fire sale price.  The cost is that the community is shattered as the majority of servers shut down, the majority of your friends leave for games that are looking more promising, and the folks who do return do so for brief periods as the content release schedule permits.  This may not change the gameplay - especially as more titles are offering more ways to play and win with limited time and commitment - but it definitely changes the experience of playing these games and experiencing these worlds.

If this is the solution to the problem of how to finance MMO development, it's a sad day. 

6 comments:

Wilhelm Arcturus said...

I think the bigger concern for me is that the TESO team, so full of good intentions, strikes me as more than a bit naive. It is like watching a kid play on the railroad tracks.

Unless this is an extremely clever guise, I suspect that they believe what they say (the cash shop has been clarified as being for account services, which actually shows some unexpected foresight) and are going to get hit by the train that is reality a few months after launch.

And then they will scramble to change models and we'll accuse them of having planned this all along, no matter how badly the transition goes. It is just going to be a mess.

Scott Geeding said...

I blogged on ESO yesterday, and might whip up another one today about a couple other thoughts, but one advantage it will have is since they're using their "Mega Server" you won't have to worry about server closures and all the various communities collapsing then being forced together. It will all be transparent. That's a Good Thing.

Bhagpuss said...

Attracting, building and maintaining a positive, active community is a difficult enough task for any MMO even if it sticks to a stable and consistent path. GW2 is offering an interesting case study on that right now.

A year after launch GW2 hasn't had any kind of bait&switch on payment, hasn't had to merge servers and has no "dead" servers (as far as I'm aware - every time I check the lowest population registers as "High", most "Very High"). They've met all their increasingly ambitious targets for pumping out content.

By most measures, whether or not you like the game, it's fared well so the community should be stable or improving. Maybe some people think it is. My own experience suggests it's traveling down a path from an open-minded, cheerful environment to a snarky, judgmental one. This matches my previous experience with several MMOs that have done well and grown in population (at least for a while). The better the MMO does, the less relaxed and relaxing a place to hang out it becomes.

In other words, while cynical cash-grabs and poor management will indeed damage MMO communities, stability and success can do so as well. Maybe it's just that given enough time cynicism takes hold no matter what.

sam said...

I suspect what you are seeing is game companies that aren't happy with the aount of money cash shop games are creating.

I've tried most of the f2p games and I don't want any more of them. The cash store's mess with immersion they cause rifts in the player base and make the game a less fun place to be. Its hard to enjoy something you could have trivialized if you spent more money.

I think Bagpuss may be going in the direction you should be talking. Does F2P create and sustain a community or do people just burn through the free stuff and move on?

The only games I've been in that had good community weren't F2p. I think Cash store models put the devs in an adversarial relationship with it's playerbase.

I think F2p is turning the MMO game community into walmart with ADD customers that have no real expectations of the games. They show up play awhile then leave and spend not nearly enough money to maintain the game.

I guess what I'm saying is I think you are worrying about the wrong thing. If everybody goes f2p then all games have to have a big playerbase or fail. That doesn't bode well for creativity and variety.

sam said...

I suspect what you are seeing is game companies that aren't happy with the aount of money cash shop games are creating.

I've tried most of the f2p games and I don't want any more of them. The cash store's mess with immersion they cause rifts in the player base and make the game a less fun place to be. Its hard to enjoy something you could have trivialized if you spent more money.

I think Bagpuss may be going in the direction you should be talking. Does F2P create and sustain a community or do people just burn through the free stuff and move on?

The only games I've been in that had good community weren't F2p. I think Cash store models put the devs in an adversarial relationship with it's playerbase.

I think F2p is turning the MMO game community into walmart with ADD customers that have no real expectations of the games. They show up play awhile then leave and spend not nearly enough money to maintain the game.

I guess what I'm saying is I think you are worrying about the wrong thing. If everybody goes f2p then all games have to have a big playerbase or fail. That doesn't bode well for creativity and variety.

Hu Fengxiang said...

and the folks who do return do so for brief periods as the content release schedule permits. This may not change the gameplay - especially as more titles are offering more ways to play and win with limited time and commitment - but it definitely changes the experience of playing these games and experiencing these worlds.
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