Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fishy Free To Play

Scott Hartsman, who happens to be running one of the last handful of subscription MMO's standing, appeals to populism in his defense of the subscription model.  He calls the free to play model "going whaling", stating that "you have to be willing to create a game that has the ability to make huge sums of money from relatively small numbers of people".  It is a thinly veiled threat - those other publishers don't care about the non-paying majority, and only care about the paying minority to the extent that they can extract more money. 

Fishy Business Models
I fully agree that taking an existing game free to play, when it was never designed for this change, is likely to be problematic.  None of the free to play conversions we have seen to date has been especially voluntary, and many of them have arrived at models that are likely ill-advised as a result.  Even so, Mr. Hartsman's argument sounds like a fishmonger telling passers by that the fishing instructor down the street is not looking out for their best interests. He might be correct, but he's really worried about the effect on his sales if too many of his customers learn to fish. 

(Yes, I believe I did just call Scott Hartsman a fishmonger.  Oh snap?)

The subscription model is no paragon of virtue itself.  Time and time again, we have seen incentives used to try and extend the repetition of content far beyond the point at which it is fun, because the developer gets paid or does not based on whether or not the player is still playing 30 days later.  Meanwhile, the fish analogy continues, albeit at a smaller scale.  Less frequent players are forced to pay the same price as the big fish or quit, because the publisher cannot offer a payment model that is more equitable based on usage.  More frequent users might quit in protest, or, worse, they might reduce their own consumption to reduce their expenses. 

There is a middle ground between the subscription model and the free-for-all of "going whaling", and it's a space that developers are reluctant to compete in - ditching the recurring fee but still charging for content.  Guild Wars has done this since its launch, DDO has done it since its re-launch, and others are going to attempt it, albeit with the disadvantage of having started with a different model. 

Paying the bills
The problem is the widely reported $100 million in venture capital it took to create Trion Worlds and allow them to keep Rift in development until it was ready before launching it.  Now that the game is done, the investors can rest assured that players will keep re-purchasing the same content each and every month, or be cut off from their friends.  A model where a lackluster monthly rift invasion event means that Trion doesn't get paid this month is terrifying, and perhaps with good reason. 

A studio like SOE putting out DCUO is at a disadvantage when competing dollar for dollar in the same space as the single player Batman Arkham Asylum, whose developers don't have to worry about server infrastructure or databases.  Then again, this is exactly where DCUO has ended up, because their product was not attractive when it delivered comparable amounts of content as their competitor at significantly higher recurring prices.  Ironically, SOE has fallen into the whaling trap - their single minded focus on catching the great white whale (i.e. retaining the subscriptions of the few who were still paying) has caused them to ignore the smaller fish who might have paid for a model that is not designed to force a subscription at the higher end. 

I would like to think there is a better approach than hoping to hit the subscription jackpot and retrofitting a non-subscription model only as a last-ditch effort to recoup your investment if the subscription fails.  What we need are fishermen willing to look for a new method, instead of fighting to preserve their out of date approach.


  1. I think one thing that isn't really thought of anymore is just charging a lower monthly subscription. Remember before WoW, MMO monthly fees were like 5.99/mo, and then when it came out that WoW was going to cost 300% of what other game subscriptions at the time cost, it was a big deal. Obviously, the idea of ANY monthly subscription does create some barrier in that some portion of people will say "ehhhhhhh I'll pass". But I'd be curious to see what you could do with a smaller sub fee, versus the other more common "F2P" models.

    Personally, I'm extremely leery of such models, as I feel that microtransactions aren't something I want in my game. I would prefer a smaller subscription fee to paying the same amount in microtransactions over the same time frame, just because with a sub, I feel less like I'm being or going to be taken advantage of in some way. Plus, with a smaller subscription fee, I'm more inclined to maybe not play much this month, but keep the subscription active (especially if you somehow set up bonuses for subscription durations), since it will only cost me 5 bucks.

  2. @Joe: $10-15 a month, plus a discount if you pay for more sub time up front is what I recall pre-wow. Whatever you were paying six dollars for, it's nothing I ever played.

    More on topic: the cynical view would be that with DCUO SOE wanted to both have their cake and eat it. If you launch as a FtP MMO, it is expected that the client is free. So DCUO gets launched as a sub based MMO so SOE gets a big rush of money for boxes, then switches to a fallback position of FtP once it's clear they have milked their hardcore fanbase for as much as they can.

    My personal opinion is that they went fishing for a whale as you hypothesize, came up short, and went for the fish.

    DDO and (to a lesser extent, since it had more hiccups) LoTRO have proved that you can transition a game from sub based to FtP without screwing the pooch. The main mistakes I see in FtP conversions generally come down to the FtP options being gimped. Launch EQ2X is a banner example. You couldn't buy classes, access to high end gear, AH access, or access to high end abilities. If you can't buy your way out of restrictions on a FtP account, your game is still basically "sub or don't, your choice." SOE came to their senses eventually, but who knows how many potentially paying FtP customers were gone by then?

    Champions Online is a game that still labors under a "FtP is a trial, you need to sub" plan. Custom builds are completely locked off from ftP accounts. The freedom to make pretty much any character you can dream up is one of the stsrengths of the game, and only subbers can ever experience that. Further, anal min-maxers can come up with custom builds that make the FtP pre-sets look dumb in terms of effectiveness.

  3. I totally feel what you're saying. To be frank I'm pro-subscription. Not because I think it is "good." I believe it is the lesser of two evils. I know what I get for my money and in some games (currently Rift) I'm not nickled & dimed. I'm also a big fish. I get more than $15.00 in value each month. Especially if you consider the frequency and scope of Trion's patches. People can belittled the world events all they want but those patches do a lot more than that.

    DDO is a great version of a cash shop. You pay for content and convenience. I have no issue with that at all. If Rift had no monthly fee but I had to buy the monthly content updates I'm all for that. The problem is in the details.

    Content in DDO is perfect. Everything, for the most part, is instanced. You buy a module, the door becomes active, and you go in. Easy!

    How would that work in a game with open world areas? LotRO tried to do that and I would argue it doesn't work. Midway through the night an NPC says, "Thank you for slaying the orcs. I need more done but I can only issue quests to people who pay me."

    Yeah... that just doesn't work for me. I also loathe the double dipping systems. Pay a subscription and you get access TO EVERYTHING. Except... the really neat things that are cash-shop exclusives. I'm sorry, businesses and I must have a different definition of everything.

    Everything means if I pay a subscription I should be able to earn everything in the cash shop in game.

  4. There are already almost as many payment models as there are MMOs. Discussion still carries on as though the choice is between monthly sub or microtransaction but that simple binary splintered years ago, if it ever existed.

    Most of the retrofitted F2P titles still offer subscriptions. Most of the subscription MMOS have cash shops. Rift is actually a weird throwback - a pure sub game with no cash shop at all. I think that's a mistake.

    I'm on my second 6-month sub for Rift and I'd like them to add a cash shop. What Scott seems to be missing (and to be fair to him I think it's something a lot of commentators also miss) is that a lot of people enjoy buying stuff! I'm aware that this tendency isn't heavily represented in that part of the MMO gaming community that posts and blogs, but out there in the rest of the world it's quite common for people with disposable income to enjoy spending it on little treats for themselves.

    MMO cash shops are superb for giving yourself treats. You can drop a dollar or two and get a silly piece of frippery that makes you smile. Then you can show it to your friends and everyone can make a few amusing comments. It's not fattening, it doesn't damage your health, it doesn't take up space in your apartment and you don't have to go into town to buy it.

    I don't see that as inimical to paying a subscription. We're always calling these MMOs "theme parks". Well the subscription is the entrance fee and the rides come with that, but there's still plenty more stuff in the park you can buy from all those booths and stalls.

    And people like to buy because buying stuff is fun.

  5. Any subscription comes with expectations. Players expect support, server capacity, security, not to be ignored. Those things cost money.

    With small subscriptions, once you drop out transaction fees, it is hard to pay for those expectations.


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