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Summing Up On Free-to-Play Catches and Cowboys December 9, 2009

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Dungeons & Dragons Online, entertainment, MMO Design.
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Last Friday when I posted about Battlefield Heroes and their cash shop controversy, I was just writing out one of those “what does it really mean?” sort of posts that has an interminable lead-in then ends (if you lasted that long) on the actual question that came to my mind.

Much to my surprise, the post had more reach than I expected, getting noted over at Massively, on Tobold’s blog, and, after a short delay, partially explained by a Packer’s loss (the same thing afflicted my brother-in-law), over at Heartless_ Gamer.  (And in a parallel effort there was an unrelated post about subscription models over at Nerfbat as well.)

Perhaps not quite a “shit storm,” but well beyond my expectations.  Of course it touched a tender subject, which is money and how much we pay to play these games.  But we all know somebody has to pay, because nobody is making all of this entertainment for free.  Even those with a passion to create have to eat and pay the rent.

My only real surprise is that for MMORPGs there seems to be two camps, the subscription model and the free-to-play item mall supported model.  Tobold proposed what he saw as a different but more fair business model, something that sounds remarkably like a post I wrote three years ago, back before F2P was en vogue, prompted by my phone plan and my general cheap skate nature.

But we all want to get the most for our money and will seek out the plan that best serves us, another Tobold point.

Probably the most interesting thing to come out of this though was from Brian “Psycochild” Green who commented with a link to a presentation from Daniel James of Three Rings Design, makers of Puzzle Pirates,  Bang! Howdy, and Whirled, that included detailed metrics based on the experiences of Three Rings in the F2P market.  A good read if you are interested in the topic.

All of which was interesting, but never really got me closer to an answer on where the line between “not enough” and “too much” might be drawn when it comes to pushing item shop purchases in a fantasy MMORPG environment.  Not that I expected an answer.

I did however end up spending some time on Sunday playing Bang! Howdy.

I have to admit, I totally did not get it.

Perhaps I should stick to fantasy MMORPGs.  Subscription based ones… for now.

Comments»

1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - December 9, 2009

I guess I didn’t come directly to the point. How much items should be pushed depends on the state of the game. If things are churning along fine, then pushing more purchases is probably obnoxious. This is probably what irritates some people about the WoW pet store: Blizzard is the last company to be complaining about empty coffers, yet here’s a pretty naked money grab.

As I said, the alternative to Battlefield Heroes making it harder to play without paying is for them to simply shut it down if it’s not making enough money. Would it be better to just close it down than to be a bit more obviously about the fact that someone has to pay the piper? Probably not. Ultimately the game may still close down, but at least the developers (meaning, EA) tried something before they just closed it down.

Could they have designed the system better to not get into this situation? Probably. But, for lack of a time machine you have to deal with the present and not wish the past could be changed.

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2. Stabs - December 9, 2009

Quite possibly it will end up closing anyway.

I think it’s very hard to go from free to pay. Most of the people who were playing for free won’t stay to be cannon fodder with a starter weapon and won’t pay. If the non-payers leave then paying becomes kinda pointless if there aren’t many people to kill. (Especially if being more powerful than the average opponent was part of the lure of paying).

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3. ObservR - December 9, 2009

What BFH has done wrong is that it completely went against its own promises. Go and see the first video they issued to advertise the game…
I’ve been at BFH since the first release of the beta keys way back and I was very pleased with the development and how it was maturing. Then lately EA said it was ‘loosing’ money and sacked some workers from its arsenal, while on the other hand acquiring PlayFish (facebook games company). After these events that the drastic changes in BFH started to appear – which I presume were pushed be EA and not DICE (only my guess!).
Also, about 6 months ago EA boasted that they acquired millions of $ from BFH just after 6 months or so and still in Beta, so why now the stupid forcing of paying to play? So that must have been a gross lie?
I play BFH almost regularly and lately tried their latest weapon offers with the VPs. It’s like being an authorized hacker/modder like a few months ago when the game was infested with such players and was literally unplayable. Now they made it unplayable again, but with the exchange for your hard cash to be ‘legal’.
I’m not going to pay for such stupid ‘upgrades’ that makes the game unfair so not to encourage them for further additions of stupidities. I just play with the standard weapons, no health widgets and no other addons. I just call those that kill me with the super weapons BF-N00BS, and wave to the ones I kill with the standard weapons to make them aware that I killed them by skill and not with other unbalancing advantages ;) (Mind you I’m 33 not a teen).
I too don’t see a long life to BFH if it continues in the destructive path that it lately took. You just can’t lie (and go against your promises) and sell – these don’t mix!

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4. heartlessgamer - December 9, 2009

@Brian

Isn’t the problem for BF:H that its a beta they are treating as a full blown commercial product? I think we would be in a different situation had they communicated to everyone to that these changes were coming and it was for testing purposes to validate the business model.

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5. Wilhelm2451 - December 9, 2009

@Brian – Actually you were quite clear on that point previously and one must agree that if the game isn’t paying the bills, you have to do what it takes to change that or shut the doors.

I was, again, unclear on the answer I was seeking, which is more tactical and player focused; when does the cash shop become obnoxious in our… or my… favorite F2P fantasy MMORPG?

That threshold obviously varies. We’ve seen Darren’s rant on the $10 horse in Runes of Magic (and remind him of it whenever we can). Obviously his point had been reached. For other people, a lot of other people, that horse was no big deal. I have personally yet to see a model that would keep me from playing a game I really enjoyed, but I have not made anything like a study of the subject.

And to wrap it back up into what you were saying, maybe it would be good to be able to identify the “red flag” push for the cash store that means the business model isn’t holding up. If I really like the game, that might be a signal to actually buy something. Of course, the way things go, anything obnoxious enough to be a red flag would probably annoy enough people that it would become a self-fulling prophecy of doom.

@Heartless_ – I was surprised to learn that BFH is still in beta. Certainly that was a lot more apparent a few months back. That confuses the issue even more so. I blame Google for this eternal beta nonsense.

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6. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - December 10, 2009

Stabs wrote:
Quite possibly it will end up closing anyway.

Sure. But, at least they’re trying something to reduce the chance of that happening. With an under-performing subscription game your options are either to increase revenue (probably by raising the subscription price), or close down. Given how many people think that $10/month is a princely sum and only the biggest and best games deserve more than that, the only real option turns out being closing down period.

heartlessgamer wrote:
Isn’t the problem for BF:H that its a beta they are treating as a full blown commercial product?

Poor beta process and lack of effective communication are issues beyond the business model. Any game could have the same problems and be sunk by them if that affects the players.

Wilhelm2451 wrote:
[W]hen does the cash shop become obnoxious in our… or my… favorite F2P fantasy MMORPG?

As I said, I think it depends on the player. I think WoW’s cash shop for pets is obnoxious, because it’s completely outside the context of the game. It’s a pure money grab from the biggest and likely most profitable MMO out there.

Compare this to Puzzle Pirates, where the system is integrated into the game. Doubloons are given to you within the context of the game; I think this works better even if some people think they disassociate price from the game too much. You can play most of the game without obtaining any doubloons, and if you want to do something that requires doubloons you can earn in-game cash to buy them from other players. Even though there’s a greater requirement to use doubloons in Puzzle Pirates than there is to buy a WoW pet for cash, I think the system is integrated into the game a lot better. When I release a game with microtransactions, it’s going to take the lessons taught by the Puzzle Pirates system.

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