Free to Play and the Implied Social Contract August 13, 2012Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Vanguard SOH, World of Warcraft.
I am going to start sounding like I hate free to play if I am not careful.
I do not hate free to play.
Free to play can bring a lot to a subscription game that transitions to the model.
The primary benefit is more players.
Bringing more players to a declining MMO can be a wonderful thing. When I was playing the short-lived EverQuest II Extended, one of the best things about it was that the world seemed quite alive relative to the subscription side of the house.
It is also very nice to not be tied to a monthly subscription plan when it comes to games that you no longer play regularly, but still like to drop into now and again. For example, I doubt I would have resubscribed to EverQuest II just to be able to see… well… whatever it was they did to Qeynos.
These are clear benefits on which I think most people can agree.
But I am also mindful that there are costs as well.
There are the inconveniences, the nagging, the intrusion of crass commercialism into an alleged escapist fantasy world, and the inevitable realization that, unless you’re buying what they have on offer in the cash shop this month, you really aren’t important to the company any more.
But you can get used to that. Or some people can. Probably most people can.
The problem, as I see it, is that you may have to get used to the way things are over and over again. Currently, “free to play” is a pretty empty phrase, since it can mean so many things.
A long and winding thread of “logic” follows after the cut in order to spare the front page a wall of text.
Ah, remember the good old days?
Back when MMOs were primarily a monthly subscription business, we reached a point where there was a defacto standard, a set of services and behaviors we expected and on which most companies delivered.
If you paid your $15 a month… even pricing had a standard… you were allowed access to a wide range of content and character options, access which generally did not change. An expansion might come along that offered more content or options. You might have to purchase that expansion, but after that point your account had free reign in that new content as well.
The system was simple and, perhaps more importantly, reliable. Companies messed with it at their peril. Remember when it was suggested that Warhammer Online, being a “premium” game (i.e. better than its competitors, no really) might charge more that the subscription standard of $15 a month? If you were going to step outside of the box, you had to have something worthwhile.
The monthly subscription model chugged along mostly unchanged for a decade. We all knew what it meant to be a subscription game, even if it wasn’t always spelled out in detail. But it was implied by the behavior of the companies and their subscribers.
The problem is, of course, that MMOs do not go away. Thirteen years down the road EverQuest is probably still holding onto more subscribers than were in the initial pre-launch goals.
And then there is World of Warcraft, the shiny behemoth, which shed enough customers last quarter to keep any two other MMOs happy and profitable. It still has 9 million customers, probably half of which are US/EU style monthly subscribers who keep on paying.
So, it was pretty much a done deal that, at some point, MMOs would have to start competing on price and barrier to entry. We have seen enough subscription MMOs launch, peak, and begin to hemorrhage in a single quarter for even that story to get old. So limited free trials gave way to unlimited trials which burst into today’s free to play market. And that market is chaotic because what passes for free to play in one game may differ drastically from what free means elsewhere.
I suspect that chaos will remain. “How free is free?” is a way companies can compete on price… or lack of price.
What I am more interested in is how the free to play model for individual games will evolve over time, and SOE’s games seem to be the ones to watch at the moment.
SOE, once a bastion of monthly subscription games, has taken up the free to play (your way(tm)) banner and has transitioned to a fully free lineup, with one minor exception. (What will become of PlanetSide?)
Free to play has been a long time building at SOE. Their currency, Station Cash, was introduced almost four years ago in EverQuest II, along with some over-priced cosmetic gear. There was a dalliance with Live Gamer, which introduced a real money auction house to a pair of special EQ2 servers and Vanguard. And while Free Realms came along as their first free to play title, things really kicked off for the corporate transition with the EverQuest II Extended experiment, a year long trial to see if free could work.
It did, and last fall EverQuest II went completely free to play, as did EverQuest this past spring and Vanguard just this past week. And somewhere along the line, DC Universe Online made the quick transition to free as well.
And by losing subscriptions, SOE did more that ditch a publicly stated obligation. The removal of the barrier to entry saw a big increase in players in each game. Now all SOE has to do is pester you to subscribe once you arrive in one of their worlds and get you to buy some Station Cash.
Oh, and get you to spend some of that Station Cash as well, otherwise you might not buy any more. But spending it doesn’t bring in any money, only buying it does. And so they have pushed the Station Cash deals, regularly offering double or triple Station Cash deals or bonuses when you redeem a Station Cash gift card.
And to soak up those piles of discount Station Cash so you will buy more? Well, they sell gear with stats outright in EverQuest and Vanguard. In EverQuest II the economy appears to be more mount and housing based. And in all of the games you could use your Station Cash to finance Gold level subscriptions and purchase expansions. They even offered some very generous sales on some of these items.
Well, they did until somebody did the math and realized that a canny player taking advantage of sales could end up paying as little as $1.25 for their $15 a month subscription. This lead to SOE yanking subscriptions from the cash shop with no advanced notice… or notification of any sort… something that caused a minor uproar. SOE made subscriptions available again for a short time in order to calm things down, but the writing was on the wall.
More recently SOE announced they were pulling the ability to purchase expansion (which might total up to as little as $6.65 if you bought them with the right sales in place) with Station Cash as well, though they learned their lesson this time and gave notice in advance.
So a trend seems to be emerging at SOE.
Ah, but do not worry, SOE knows they have to soak up the pool of Station Cash out there, if only to get you to buy more. And so they are experimenting with new things.
Over in EverQuest they have announced a new feature, The Hero’s Forge, which is essentially a special cosmetic appearance system for old Norrath. It is going live this week.
No big deal right? At this point, what self-respecting fantasy MMO doesn’t have some sort of cosmetic option in game?
The interesting bit though is in the Hero’s Forge FAQ. This will be a per-character feature that you have to purchase with Station Cash, regardless of whether you are a Gold level subscriber or not.
The explanation in the FAQ is that they needed to finance the feature, but did not want to have to tie it to an expansion. This is how new features and content were financed in the past, via expansions. You did not get player housing, for example, unless you purchased the House of Thule expansion.
Of course, at this time, there does not appear to be an EverQuest expansion waiting in the wings to act as a vehicle for such features. That, in and of itself is something of an oddity. For the last decade we have been getting at least one and often two expansions every calendar year. That no expansion has been announced for 2012 might be an additional sign of things to come.
Have we seen the last real EverQuest expansion? Or the last EverQuest II expansion for that matter?
And, if we have, are we also witnessing the breaking of assumptions as to what you get if you are a $15 a month subscriber?
Yes, SOE has gone there before with the $65 Freeblood Vampire race. But that seemed to go over like a lead balloon with even the most loyal subscribers, so I had to wonder if they would go down the path of separating features from subscriptions again. It appears that they have.
Instead, SOE appears to be headed towards more of a downloadable content (DLC) model, where new zones and features will be available on a per character, ala carte basis. And yet they are still pushing people towards their subscription model, while more and more of the buffet is being roped off even from those subscribers.
Yes, they have to make money. Giving it all away for free is a sure fire way to fold. And with a Gold subscription they throw 500 Station Cash in your wallet each month, so you are subsidized somewhat against the cost of things in the store. None of this is an earth shattering change.
But it does feel like things are changing, that even our assumptions about what you get for your $15 a month can no longer be taken for granted. The simple days of the implied social contract that came with the subscription model appear to be fading as companies look for further ways to monetize their games.
And SOE, which has been a leader in embracing new subscription options, is leading again in its usual way. That way is often full of mistakes and miscalculations, but SOE does appear to listen in the end. They haven’t gone full-on Incarna in their foibles of late. But they do try new things.
Are we seeing the wave of the future here for MMOs? Or at least one possible path in the world of free to play?
I suppose EverQuest Next will answer the question for SOE. Will we start getting MMOs with limited initial worlds and day one DLC?
Where will free to play head next?
What cash shop option that was unthinkable before become the norm?
For MMO payment models, this is certainly an interesting time… and you know what they say about living in interesting times.