Tag Archives: Business Model

New Eden and the Death of the Subscription Model

You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

-Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

On Wednesday this week I was arguably somewhat critical of CCP’s monetization policy in EVE Online. (I see myself as most in a state of exhausted indifference at this point, but sometimes tone doesn’t come through.) Today I am going to argue the other way around because life and software and business are all complicated.  There are no simple answers to anything.

There was a new round of outrage at CCP this week over all sorts of things, from bugs to the CSM election, but monetization always gets the biggest response and this week had a couple of hits on that front.

First there was the $230 black ops pack that I mentioned on Tuesday which, due to the inclusion of skill points even got somebody posting on r/eve that we all needed to undock in Jita and shoot the monument.

This has been the go-to move since Incarna by people who didn’t understand what happened during Incarna.  As much as I’d like you to go back and read my Wednesday post, I’ll sum it up: shooting the monument did nothing, people unsubscribing led to change.

Also, with the Jita 4-4 revamp, the monument is hidden around back of the new station and no longer visible from the undock.  CCP has successfully sidelined the protest zone.

Can you see the protest going on? Me neither.

Anyway, the frog was on the boil once again with the black ops pack when people discovered that, since Tuesday’s patch, if you lose a ship it appears that there is a chance you’ll get a advertisement pop up with your loss suggesting you buy some PLEX to turn into ISK in order to purchase a new one. (I lost a ship this week and didn’t see one, so it might just be for Euros or for accounts less antiquated than my own.)

Use your credit card to finance your revenge!

I had to look at that image a couple of times because at first glance it seemed to imply that you could buy your ship back with cash, a first step on the path to something I expect to happen eventually.  And, of course, I might have been influenced by the fact that EVE Echoes has real money ship insurance.

But no, we aren’t there yet in PC based New Eden.  This was just a hint that you could finance your return with your real life wallet… handy since so many ISK earning avenues have been devastated by the economic reforms of the last year.

So another week, another fire in New Eden.  Film at eleven.

This time around these outrages seemed to spark a mass desire to return to the “subscription only” era, back when EVE Online was at its peak and everything was good.  (Except, of course, it wasn’t because the only thing more persistent than “EVE is dying” is players complaining about CCP and their handling of the game.)

Unfortunately, few supporters of the “subscription only” idea seem to be aware of the brutal nature of the situation.

EVE Online subscribers peaked in 2013 when they claimed to have hit the half million mark.

20% of those were probably on the Serenity server in China and, while that doesn’t mean they weren’t earning the company any money, CCP wasn’t getting anything close to $15 a month out of them.

Still, that leaves 400K subscribers in the west paying in US Dollars or Euros or whatever local convertible currency they had to hand.  That number, and the fact that the game is still around to argue about today, probably marks EVE Online out as the most successful open world PvP everywhere MMORPG in the west… though that isn’t a hugely high bar, given that most other contenders had to either make PvE servers to survive (e.g. Ultima Online) or imploded (how many versions of Darkfall were there?).

Anyway, CCP was able to make a go of a business with that many subscribers and even had pretensions about creating other games… all of which failed, but EVE Online remains.

I would estimate that EVE Online has fewer than half as many subscribers here now in 2021.  Things peaked in 2013, but it was a downhill ride after that.  Hilmar has thrown around numbers like the game having a monthly active user count somewhere between 200K and 300K, but he omits how many of them are Alpha clones… non-subscribers… and how many of them are new players, 96% of whom bail out in the first 30 days.

In the time between 2013 and now the price of many things has gone up but the subscription price remains the same… I had a whole post about this a bit ago… and the subscriber base has been cut in half.

So, taken literally, the suggestion to go back to a subscription only business model would mean CCP bringing in half the revenue they were in 2013.  That seems like a non-starter, even if they were not owned by Pearl Abyss.

But wait, even that is optimistic.  I do not know how many people earn ISK in game to buy PLEX in order to pay their subscription, but it is a number larger than zero and big enough to attract CSM candidates interested in buying votes.  Most of those accounts probably go dormant in a subscription only situation, so we’re at less than half of peak revenue.  We’re back in 2006 maybe, if we’re lucky, which was a crazy time in EVE but not an era that would pay today’s bills.

There are, of course, solutions being offered.  At the top of the list is raising the price of the subscription.  As I have written before, that seems like a sure fire way to drive away more players, especially since CCP would have to at least double the monthly price to make the model work.

Then there is the “stop sucking” group who believes if the new player experience or some neglected feature was fixed subscriptions would surge.  This is wishful thinking at best.

Still, that is better than the magical thinking brigade which includes a new and persistent faction that believes if CCP would only allow player made ship SKINs in the online store their financial problems would be solved.  Leaving aside Sturgeon’s law and the tragic history of player made content in MMORPGs, the operating theory of this group seems to be that SKINs are just mods and if Skyrim or Valheim or Minecraft can have mods then so can EVE Online.  It is like a festival of ignorance.

So it is not going to happen, not here in 2021.  The “subscription required” model is a thing of the past except for a few select titles.

Which isn’t to say anybody has to like the situation the game is in.  The first decade of the twenty-first century was a charmed time, with many fresh seeming MMORPGs and a universal subscription model that seemed to keep the genre, if not pure, and least not irredeemably tainted.

But the past is the past.  Besides which, half of the appeal of EVE Online has been facing adversity and sharing the effort with others.  We’ve always been angry at CCP and this horrible game and play it in part because the bonds shared suffering creates.

So go shoot the monument in Jita I guess.  Join in and talk with some fellow protestors.  It is hardly less pointless than a lot of the game and maybe you’ll make some friends you can complain about CCP with.

Incarna a Decade Later

It has been ten years since the Incarna expansion released for EVE Online and set off probably the biggest confrontations between CCP its customers in the now 18 year history of the game.

Incarna – June 2011

It came at a moment when CCP was at its absolute pinnacle of ambition and hubris.  Before Incarna the company was shooting for the stars, had set their sights on, in their own words, world domination.  Before, EVE Online was just a stepping stone on their path to greatness.

Afterwards… well, EVE Online is really the only money maker they’ve had.

Which isn’t an uncommon story in tech.  It is rare for a company that finds success with one product to be able to repeat that success with another.  Even less common, however, is finding success at all.  So you have to give them that.

I always find it odd that the events around the Incarna expansion get summed up by some as “monocle-gate,” a reference to the  $70 cosmetic item introduced into the in-game store.  People who use the term “monocle-gate” brand themselves as outsiders in my eyes, as the monocle was a side-show at best and, once everything had calmed down, stayed in the in-game store without much further comment.

For many people, myself included, it was avatars and captain’s quarters that broke our faith in the company.

Walking in stations was a bad idea.

Or at least it was a bad idea for CCP as their execution was less than stellar.

After hints and hype and neglect of the rest of the game, to say that the captain’s quarters were underwhelming is an understatement.

What is on Space TV today?

I came back to the game just to try out the expansion and I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the update.  And to get this feature they had to not only forego working on other more core issues to the game, but pretty much had to rob the World of Darkness team of resources as well.

I’m not sure CCP could have pulled off a World of Darkness MMO, but the diversion of resources from that and DUST 514 made sure we would never find out.

More importantly to many players, the captain’s quarters replaced the hangar view that had been a staple of the game since launch and which had the utility of immediately displaying which ship you were in as it was right there in the middle of your screen.  If you didn’t care for the useless fluff that was the new quarters, your only alternative was a view of a hangar door.  That hangar door was viewed by many as, and I apologize for dredging up this ancient angry metaphor, a slap in the face.

When Hilmar derided requests for a return of the old hangar, dismissing it as “ship spinning” people were pissed.  When he pushed back on growing player complaints about the changes, he hyped up CCP’s technical achievements at their ability to inject solo avatar play into a spaceship game.  He wasn’t going to listen to player complaints.  CCP was going to stay the course.

Not listening to players remains Hilmar’s signature move, as we saw most recently during the Blackout and are experiencing now during the economic starvation plan.

So a useless and processor hungry new feature, the removal of the interface everybody was used to, the neglect of many problems in the game to focus on fluff, Hilmar’s pompous “I know best” attitude, a requirement that 3rd party apps pay a license fee, and even that monocole, had effectively poured gasoline all over the landscape.

All it needed was a match to really set it off, and CCP was happy to oblige in the form of the Greed is Good? issue of their in-house magazine Fearless. (link to it here)  When that leaked… some coincidental timing on that… with its discussion of selling premium ships, gold ammo, and other crass monetization schemes, it was too much for many players.

People speak of the Jita riots which, like the monocle, betrays a simplified view of the event.  A bunch of players did orbit the monument in Jita and shoot it as a show of protest.  But the monument wasn’t a destructible object in the game, so it was very much symbolic.  Did that shift CCP’s view?  I somehow doubt it.

Word is that, on hearing that CCP only cares what players do and not what they say, many players decided to see if unsubscribing was an action that would bring attention to their unhappiness.  I was certainly in that group, cancelling my subscription in annoyance at the company.  That seems a much more likely lever of change when it came to CCP’s view of things.

In a rare display relevance, the whole fiasco gave CSM6 an opening into some agency and they helped harness player discontent at the company into a coherent message.  For a brief period of time the CSM was a voice the company couldn’t ignore, which led to an emergency CSM summit in Iceland, where some accord was reached, though both sides had to issue their own statements on the whole thing as CCP wouldn’t step down from Hilmar’s attitude.  And Hilmar was like Sadam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War, defiant, shooting his gun in the air, and still claiming victory in the face of catastrophe.

While CCP wouldn’t admit they had been wrong in any of their decisions or attitudes, their actions after the fact played a different tune.  Maybe Hilmar had a point with that idea.

For quite a stretch CCP tread very lightly on the monetization front.  They learned that moving slowly, drawing tentative lines, and laying smokescreens (i.e. lying) was the way to go.  So we went from skill injectors and a promise never to introduce skill points directly into the game to skill point packs in the cash shop over a few years.  It took time, but they got there by making each step small enough to not generate outrage until we got to the destination.  The slippery slope demonstrated.

On the bright side, CCP did also show a renewed interest in actually fixing things that were bad or broken in the game.  We didn’t always get what we wanted and CCP has had some strange ideas on what is good for the game, but they have at least kept focus on it.

And then there was walking in stations.  Player reaction made it a feature that was pretty much dead on arrival.  They did introduce a few different captain’s quarters to match the different empires, but it was never seriously worked on after Incarna.

CCP demonstrated that they did not have the resources to make walking in stations a feature of the game and keep the flying in space aspect of the game evolving as well.  What we received with Incarna was hardly more than a mock up of a real walking in stations feature.  Making it viable, useful, and multiplayer would have required CCP to essentially build a new game, ignoring the old.

Flying in space won out over walking in stations.  You don’t ditch your paying customers for some theoretical new customers.  The history of tech is littered with the wrecks of companies who tried that.

The captain’s quarters lingered in game, with barely 10% of the player base opting to use it.  Then came Upwell structures, new code that did not have the captain’s quarter’s integrated into it.  Given how long it took CCP just to get insurance available within citadels, integrating the captain’s quarters was clearly not in the cards.  Usage of the feature declined further.

Game time spent in Captain’s Quarters

Then came the drive towards 64-bit, which was being held back by the code.

One of the first things that we want to investigate is to release a 64-bit EVE client to better utilize your available system memory when playing. Compiling a 64-bit client has been held back by the outdated middleware that was needed by captain’s quarters.

That was the death knell for the feature.  It will never return.

In the end, Incarna did at least focus CCP on what was important to the current player base, and we have gotten a lot of improvements over the years.  It hasn’t stopped them from going in on VR or believing they can make a successful shooter, but they don’t neglect flying in space as much.

It also made CCP more wily when it came to monetization, pushing them to boil the frog slowly.  But, as the frog knows, we still get boiled in the end.

Related:

Proving Some Sort of Point about Video Game Pricing

I published a post about the $15 MMO subscription price… it feels like a while back because I wrote most of it in April and then didn’t get around to posting it until the middle of this month… that went on about Moore’s Law, software, and how the cost of everything in tech doesn’t really go down over time.  It is mostly just the capability of hardware versus price that keeps changing.  The same dollar buys you twice the computing power every other year.  It doesn’t affect the cost of food, gasoline, or rent.

The primary question in the whole thing was whether or not the $15 a month subscription price for MMORPGs… and, by extension, the $60 box price for AAA games… was really a reasonable expectation 20 years down the road from when they were set.

Daybreak subscriber prices

Raph Koster has opined on the cost of making video games for years and has data to back up what he says.  That linked post came from a discussion that started in the comment thread on a post on this blog.

Given the small, rather niche audience that this blog has, I was interested to see what responses, if any, I might get.  The responses were a bit nuanced, though I would say there was a bias towards not paying any more than the current $15 a month.

And then Massively OP picked up on my post and asked the question of the staff and their own wider audience and… well… I can see why Raph Koster said that studios don’t dare raise prices from the current set standards.

Seriously, the staff and most of the comments come across not just against any raise in price, but often insisted that we should be paying less.

A couple of reasonable souls allowed that the overall rate of inflation might justify something like $17-20, but most people were adamantly against any such thing, often for very subjective reasons, like feeling that this game or that isn’t delivering as much content as they once did.

Is it reasonable to expect, as example, Lord of the Rings Online to deliver as much content when they’ve gone from making $100 million back in 2013 to something around $14 million in 2020?

It doesn’t matter, people feel cheated, that they’re paying as much or more due to cash shops and are getting less for their money.

No need to put a bullet in price rise idea, it is clearly dead already.

Of course, as I opined in the thread, the video game industry hasn’t exactly done itself any favors.  The wealthy Bobby Kotick or Tim Sweeney are the poster boys for greed, making obscene amounts of money while keeping pay and benefits for the people who do the work well below what comparable ability would earn a person other tech segments.  When Kotick’s compensation is cut in half and still looks obscene, that says something… it says that video game companies are making plenty of money already, thank you very much.

And the fact that Steam added 10,263 games to its online store in 2020, a storefront long complained about by developers both due to the regular sales that have cut the average sales price for titles and the 30% tariff Valve takes off the top of every sale (something the rent seeking Tim Sweeney wants a cut of, which is the only reason he is battling with Valve, Google, and Apple… it certainly isn’t the concern for gamers he professes),  seems to indicate that there are a lot of developers out there that are just fine with the situation as it is.

I say that because, in a rational economic situation, self interest would drive some, if not most, of those developers to seek better paying jobs in industries where their talents would earn them considerably more in compensation.  But video games are emotional, a “dream job,” that people will sacrifice to pursue.  (Or is it the corrupt developer career path they are seeking?)

Then there is how consistently two-faced various companies have been about monetization in the face of their inability to raise box prices.  It is always fun to call out EA for saying dumb things like that their pseudo gambling lock boxes are ethical and fun surprise mechanics as they target children by advertising in a toy catalog, but the industry group that represents them tried to upstage the FTC hearing on industry practices by holding a press release where the promised, cross their heart hope to die, that the industry could regulate itself even as Activision patenting game matching algorithms that would pair cheapskates up with those who paid to win to get superior gear so that they would feel the need to spend in order to compete.  As I said previously, this is all a very strong approach to getting the industry regulated.

And so I suppose I cannot really blame the people commenting that they should be paying less for games.  The big players in the industry have cultivated an environment where the whole thing feels like… a business?

Wait, that can’t be right, can it?

How Long can the Fifteen Dollar Subscription Hold Out?

I remember, way way back in the day, a user review for EverQuest that was an all caps exercise in outrage over the fact that, on top of the purchase price for the game it required you to pay a fee every single month you wished to play.  It ended with a call to boycott the publisher of the game to put a stop to this complete rip-off of a business model.

I think EverQuest was $9.95 a month back then too.  It wasn’t even to the $15.00 mark we’ve come to accept as the norm.

Daybreak subscriber prices

But we’ve been at that $15.00 mark, with a discount for purchasing multiple months, since before the launch of World of Warcraft.  The fact that WoW adopted it pretty much set the price in stone.  I recall Mark Jacobs being soundly rebuked when he suggested that maybe Warhammer Online would cost more, a premium price for a premium game and all that.

We have been conditioned by Moore’s Law to expect tech items to cost less over time.  While the law itself specifically concerns itself with the number of transistors that can fit in a given space, the corollary effects include the iPhone 8 in my pocket outperforming a 1970s Cray supercomputer for a tiny fraction of the former’s original price.  We get better, cheaper hardware all the time.

And some of that has been reflected in other pricing.  It used to cost an hourly rate to log onto the online services of the 80s like GEnie and CompuServe.

GEnie Price “cut”

Now most people in urban and large suburban areas have access to some form of high speed internet and the web, while splattered liberally with ads, is mostly free.

But that is mostly hardware and bandwidth driven.  Software is different for many reasons, though the immaturity of software development methodology and the constant need to update due to security issues and defects has a lot to do with it.

The outsider view is that you write your code and, having written, move on.  The reality, which I can harp on about ad nauseum, is that a development group on a mature product can easily find itself spending most of its time dealing with problems that come up simply due to changes in the environment the code lives in.  Every product manage wants more new features to sell and hates to hear the dev team talking about the need to upgrade outdated libraries or other maintenance functions.

So we are in an unnatural situation when it comes to video game software, with their pricing stuck in time. (There was a good discussion of this in the comments on a post here a few years back.)  Triple-A titles are $60.  MMORPG subscriptions are $15 a month.  And so it has been for coming on to 20 years.

Enterprise and productivity markets have long since gone to annual licenses and even Microsoft wants you to rent Office365 from them rather than buy the hidden, but still available, stand-alone Office package. (And, having just moved an Office 2013 license from an old machine to a new one, let me tell you that they are keen to throw a lot of chairs in your way to get you to give up and get on board their rental bandwagon.  But I don’t think many of the products in the Microsoft Office bundle have change enough since the 90s to warrant a rental fee.  If I could still use Microsoft Word 5.1a, I would.)

But video games seem stuck.  Worse than stuck in the case of MMOs, where free to play has become the norm and only a few strong titles can afford to hold the line on requiring a subscription beyond what is essentially a demo period.  My headline is a lie in that the fifteen dollar subscription hasn’t held… but in the opposite way that I meant!

Stymied on the box price and subscription front, video game studios have ventured out in other directions.  So now we have cash shops and DLC and season passes and cosmetics and pets and mounts and character boosts and special servers and game time tokens and skill points and xp boosts and anniversary editions and premium editions and collector’s editions and even a $250 “friend’s and family” edition, all to eke out a bit more cash from the end users who inevitably shout “Greed!” and “Pay to Win” at the first hint that they might feel mildly incentivized to make one of those purchases.

It isn’t that I want to pay more for any of these games.  I have a kid in college, and education is one front where people haven’t been shy about raising prices.  And I have been notably prickly about some of those items listed myself.

But even though these games I play were launched in 2007, 2004, 2003, and even 1999, the people who work on them have to pay rent, buy food, medical care, and everything else here in 2021.  And stuff has not gotten cheaper.  It feels like eventually we hit one of those “you must pick two” scenarios where the options are:

  • Don’t pay more for games
  • Don’t have Pay to Win in your games
  • Your game stays in business

So I wonder when we’re going to have to pony up some more cash to pay.  Until then I try to temper my ire when companies do things they said they wouldn’t do or trot out packages or plans that seem ludicrous to me.  If they don’t pay the bill then there isn’t a game to be played.

Quote of the Day – Let’s Not Talk About Money

I am tired of having my conversations with players be about the money. I want it to be 100% about the game.

John Smedley, Twitter

I can buy that… so to speak.  I’m tired of games constantly reminding me that I need to buy things.  And a lot of people seem to be jumping on Smed’s post about not going with the F2P model after being such a proponent of the business model.  SynCaine, Keen, and Massively OP all went there pretty quickly, each with their own take. (Oh, and I missed Jewel somehow.)

Not that Smed has ceased to be a fan of the model.

I still think F2P is a great model, but for the reasons I stated we’re going in a different direction.

John Smedley, Twitter

Sure.  Certainly some companies have made it work very well.  It is hard to argue with success.  But I am not sure where to go with this next quote.

too many people not related to development end up having a lot to say about the monetization part of games and that sucks shit.

John Smedley, Twitter

My gut response to that is, “Good.”  Part of me is glad that making the decision to bring real-world money transactions into a game so that they are pretty much a constant and intrusive part of the experience doesn’t come without cost to the developer.  I don’t know if he is more concerned about marketing, accounting, senior management, investors, or the customers, or all of the above, but when playing the game is about revenue, as opposed to just buying the game or subscribing to the game, then of course it becomes a focus all around.

Another strike against anybody arguing that business model is somehow separate and distinct from the game itself.  It ain’t, not for the customer, not for the company, and, as we now see, not for the developer either.

And some day Smed will actually have a game to talk about, now that we’ve beat business model to death… though if it ends up not being $20, expect more NGE-level rage! Hah!

WildStar Goes Free to Play

Two years ago I was wondering if The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar were throwing themselves under the bus by declaring for a monthly subscription model in an era when only a select few games seem able to hold enough customers to make that model work for their vision.

Wildstar_logo

Back then the team doing TESO said that a subscription model was essential to deliver the experience they wanted while the WildStar team felt they could offer a PLEX-like option and declare themselves free to play already.

The subscription business model champions of 2013 have come around to free to play in 2015.

TESO went first, going free back in January, while WildStar, after a precipitous drop in revenue, reflected in the NCsoft quarterly results… I believe somebody said that WildStar might end up bringing in less revenue that City of Heroes when NCsoft shut that down… announced that they were going free to play back in May.  This staved off closure by the trigger happy team at NCsoft for the time being.

And today is the day.  WildStar is now officially free to play, another such title in a veritable forest of free to play MMORPGs.  I cannot name a single factor that would set it out from the crowd of other options.  We shall see if free is sufficient inducement for players to keep the game going.

The WildStar site has been updated and there is a FAQ spelling out what free to play means for the game.  As with the game itself, nothing in the FAQ stands out as new and different enough to separate it from the pack.

Quote of the Day – F2P Insight

…acting like some sort of free-to-play evangelist who’s trying his best to convert the unwashed masses is exactly the sort of smarmy, duplicitous behavior that has earned free-to-play the bad reputation that it carries today and that it will carry into the future.

-Jef Reahard, The fallacy of ‘F2P insight’ in the MMO market

To a certain extent, the F2P ship has sailed.  You have to be special snowflake, premium, and deemed worthy by a big enough following or you have to be free.   That is the dividing line in the MMORPG space, with scant few left on the monthly subscription side of the fence.  The market is too crowded in our favored niche, so for many games it is go to the cash shop or go home.  So it is a necessary evil, if evil it be.

Which isn’t to say that F2P doesn’t deserve some of the reputation it has acquired.  As “Facebook game” has come to mean “spammy piece of shit” to a lot of people, “F2P MMORPG” ends up sounding a lot like, “Cash shop focused, lockbox hyping, hucksterism.”  So I get when Jef looks at the MMORPG world and comes up with gems like:

Cash shop “convenience” items are the equivalent of buying a mop and some Ajax from the guy who purposefully crapped on your kitchen floor so you’d need to buy the mop and the Ajax.

I can see where he is coming from.

And yes, you can make a parallel argument about subscription based MMOs.

The point is that, as much as some people want to insist that the business model is a separate and distinct thing from the game, in the MMORPG sphere it seems clear to me that the business model drives the game.  If you have a subscription model, you come up with things to keep people subscribed.  They may be horrible, grindy, ill-conceived things, but you can see the hand of the business model in the design.

And if you have a cash shop driven business model, you need to get people to use the cash shop if you want to get paid… and then you offer up a subscription in order to bypass some of the more onerous hurdles designed to send you to the online store while continuing to wave lock boxes in your newly subscribed customer’s face.

The Elder Scrolls Online – No Subscription Required

I mentioned a while back that The Elder Scrolls Online was ditching their subscription required business model and heading down one of the various paths to free game access.  Well, that date arrived this week, overshadowed a bit by St. Patrick’s day I suppose.  I got a note via email pitching the new tagline for the game, Tamriel Unlimited.

TESONoSub

And so it was that the reality of the current MMO market overcame some of their initial guiding principles, such as:

The fact that the word “monetized” exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don’t want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for – with our system, they get it all.

-Matt Firor, General Manager of ZeniMax Online, on the original subscription model choice

Things will now be “monetized” in Tamriel, the world in which The Elder Scrolls Online is played.  The newly added Crown Store will sell cosmetic and convenience items and additional content added to the game will need to be purchased unless you choose to maintain the optional subscription.  And, of course, you still need to buy the box in order to play, something that will no doubt stay in place at least until sales of the upcoming PlayStation and Xbox versions of the game taper off.

No "separate but equal" message in this picture...

No “separate but equal” message in this picture…

All of which isn’t to say that this is not the right decision for the game.  There was certainly some skepticism about TESO going with the subscription model back when they announced it in late 2013.  They seemed to be bucking the trend, heading in a direction that proved false for so many games before it.  And, as it turns out, they didn’t even last a year, having dropped the subscription model just shy of the April 4th launch anniversary.

And now we shall see what happens.  The market is still crowded with competitors and dropping the subscription model is not a guaranteed key to success.  In just the last month or so we have had a look into the turmoil at Turbine, we have seen the newly minted Daybreak Gaming Company shed a lot of staff because its games could not support their financial weight, and just yesterday there were headlines about Perfect World Entertainment cutting staff as well due to financial issues.

Free won’t wash away your sins.

Anyway, TESO still has a few cards in its hand.  It can still get revenue from box sales and it has the two console versions headed to market this June.  It may not have to monetize every nook and cranny with a button to buy something, as happened in LOTRO.

All that said, I still remain convinced that the best case scenario for Bethesda was to create a four (or more) player co-op successor to Skyrim so that people could roam the wide world with a few friends… Tamriel always struck me as a large and lonely place… maybe even with a Minecraft-style private server option where you could control the setting and apply mods.  That, to me, was the winning hand.

The Elder Scrolls Online Ditching Mandatory Subscriptions

The fact that the word “monetized” exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don’t want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for – with our system, they get it all.

-Matt Firor, General Manager of ZeniMax Online, on the original subscription model choice

In anticipation of the console versions of the game, planned for launch this June 9th, playing The Edler Scrolls Online will soon no longer require a subscription… there will still be an “optional” subscription available that will provide specific benefits… changing the business model to… what do we call it now… buy to play with optional subscription that will likely be seen as mandatory for anybody serious about playing the game?

According to the FAQ on the help page, the big change will happen on March 17, 2015.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you too!

No "separate but equal" message in this picture...

No “separate but equal” message in this picture…

Whatever it is, the game will now fall in the free to play side of the chart in the “subscription vs. free” wars, leaving just World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Final Fantasy XIV as major titles that require you to buy the box and pay a monthly subscription.  (Oh, and WildStar, because the F2P announcement for that isn’t just around the corner or anything.)  I suspect ZeniMax would do away with the price of the box for TESO if it were not for the console versions coming out, where they will want to get their $59.99 up front.  But look for the Windows version to get cheaper.

All of this has gotten the game a name change.  It is now, officially, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited.  Because… marketing!

Now the question is, what is the real plan here?  At some point in the past the people at ZeniMax made the conscious decision that, in order to support, maintain, and enhance TESO, while providing player the experience they wanted to deliver, they needed to charge players a monthly subscription.  Right?  They talked about this back when they made the announcement that the game would be subscription only.

Since I am going to take a wild guess and assume that dropping those plans is not in the cards, they have to make it up one way or another.  The FAQ is, unsurprisingly, a bit vague on that issue.

The first way would to be to use the SOE method (at least in EverQuest II) and just make the game really annoying to play without a subscription.  The FAQ however, says:

What restrictions are being placed on the game and players now that subscriptions are no longer required to play?

None. The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is the full version of the game, with all previous updates and content additions, including the new Champion and Justice systems.

Taking that at face value, it seems that ZeniMax won’t be restricting equipment or auction house access or similar measures.  No mention of popping up “subscribe now!” alerts in the middle of combat, but let’s assume they won’t go that route.

Another way would be to give subscribers benefits that people would really want… and pay for.  So what does a subscriber get?  Again, the FAQ says that for a 30 day subscription a player gets:

1500 crowns at the start of each 30-day membership period

  • Access to all downloadable content for the duration of membership
  • Exclusive character progression bonuses for the duration of membership
    • 10% bonus to experience point gain
    • 10% bonus to crafting research
    • 10% bonus to crafting inspiration gain
    • 10% bonus to gold acquisition

Longer subscription periods, 90 and 180 days, scale on the crowns front, the new RMT currency to be used in the new Crown Store.  So what is the real bennie from subscribing?  Will that be $15 worth of cash shop Crowns plus a minor boost to various player advancements.  10% isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things, at least to my mind.  I am not sure I would bother, though I do not know what “access to downloadable content” means.  I am going to guess that while all previous updates will be available, all future ones will cost.   But without a look at what may be coming, and how much it will cost ala carte, I cannot really assess the merit of subscribing for that, so we’ll call it a wash for the moment.

Which leaves the cash shop, the soon to be available Crown Store, as the main revenue scheme I guess.  What will they be selling in the Crown Store?  The FAQ says;

Crowns allow you to purchase convenience and customization items (such as pets and mounts) and to access content offered in the in-game Crown Store.

So there will be expansions to the game in the form of downloadable content, the usual player advancement bonus items, experience boost and the like, will be there to tempt both free and subscribing players alike, along with some pets and mounts.

But what else will they offer?

I ask because experience shows that those choices will not be enough.  The Lord of the Rings Online “go free and triple revenue” story has demonstrated that, over time, people will become sated with those sorts of things and you will have to add more ways to spend the RMT currency, because if mounts alone could keep a game going, LOTRO would be set.

Even SOE, which hasn’t gone full Turbine and added a second RMT currency (that you need to buy with the first RMT currency) or stuck “buy now” options on nearly every dialog window in the game (though they do show up in a lot of them now), has shown that you have to have new stuff regularly and that some items need to be exclusive to the cash shop.  Mounts.  Cosmetic items.  Housing.  Subscriber services.  Subscriptions… wait, no… SOE screwed that last one up.

So where do you think The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited will head with its cash shop?  Do you think they will offer a PLEX-like item or insta-level character boosts or lock boxes, all of which are en vogue in MMO circles right now?

And, probably most important of all, will this get people back and playing the game?

Of course, this will likely be the topic of the day many places.  I will link them here as they pop up.

Thinking on Free

The word “free” comes with quite a bit of baggage.  Just sticking to money, as opposed to freedom, rights, and so forth, the baggage is not always flattering.  I see things being offered as “free” all the time, usually falling into one of these categories (straight from my spam folder):

  • Buy one, get one free
  • Free with purchase
  • Free gift with paid subscription
  • Free if you order now
  • Free consultation
  • Free resort vacation

The first four are not free.  Nothing is “free” if you have to buy something to get it.  And of the latter two, a free consultation is likely nothing more than an extended sales pitch, while the final one on the list is free if you don’t count the time you need to spend at the hard sell presentation to get you to buy a time share condo.  The purpose of the exercise is to get you to buy, not to give you a vacation.

Basically, the word “free” is pretty much a red flag to me.  I am either not getting anything for free or it is just a lure to try and sell me something.

Sometimes it is okay.  At the grocery store, if something on the shopping list is “Buy X, Get Y Free,” then that amounts to a price break, so long as it isn’t something perishable that will likely go bad before we use it.

So, despite the fact that, at an intellectual level, I can accept the MMO free to play business model for what it is and can see that it is beneficial in some ways ( it has probably kept LOTRO alive a couple of years longer than it might have otherwise lasted) at another more emotional level, it still sits on the same plane as somebody trying to sell me a timeshare in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Cue rant about EverQuest II popping up the “upgrade to GOLD” dialog in the middle of combat.)

Does anybody use “free” as their prime marketing message and not suffer from this?  Can free be a business model without the intent to hit people up early and often for some money?

Free, Free, everywhere!

Free, Free, everywhere!

I like the Rift ad especially.  That they felt the need to add “No Trials. No Tricks. No Traps.” speaks volumes.  And I think, of F2P models, they do offer more for free than most.  Probably too much, truth be told.  But it is clear that they understand the stigma, while perpetuating it at the same time.

Of course, this might just be me.  There is a very strong “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” theme in my world view.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks back after reading a particularly asinine “how dare you expect to play for free” comment in some thread somewhere.  “Devs gotta eat, who are you to question them?” sort of stuff.  I should have saved that link… or maybe it was better that I did not.  Anyway, I started in but my head of steam dissipated quickly, as it tends to on this topic these days.

And then the European Commission announced that they were looking into the use of the word “free” when used with games that have in-app purchases, with an eye to it being misleading.  And while their focus seems to be more on mobile apps, if “free” becomes bad for in-app purchases on one platform, it is pretty easy to then extend it to others.

I thought this would lead to another round of free to play blog posts, but not much has come along.  Azuriel posits that basically nothing can ever be called free if the European Commission’s potential ruling comes to pass, at least in the EU.  Meanwhile, Green Armadillo seems to be more on my own wave length, that using the word “free” when you fully expect somebody to pay is misleading at some level.

I was also interested to learn in that post that League of Legends has apparently stopped marketing with the word “free.”  Good for them.  (Though I had to quickly update my collage of free, as I had an old “Play for Free” LoL image in it.)

I can be a cynic, the world having thus shaped me, and talk about money tends to bring out the worst in people… you can mess with a lot of things, but as soon as cash is involved, the lid tends to come right off… but I also have mixed feelings on this.  Who decides what the litmus test is to determine how “free” something has to be in order to claim to be “free?”  And there is something to be said for personal responsibility.

What do you think?  To be “free” or not to be “free?”