Tag Archives: Free-To-Play

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.

Quote of the Day – When You Have a F2P Hammer, Every Nail is a Microtransaction

The micro-transaction is so strong and it’s definitely a much better model. I think all companies have to transition over to that.

Tommy Palm of King.com, interview at IGN

IGN is becoming the place to talk about free to play and micro transactions.  And King.com, the new Zynga, certainly has reason to support that point of view.  They are making a lot of money and, true to Tommy’s word, you can “win” Candy Crush Saga without paying.  But they are also monetizing frustration, as has been pointed out by Laralyn McWilliams, which I am not sure gets them a lot of love.

Buy now or start over

Buy now or start over

People defend King.com by pointing out that a lot of people play through the whole game without paying or by noting how much money they make.  But I do not see many F2P advocates examining their monetization scheme (Laralyn McWilliams aside) and asking if that is the best approach.  The monetizing of frustration aside… which alone has kept me from giving a damn about any other game King.com has made… there is the question of buying progress.

Buying my way out of a level with their boosts… and as far as I can tell, there are no levels you cannot win on the first try if you have spent enough money… feels a bit like cheating.  It is like dealing out a hand of solitaire and then giving somebody $1.99 to tell you it is okay to re-arrange the cards so you win any given hand.  I would say that is, in essence, pay to win, except you are not actually playing against anybody but yourself, so I am sure somebody would take me to task.

So maybe it is more like pay to skip playing, in which case why bother playing?  That might explain why only 30% of players who beat Candy Crush Saga paid any money.  Where is the feeling of victory or the bragging rights if you paid your way through the tough bits?

Or to flip that around, I wonder how many of that 30% would admit to paying?  Sure, King.com knows they did, but would they tell their friends?

Anyway, you might excuse Tommy’s exuberance because of the corner of the market he is in and how much money his company is raking in.  They have likely spent more on TV ads for Candy Crush Saga than they did on actually developing the game initially.

But we also had David Georgeson talking about all games being free to play as well, and he definitely lives in a world where there is a lot of development expenses before you can start ringing up microtransaction dollars.

We’re effectively street performers: we go out there and sing and dance and if we do a good job, people throw coins into the hat. And I think that’s the way games should be, because paying $60 up front to take a gamble on whether the game is good or not? You don’t get that money back.

-David Georgeson, busking out in front of IGN

This is, of course, the utopian ideal, the big upside to the whole free to play thing, the idea that you only shell out money for what you like.

And I can certainly find examples to support this idea.

I spent a lot of money… bought the collector’s edition and a lifetime sub… on Star Trek Online, which ended up being a game I really didn’t enjoy playing.  A big fail on my part.

In comparison I spent no money at all on Neverwinter, which also ended up being a game I really didn’t enjoy playing.  But at least it was only time invested.

Those, however, are both negative examples.  Games where I was better, or would have been better off, with free to play.

But when it comes to the whole persistent world MMO genre, of which I am a big fan, I do not have any real positive examples where a free to play game really sold me.  Sure, I have played a lot of Lord of the Rings Online, even after they went F2P, and I was enthusiastic about EverQuest II Extended when it first showed up.  But those were converts from the old subscription model into which I had invested and I have had my ups and downs with both.  I think I am done with EQII, and if I return to LOTRO again, it will be because of Middle-earth and despite the microtransaction in every window nature of their business model.

So, while I am okay with microtransactions in many forms… I have enjoyed games like World of Tanks and War Thunder, and I think the iOS version of LEGO Star Wars has a great model where you get the base game and a few levels for free, then can buy additional content if you like the game… it doesn’t seem to work for me in certain areas.  The money-where-my-mouth is proof is the persistent world MMOs I am currently playing, World of Warcraft and EVE Online.

Fortunately, as small as the world of game development may seem, it still encompasses a broad spectrum of opinions on many subjects.  So while some are gung-ho on F2P, others are sticking with older models.  The Elder Scrolls Online just launched as a subscription model MMO, and WildStar plans to later this year.  Maybe EverQuest Next or Landmark or something else will change my mind, but for now I seem happiest with the alleged outdated model.

There is no one true path, and I always wonder and people who make declarations in defiance of that.  The industry cannot even decide on DRM.  We have had industry voices wondering while companies bother, yet just this week Square Enix was saying that DRM is here to stay.

Meanwhile, I hope we’re all spending our dollars on things we actually enjoy playing.

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?”

On to BlizzCon 2013 and the Next WoW Expansion

BlizzCon is coming up.  In fact, it kicks off this Friday.

BlizzCon

We did not have a BlizzCon last year.  Blizzard claimed it was too busy to do the event.  And it did have a lot of stuff going on last year.

The last BlizzCon was 2011, which happened to be the third BlizzCon in a row that I watched via DirecTV.  While it had the big Mists of Pandaria announcement (and the subsequent groaning from just about everybody) I was kind of growing tired of the spectacle of BlizzCon.  I called it the BlizzCon Blues, because a lot of the aspects of BlizzCon… the tournaments, the costume contest, the dance contest, the talent show, Jay Mohr’s jokes… don’t really change from one year to the next.

And while I don’t want to be one of those people who says that Blizzard shouldn’t hold BlizzCon unless they have a big announcement… I am sure the people who attend will have a great time no matter what is said at the keynote or in various panels… those of us on the outside looking in are mostly interested in the news and insights aspect of the convention.

Fortunately, Blizzard appears to have a big announcement teed up for us.  Rumors began to fly when it was reported that Blizzard applied for a trademark on the title Warlords of Draenor.  The consensus is that this will be the title for the next World of Warcraft expansion.  Since this is coming from the same sources that have been correct on previous occasions, it seems likely to be the case.

People are already speculating about how this will fit into the jigsaw puzzle of lore that makes up World of Warcraft at this time, with blue space goats, pandas, and the Caverns of Time wildcard option.  Telwyn and Rohan both have some ideas about where this might fit. (And likely a good call by Green Armadillo for pointing at the Burning Legion.)

For me though, the lore is a second tier issue.  I will be interested in it, but this isn’t the same as Lord of the Rings Online where blue space goats would be an abomination.  Blizzard owns the lore and it is what they say it is.  If people can get past blue space goats and pandas, then I think we can get past whatever they have coming.

No, the primary concern for me is the mechanics of the expansion.  What will it actually add to the game?

History suggests that it will be five more levels, a new overland adventure area that is about 1 level per zone, so five zones.  This will be accompanied by some instances with various levels of difficulty available, raids, a battleground, and uplifts in all the various professions.  There might be a new class or a new race along with an expansion of what races can be what classes.  And all of this will be delivered next year around this time.

Actually, the progression of level cap changes suggests that this ought to be a 2.5 level increase, since the pattern so far has been to cut it in half every two expansions, though I doubt we’ll see that.

But 5 levels and all the rest, that is the safe bet.  It is almost mathematical.

And if that is what you want, you can probably rest easy.  Blizzard will probably try to add in some new game mechanic as a hook.  Maybe a new trade skill or some such.  We will probably find out Friday.

The question in my mind though is what should Blizzard add to World of Warcraft?

The game is about to hit its 9th anniversary and will be close to 10 by the time this expansion goes live.  It has been immensely successful, the industry leader for such games, and has set the standard in many areas, like system requirements, polish, and UI responsiveness.  It has been at the top of the heap for a long time, pretty much since it decisively dethroned EverQuest subscription levels in 2005.

However, being the biggest player, the company with the most market share, the 800 pound gorilla comes at a price.  Being on top often means becoming obsessed with staying on top, which generally means being very conservative so as not to screw up and alienate your customers or otherwise give a competitor an easy inroad on your position.  But that way tends to lead to stagnation and strange obsessions, which can be just as harmful.  For example, do you think anybody asked Microsoft to please make their desktop computer interface resemble that of a tablet?  No, that was all a product of Microsoft’s internal obsession about making ALL devices run on Windows, and since tablets are the latest big thing, Windows must look like a tablet!  So screw you if you don’t have a touch screen or see utility in the Start menu of old.

Unfortunately for us, Microsoft still has a stranglehold on the desktop, so you have may have to go with their awful ideas since your company probably makes you run Office and Outlook and whatnot.  Or your favorite game only runs on Windows.

Blizzard, however, does not have a similarly unassailable position.  There are a lot of competitors in the MMO space and in the gaming space in general.  Blizzard has seen its numbers slide from “over 12 million” to 7.7 million at last count, and I suspect that we will see quarterly drops until the next expansion.  And even then, I would be surprised if the game popped up to beyond 9 million again unless there was something huge to bring people back.

So what could Blizzard add to the game that might be a draw?

Well, not to cut too much on Blizzard, but they are really good at taking other people’s ideas and refining them into something better.  Note their homage to EverQuest at a past BlizzCon.  Without EverQuest there would be no World of Warcraft.  I would thus exclude anything really new and different.  So any new feature would likely have to be something a competitor already has.

What would that give us as possibilities?

Player Housing

This one has gone back and forth.  At one point Blizz said they were looking into it.  Later, they said that they did not want to pull people out of the common areas and into their own little zones.  Every company has their own cultural obsessions, and Blizz is obsessed with its servers looking populated and busy.  They like bustling home towns and crowded zones.

So housing seems like a long shot, which is sort of a shame.  I think Blizzard could do a really good job with housing, it could open up a whole new harvesting and crafting path akin to carpentry in EverQuest II.  There is the option of additional storage, trophy displays, prestige housing that would take gold out of the economy, guild housing, and so on.  Other games have really gone deep on this, and it is one of those things that will keep people tinkering after they have hit level cap.

Mentoring

Being able to go down in levels to experience content you have blown past or to be able to play with lower level friends without being the overkill king has its appeal.  Right now levels are a separator in WoW.  If your friends are at level cap and you are still on the 1-60 run, you won’t be playing with them any time soon.

Other games have attempted to solve this.  EverQuest II has had mentoring for ages.  Rift has it as well.  Guild Wars 2 forces you down levels when you go into lower level zones.  And the various implementations seem to mostly work.  Down leveled players always seem to be somewhat overpowered.

The question is, how would you want this to work in Azeroth.  In my heart of hearts, I would like to see the Guild Wars 2 method, though I think it would cause such an outcry from level cap players that it would end up hurting the game.

Mercenaries

This worked for EverQuest and EverQuest II, as well as showing up in other games like Neverwinter.  This lets you fill out your party or be able to go do multiplayer content alone.

I am not sure this would be a fit for WoW.  There just isn’t any overland multiplayer content any more, is there?  In EverQuest all of the overland content is pretty much multiplayer, so it was almost a required enabler to let people play when groups were becoming scarce.  But I don’t think this actually solves a problem for WoW, unless you think a tanking or healing mercenary will make Dungeon Finder queue times go away for DPS players.   And I do not think that it would fit in with Blizzard’s philosophy of the game.  They have Dungeon Finder and Looking For Raid to help players play with other players.

Free to Play

As much as Blizz loves crowded servers, I think they like buckets of money slightly more.  This change would give them more players, but every conversion is different and when you are already making buckets of money, even a strong likelihood that you could make more might not be enough.  A bird in the hand and all that.  Plus it would be incredibly disruptive.  We have seen with other such conversions that content updates pretty much go on hiatus while your team works on free to play.  And then there is simple pride.  Games go free to play when they cannot cut it on the subscription model.  No matter what you say, it is perceived in many quarters as a desperation move.

I could see them going on a path towards a monthly subscription getting you more.  Maybe there will be a tie-in or benefits with Hearthstone or Titan or other games.  But going the free route does not seem likely to me.

Player Designed Content

Cryptic has the Foundry.  SOE has its Dungeon Maker in EverQuest II and is pushing ahead with Landmark, its player focused building tool for EverQuest Next.  And player designed levels have a history with Blizzard in games like StarCraft and Warcraft III.  That is where DotA came from.  So there is precedent for this.

On the flip side, player created content is very uneven.  How many Dungeon Maker modules are “level you up fast” as opposed to actual adventures?  And the Foundry, while it has lead to some truly wonderful instances, does give players ample opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot of create otherwise crap content.  I think Blizzard could only do this if they committed themselves to vetting every single piece of content, a job which I think is beyond their abilities.

Other Ideas

What else is out there that Blizzard might have latched on to in the last year?  I would love them to steal the music system from Lord of the Rings Online, but it won’t happen.  Public quests or open zone events?  Level cap heroic versions of all instances?  An alternate advancement path?  Twitter and Twitch.tv and other social media integration?

What will World of Warcraft need when it hits its 10 year anniversary?

And what else do you think will come out of BlizzCon this coming weekend?