Sony Online Entertainment President John Smedley is making a lot of waves lately. SOE’s DC Universe Online is going free-to-play later this year, and he was also wrote an op-ed piece for GamesIndustry.biz touting the F2P model. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since pretty much everyone is touting F2P as the new revolution in MMOs.
For MMO gamers who go back, oh, about two or three years, and can remember when F2P was just the purview of crappy Asian grindfests, the sudden explosion of Western F2P titles has been a bit of a shock. And when our favorite game goes F2P, it’s met with equal parts apprehension and horror. While my rantings rarely lean toward the apocalyptic, I do worry that F2P will destroy what I like about MMOs in the first place: the equal playing field, especially when there’s a better way.
There are, it seems, four ways to operate a F2P cash shop:
1) Offer clear gameplay advantages
2) Make it nearly impossible to proceed past a certain point without paying
3) Offer cosmetic and non-gameplay-impacting items
4) Offer convenience and speed
Many F2P games use a mix of these elements, but most seem to have one that is stressed – or at least appears to be stressed in the eyes of angst-y players (and some, like LOTRO, say they'll do one and then offer another). #1 is, almost universally, the most despised. Yet, paradoxically, it’s the one that is most understood to be the case in another geek-tastic hobby: trading-card games.
I spent over a dozen years as a player and then a professional in the TCG world, working for two game companies and a magazine. I was moderately skilled but in no ways anything resembling a pro player. I won’t go so far as to say that money was the sole issue in my growing disillusionment with the industry, since there were times that I had access to every card my company produced to build decks, but as I got deeper into the design and marketing machine, I realized that TCGs are more of a “pay-to-win” proposition than any MMO. Yes, skill matters, but a player with access to $1,000 worth of cards was going to beat someone with $50 worth of cards 99 times out of 100.
Plenty of people still play TCGs, but one of my theories for why the only three major games in the market are Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokémon is because Magic has somewhat reduced the need for players to have huge bankrolls with its block rotation scheme, and the other two games rely on kids who don’t have the life experience to realize that to get really good at their games will require more money than Mommy and Daddy are generally willing to give out. The reason there hasn’t been a successful TCG directed at a teen or adult to come out in the last 10 years is because we’re more wary now of what the true cost will be.
(As an aside, while working on the Fullmetal Alchemist TCG in its later days, we had a meeting to try and decide how best to increase the game’s profits. The solutions were “find new players” or “squeeze every last cent we can out of our existing players.”)
So, when I was losing interest in that hobby and looking for something new, I discovered MMORPGs. And here was a world where everything – every skill, every zone, every possible gameplay element – was available for just $15/month. True, I didn’t PvP much in the early days, but I still liked the notion that, if I did, I’d be on equal footing with everyone else, and I wouldn’t be passed over for PvE adventures because I hadn’t spent enough real money to improve.
Now, the MMO industry is at a crossroads. I don’t begrudge any company for trying to make money – that’s what they’re in the business of doing, after all – but there’s too large a contingent out there that thinks that the only way to make money on an F2P title is option #1, above, a.k.a. “the TCG principle,” or option #2, the “free trial principle.” There are proven successful F2P games out there that espouse option #3, like League of Legends, and #4, like World of Tanks. (Interestingly enough, both of those games better fall under the MOBA banner than the MMORPG banner. I’m not sure if there’s any clear reason why their approach wouldn’t work with MMORPGs.)
World of Tanks is a particularly interesting case. When I talked with Wargaming.net CEO Viktor Kislyi last year, I asked him how he felt if cheapskates (like me – rank VI German tank and I’ve never spent a dime) never paid for his game and kept grinding away, slowly but surely, on our advancement paths. He said that was fine and opined that only 20-25% of players would actually pay for World of Tanks. WoT recently announced five million players, so if that predicted ratio has held true, it means that up to 1.25 million players have paid for the game. I think most MMOs would be overjoyed at having 1.25 million paid players after six months, even if some of them have already moved on.
A few months ago, I found a great “How to make an F2P game” video (and I wish I could still find the link for it). One of the points made in the video is that F2P makers have to understand (and accept) that some people will never pay for their game, or at least will pay an extremely limited amount – and they need to be OK with that. Having more players in your game is a good thing, providing the paying players with more potential people to interact with, a particularly major point if paid players want to group with their free (or nearly free) friends. Viktor Kislyi’s figured that out, to the tune of one successful game with two more in the works. And any time I log into WoT, it shows at least 10,000 people online.
There are, of course, still going to be F2P manufacturers who despise the notion that anyone is getting a “free ride” (sort of like certain opinions regarding welfare and unemployment, but I digress) and will, try to squeeze out every last bit of money from their players, just like we did with the Fullmetal Alchemist TCG. Less than a year later, that game was dead and I’m not sure I’ve played a TCG since leaving the company that made it. I hope MMOs don’t give me the same reason to abandon them.