Why F2P won’t work for WAR

A lot of people were disappointed when Carrie announced in one of her Producer’s letters that WAR won’t be going Free to Play (F2P) in the immediate future. They are the same people who are convinced the game is in maintenance mode and is not turning a profit. In their eyes a switch of the subscription model is the only way Mythic’s MMO can survive. If we ignore the fact that they are wrong about maintenance mode and the game not turning a profit, let’s look at how F2P would (not) work for WAR.

Microtransactions and F2P Model

First of all, we need to examine how exactly this revenue model works. While the games using such a model might appear to be completely free (as indicated by the name) it is very rarely so. A game that you can play free of charge, either after buying the software or downloading it, will allow the player to access all of its content for free. But since developers usually need some sort of income to sustain the game’s servers and a team that updates and patches the game, they usually utilise a microtransaction system that allows them to earn money without charging a monthly fee. The only exception in this area is Guild Wars, which seems to be able to run without any kind of microtransaction or subscription model (I’m quite baffled at NCsoft being able to run it).

Side note: If the game has content you need to pay for to be able to access, it is not “free”. The name of the subscription model is misleading on purpose, a marketing snag that catches many players off guard. That way it’s easier to convince players to use the microtransaction system without dispelling the illusion of a free game. Most F2P MMO players will reply that they are purchasing items and services through the microtransaction model of their own accord, and that the game is still free without having to pay for anything, when told the game is actually not free.

In principle MMOs utilising such a subscription model are funded by players buying items with real money in (usually) in-game stores. What the items are hardly matters to the developer/distributor since it doesn’t cost them a thing. It’s just an exchange of a virtual items for money, which works and is quite brilliant, as long as the items are affordable and appealing enough for the players to buy them. From my experience with F2P games it seems that for the game to make enough money to sustain itself, the store has to eventually offer:

  • something very basic that is needed for everyday play, but is otherwise hard to obtain through other means (an example is an item to respec that has a very low drop rate),
  • a large chunk of game’s content (maybe a high level dungeon),
  • items offering instant character progression (like buying 10 levels or an armor set),
  • or items giving the player power otherwise unobtainable in-game.

And while selling customisation items might turn some profit, it is ultimately not enough to sustain the game. Which is why we are seeing so many games offering the four options above. And while the second is acceptable and doesn’t impact the gameplay much, the first and especially the last two options can make or break the game for many people.

Selling Progression

If you allow players to skip progression by buying ranks, gear or skills you are effectively devaluing the time people invest in the game. If you devalue time investment too much, you will drive away players who don’t want to pay for progression. They just won’t see any point in leveling up and obtaining gear through usual means when everyone else just buys it. Allowing players to skip progression also creates the problem of having too many players playing end content instantly, all the time. And when that happens your endgame better be extremely fun and engaging if you want to hold on to your playerbase.

You effectively throw the standard MMO formula (treadmill + carrot = timesink = playtime) out the window by eliminating the treadmill. As a result you need to spend all your time working on end content and risk having the content leading up to it become substandard (usually a grind). Which scares off the part of the population that doesn’t want to invest money into a (what they think is) free game. Not to mention that end content will always be beaten and become stale sooner than you expect, resulting in a bored playerbase.

Selling Power

In an MMO the formula “progression = power” usually holds true, so you could claim that by buying progression you buy power. But this bit of the post is actually about buying power beyond what progression offers. This includes any kind of buffs that increase the power of the played character, like damage buffs, hit point buffs, speed buffs, pets that protect the player, etc… Anything that will give the player who buys it a upper hand over an equally geared and skilled player who doesn’t, falls into this category. Item shops almost always offer this kind of items and they are nearly always a hit. There are many players who want to either close the gear or skill gap and are prepared to pay for it.

In most games this isn’t a problem, since they don’t contain or heavily revolve around PvP. But you can imagine what happens if a player who invested several weeks into the game doesn’t stand a chance against a player who just splashed some cash in the in-game store.

Now let’s take a look at how a F2P model would work in WAR.

Warhammer Online and the F2P Model

The predominant argument for WAR going F2P seems to be the success other games  have had with similar subscription models. But to be honest, none of them come close to WAR in terms of quality and maintenance costs and none of them are of the same genre.

If you examine the games that are now regarded as successful F2P MMOs (I’m mentioning LoL and HoN even though they aren’t MMO, as they use a similar revenue model), games like Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, League of Legends (along with Heroes of Newerth), Allods Online, you’ll notice that they aren’t:

  • a) PvP focused games,
  • b) really innovative and
  • c) particularly expensive to run (not develop, run).

You can’t argue that WAR is a PvP focused game and that, while it wasn’t really improving on the fantasy MMO formula in some aspects, it was widely regarded as innovative in others. The only point you could argue is that WAR is expensive to run. You could say that with the overall unimpressive performance of Mythic’s servers the costs really can’t be that big. But until I see an MMO pulling off better performance with full collision detection at WAR’s population density, I’m going to assume the servers are state of the art.

Now as to why those three points matter. The more expensive it is to run an MMO, the bigger its return must be to cover the costs. F2P models will always provide a less reliable source of income than monthly fee models, which means that for AAA MMO titles F2P will always be a riskier choice. Opting for a F2P model also means less leeway in the development, which usually means opting for less risky options, resulting in less innovation in both initial and sustained development of the game.

And finally, if the focus of your MMO is PvP, you risk either making the game unplayable by selling inappropriate items or not making enough money with the item shop. What do I mean by making the game unplayable?

If you take a look at the analysis of the F2P model I did above, you’ll notice that 2 out of 4 most profitable item options would introduce groundbreaking changes into a PvP game.

– If you get beaten by a player that invested twice as much time into getting that armor set really isn’t as bad as getting beaten by a player that bought that armor instead.
– Getting beaten by a player that is better geared or more experienced than you is a part of every MMO. Getting beaten by someone who invested less time into the game than you, but has bought himself a potion that makes him deal substantially more damage will make you rage.

In a PvE focused game selling such items won’t have much of an impact, but in a PvP game it will introduce a discrepancy between the paying and the non-paying costumer. When that happens you are giving the non-paying costumers a choice of either converting into a paying one and becoming the favoured overpowered player, or stop playing. In other words, players who like to win as a result of their superior experience and in-game achievements will quit, while the players who like to buy their way to success will love your game. Obviously the two playerbases don’t mix well, so you cannot make a game that will support both audiences in a large enough amount to be profitable.

For WAR, moving from a monthly fee model to a F2P one would effectively mean changing the playerbase along with switching to a less stable and suitable revenue model. Would it be worth it? I guess Mythic’s answer to this is a firm no. And although they are introducing a microtransaction platform with the new expansion, it sounds like the offered items do not include the power or progression type of items. I really hope Mythic is only introducing microtransactions as a way to jumpstart their funds and improve the game as it is, and not as an innuendo into a more microtransaction heavy MMO, or even a transition to a modified F2P model. Because I just can’t see those working for WAR.

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6 thoughts on “Why F2P won’t work for WAR

  1. That there is a lot of words. I will have to take an in depth look at it later.

    Apologies if you cover this, but what games have you experienced with the “free to play” model?

    I have tried several free to play games but never put any of my own cash forward. I think I bought some Lindens in Second Life once or twice with my paid account long ago if that counts.

    The idea of paying for bits and pieces has always scarred me because players can not decide where the line is. The bottom line does.

    • I can’t say that I’ve extensively played any F2P MMO (as in to the max level, gear, etc.). But the games I have played quite a lot are Allods Online, DDO & LOTRO (I’ve tried LOTRO before it was free and after) and MU Online (a less known Diablo style MMO). I also briefly had a period where I tried most of the asian translated F2P MMOs, though I never stuck with any of them past the initial levels cause they’re just too grindy for my liking.

      I’ve also tried some LoL, but couldn’t get past the community attitude. And I’ve played quite a bit of Battlefield Heroes, which is EA’s F2P third person online shooter.

      I have never bought anything in item shops, probably because I like my free games truly free (which is a delusion really). Though I have been subscribed to a few MMOs so you can’t just say I’m cheap.

      And you are right, of course. It’s the developer that says this is free and this you need to pay for. In a P2P MMO you get everything free, in a F2P MMO there’s usually a big chunk of the content you need to pay for. And while you could draw some comparisons with expansions for P2P games and unlockable payable content for F2P games, it’s not quite the same. It’s much easier to convince people to unknowingly pay too much too frequently in an in-game shop than it is by buying expansions, in my opinion.

      Thanks for the replies and looking forward to your comments when(if) you read the post.

  2. Right, I admit that I didn’t read the entire thing, because I already know that F2P would be more fail for WAR than plastic surgery to make one’s balls look bigger.

    But what’s interesting enough is why these Retro-Energetic-Toddlers-Acting-Really-Drunk act the way they do. The answer lies within their epeens which has to continiously grow, which results in them doing anything they can to get that extra boost of testosterone.

    This of course we all know already, most of us have come to live by it. But I haven’t, why? Because why should I even bother sending feedback about testing when I know for a fact that some orphan with daddy-issues is going to send completely negative and baseless feedback simply because “they didn’t do it his way”.

    And that’s also why I’m quitting blogging.

    This is also why I’m thinking of playing WAR ’till 2012 so I can finally play WoD-MMO which focuses entirely on the social aspect which should scare these Retro-Energetic-Toddlers-Acting-Really-Drunk-s away.

    • And I admit I can’t understand much of what you are saying. :)

      I think you are talking about these negative whiners? Because I for one haven’t lost faith in Mythic and I believe they still have enough distance from their game to be able to distinguish crap from good ideas. I mean look at the new ORvR system. They’ve come up with something that is a combination of ideas that people have put forward. And now they are testing it waaay ahead of time to make sure it’s ok. They are really listening to the players. As to if they read blogs, well I’m sure they read bigger ones. But if you are running a really low traffic blog like mine you’re better off posting it on the forums. Especially because most people seem to ignore my blog (bigger blogs, WHA, Mythic’s herald). But I like writing so I’m not quitting just yet.

      Sad to hear you’re quitting tho. Was looking forward to that vidcast of yours. :)

    • I was playing the mini-version of my WP (Fastrada) but spent most of the time raging or sulking in a corner. Mostly because order were clueless and no one wanted to be told what to do. Organised guilds (it seemed like an organised Norn get together in T3 lol) just did their own thing, holed up in a BO and bombed while destro were killing and escorting the carriers. In the end I just got drunk and sat in the keep killing Manticores lol. Didn’t even stay till the end, went back to live servers at 12 or so.

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