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.
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.
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.