At least Wildstar is willing to try something different. While I’ve been on the plane to GamesCom, both Final Fantasy XIV and Elder Scrolls Online were kind enough to elaborate on their billing model — which is the classic subscription model.
Elder Scrolls Online has this to say:
“Charging a flat monthly fee means that we will offer players the game we set out to make, and the one that fans want to play,” Firor told the website. ESO will also include 30 days of play with the purchase of the game. “Going with any other model meant that we would have to make sacrifices and changes we weren’t willing to make.”
Here’s what charging a flat monthly fee actually means:
- Fewer players will try your game.
- The majority of those players will pay more money than they otherwise would have.
- Perversely, you’ll still end up making significantly less revenue.
- Also, the subscription model will put pressure on players to leave the game as soon as they feel like they are ‘done’ with the game.
The last is perhaps the sneakiest problem with the subscription model. First off, it sets off a desperate need to maintain subscriptions at all costs, which means doing sneaky things that hurt the game experience to keep players logging in one more day (remember housing maintenance in UO?) Secondly, there’s a very real and tangible problem around the launch windows of MMOs. As different players stagger to the endgame content at different rates, they’ll discover there’s not enough other people there to do the content. At that point, they have to make a choice – wait for guildmates to become raid-capable, or go back to their old home. Since at this point, they have no idea if your endgame content is even any good, the gravity right now is to go back to the old MMO they already know and love.
In a free-to-play game, there’s a lot of bounce back. We don’t care if a free-to-play player wanders off because he’s finished all of the content that’s available for him to do. We don’t have to act like a jealous girlfriend because he’s wandered off to play other games. We just have to put out content that’s good enough for him to actually want to ‘bounce back’. Which is to say, its a much kinder business model for a games universe where players have a million low-cost gaming alternatives. Including, I note, a whole bunch of other F2P MMOs.
With free-to-play, because you’re selling these items, you’ll have months where you sell a bunch of stuff and you make a lot of money in that one month. But it’s all about what happens during that month. Next month, the person who maybe bought $100 worth of items in the last month could purchase nothing at all. You don’t know what you’re going to be getting, and because you don’t know what you’re going to be getting, you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know how much money is coming in. If you can’t plan ahead, then you can’t keep staff, because you don’t know if you’ll have enough money to pay the staff next month.
I don’t know. Somehow, League of Legends has managed to solve that problem. I suspect it’s because free-to-play has earned them a swimming pool full of money.
Look, is F2P more difficult to predict? Sure. On SWTOR, for example, we’ve missed our predictions significantly every month — we keep guessing too low! This isn’t a case of us being bad at it, it’s a case of us being ultra-conservative on these guesses. It turns out that once you actually have data on buying behavior, its not that hard to figure out what people will spend for next month, based on what you’re releasing. Some months will be lighter – and then some months we sell Ewoks.
We hear a lot of people saying, “Star Wars is free-to-play now, it’s great!” But then you ask them if they’re playing free-to-play Star Wars and they say, “No, not really playing it.” Everyone talks about how great it is that it went free-to-play, but then you ask around and really, there aren’t that many people who are playing it since it’s gone free-to-play
Anecdotal evidence, as it turns out, is not the best way to make multimillion dollar business decisions. We’re doing fine. F2P has opened up SWTOR to millions of new players, and given us the revenue to do some truly audacious things. (Note: PAX Cantina Events visitors, look forward for audaciousness!)
Look, I’m not saying that SWTOR’s F2P plan is perfect, or that there isn’t another billing model out there that’s even BETTER for the consumer. I will say, though, that when Blizzard, the industry leaders of the subscription-based genre are unwilling to release any other information about their next game other than there’s no way it will be a subscription-based MMO, maybe it bears some thought as to whether they know something you don’t.