It probably comes as no surprise that I have discovered religion about Free 2 Play in a big way. It’s very clearly the way that the future of the genre is going, and any new competitor that enters the space is going to face immense competition from the rest of us that now provide a pretty substantial amount of gameplay for free. Right now, WoW is the only successful subscription-only MMO in the west, and even they seem to be sticking their toe in the pool.
So I’ve been interested in what new MMOs will do. Neverwinter Nights and Marvel Heroes both shipped or are shipping with free-to-play business models, which is good. It means the game design will work much more seamlessly with the billing model, rather than being shoehorned in at the last second. It also means they get to avoid the stigma of ‘failure’ that comes from a hasty conversion. Perhaps the most painful part of transitioning SWTOR from subscription to Free-to-play was reading all of the commentary describing us as a failed game, when all of the internal numbers we had showed that F2P completely reinvigorated the game.
So I’ve been waiting with baited breath to see what the two big ones, Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online, are going to do. ESO is still being coy, but Wildstar announced their plans yesterday… and there’s an option to play for free! This is awesome, because Wildstar happens to be the game I’m most looking forward to right now. Rejoice, right? Not so fast…
Do I have to buy the game?
Yes, WildStar must be purchased in order for you to play the game.
Ergh. Free-to-play is all about making the game accessible – getting more people into the front door. SWTOR’s success here is no fluke – DDO reported that their concurrent players increased 5x. For LOTRO, the number was 3x. If anyone wants to see the effects of Free to Play on logins, check this chart. Not having maximum game accessibility at launch, when NCSoft will most likely be unloading their best marketing effort for the game, is a missed opportunity for WildStar, especially considering they are attempting to get an all-new IP off of the ground.
Maybe they just want to play for free, maybe they’ve been burned by a subscription game before and dislike the model. OK, we hear you – for you guys we have C.R.E.D.D. This is an item that can be purchased online at the WildStar website, and can then be bought and sold with other players in-game. This trading happens via the Commodities Exchange – basically a stock market that lets you trade C.R.E.D.D. to other players for earned in-game gold.
So for those of you who don’t want to pay a subscription fee: you can use your first month of gameplay to earn gold while playing WildStar. When the next month comes around, instead of paying the monthly subscription fee, you can use gold earned in-game to purchase C.R.E.D.D. from other players on the CX. Boom, you cash in a C.R.E.D.D for a month of game time. You can continue this cycle over & over again, enabling you to “play to pay” for WildStar.
If you think this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong (with one core difference – you can play EVE for 14 days for free, and the upfront cost for one month’s subscription is equal to… one month’s subscription). Whether or not the billing model of Eve’s economic-spreadsheet driven libertarian paradise is right for a fledgling mass market MMO remains to be seen. But I doubt it.
The secret of most free-to-play games is that, for the most part, they actually are played as free games for the majority of the playerbase. World of Tanks actually boasts that a very high number of people pay to play that game – at 20-30%. They aren’t wrong. The dynamics in play in Free 2 Play are that a lot of casual players aren’t willing to invest their time or credit card number, but devotees of your game will. But the only way to be able to afford CREDD is going to be a heavy player, then figure out what CREDD is, then figure out where it is on the auction house, then figure out whether or not I’m getting ripped off. This is not a casual friendly experience. Instead, the people most able to play for free are going to be the people most willing to spend money for your game! If this sounds backwards to you, you’re not alone.
All of this is before you get to the uncertainty that is tying your free play option to the health and success of your gold economy. A major inflationary event, such as a dupe bug, can result in CREDD being priced on the internal market at prices far above what a latecoming new player can ever hope to acquire. Again, game devotees should have no problems.
One of my mantras about being a free-to-play game is that, in order to call yourself that, your evangelists have to feel good about telling their casual friends, “Yeah, you can totally play for free!” For the game to go viral, the game needs to be substantially free. You do need to put in price points in the gameplay – I hear paying rent is nice, and it can be argued that many free-to-play games have missed that mark on certain points in their pricing model. That being said, WildStar doesn’t describe themselves as a free-to-play game, which is good, because neither will their customers. Which in my mind, is a real shame.