Not So Free-to-Play

Posted by Daeity On Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Champion's Online has finally announced their F2P launch date, which is the near the end of this month (January 25, 2011).

I think it's really cool that they're going "F2P" and I hope that more games do the same.. but I wish that game developers would take a different approach to their revenue generating methodologies (and change their definition of "Free-to-Play").

Say, for example, you download a new stand-alone game. You can play it for the first few levels, but the rest of the content (or should I say the majority of the content) is locked down for paying customers only. Paid customers also have access to more features, can unlock extra account slots (or alternatively, they have the "Save" feature enabled), can unlock new character classes, have access to larger inventory bags, better gear, and better character stats. Non-paying customers may also frequently get bombarded with "Buy Now!" or "Upgrade Now!" ads. That's called a limited demo.. just like the old DOS shareware days.

Most F2P MMO's follow the same pattern: sell big features and game altering items online. The more money a player spends - the more powerful they are over other players. We humans just want to be better than everyone else.

There must be a way for a F2P game to really be Free-to-Play where nothing is locked down, non-paying customers have full access to the entire game, and yet the business still earns a substantial recurring profit. (Even though Guild Wars has already demonstrated that you can make quite a bit of revenue by just selling Expansion Packs.)

Examples that generate revenue and yet also allow full content might include:

- Ad-targeting (which is always an option) if you can get the right relationships with other companies. Advertising also depends on the type of game (consider a virtual world where you can purchase real-world products.)
- Vanity pets, items, or character abilities (eg, dances) work well as demonstrated by Blizzard. Especially if some of the proceeds are donated to charity.
- Special (non-game breaking) features like physical appearance changes (very cool effects like bright glowing eyes or character voices) and paid services such as character renaming, pet renaming, customized spell effects, class/race/build changes, server transfers, etc.
- Selling real estate for real world currency (prime examples include Second Life and Entropia).
- Merchandising (if game lore can build up a strong following) or novels/fiction (publishing deals for fan fiction).
- Donations (risky)
- A guild system where guilds are initially limited but they can be unlocked (inexpensive monthly fee - say $3.99) to access additional services and special Guild Perks. What's nice about this model is that all members of the guild can donate pennies each to maintain the guild.
- Collecting demographic information, selling useful survey and polling data for marketing purposes or scientific research. If you have a constant supply of over 1 million people from around the world, you can collect quite a bit of useful (non-personal) information from them.
- Turn in-game minigames into a crowd sourcing application similar to Amazon's Mechanical Turk. There's a lot of unexplored potential here.

Or how about this: instead of targeting our need to be better than everyone else (we all want to be God after all), how about targeting human laziness instead?

- Leave the game fully open (no locked down content), but meet the Free vs Paid customers somewhere in the middle.
- Everything is available to all players, however make it easier for paid customers to level or receive special drops.
- Paid customers can purchase a special "lucky buff" that increases the chances of extremely rare items dropping for example. Free players can still obtain the same item, however it takes longer and is much more difficult.
- Paid customers can purchase an "experience buff" to level faster. (Technically, Blizzard already did this.) =]
- It's "fair" in that the same content and items are available to everyone, but lazy players can purchase services to reach goals faster whereas free-players need to work harder to receive the same rewards.
- Other options include Auctions, Player Trades/Selling, and Gold/Item Trading/Selling
- "Make Your Own Spells" paid service where players can create "new" spells combining existing spell mechanics and old/new spell visual effects.

Those are just some of the ideas off the top of my head. If I think of anything else, I'll update the post.

In other news, RIFT will be coming out soon too. I never really followed the game too much until just recently (a friend is in the beta, and I checked it out). Initially, I had assumed that it was going to be F2P or at least really inexpensive considering the competition - but apparently it isn't. They're following the "standard monthly fee" of $14.99. Ugh. That might have worked for WoW since they launched before the recession after all, but that $14.99 price tag looks more-and-more expensive every day. =]

I think it would be neat for a MMORPG publisher to do a little experimentation in this field. Make a great game, plan for a game to be F2P, but release the game with a $4.99 per month subscription fee instead and just see what happens. If things don't work out, simply switch back to Plan A. It will give them some great insight into customer mentality, and they can use that data for determining the cost of their next big game (that might have been planned all along). There's some data that you just can't get reliably from random focus groups, surveys and polls.

Anyways.. back to RIFT. After playing the game, I'm getting a really bad feeling from it. It's the same vibe I got from Darkspore.. you know that feeling where there's a lot of hype about something, you watch/play it, you're left disappointed, and you just know it's just not going to do well? It's the same feeling I got from watching THE CAPE yesterday too. (Even though I could already tell by the title that it was going to bomb, the first episode confirmed that it's going to flop badly.) Unless there are some significant changes made, you know it's going to fail. So, with that in mind, I really hope that Trion Worlds listens to their customers and implements recommended changes.. it can still be saved. If things don't go well, they may just reduce the monthly fee or change it to the standard F2P model.

Whenever any game moves from standard payment models to F2P - even partial F2P like the first 10-40 levels are "free to play", it's typically a very bad sign.. a death knell if you will. =] I'm positive that World of Warcraft will one day change to this model (e.g. a partial F2P) and then start reducing it's monthly fees a year or two after that.

(Note: RIFT reminded me a lot of Allods Online actually, except that Allods is already a F2P game. It's a standard clone, but you might want to give it a shot if you're bored.)

Other than that, I haven't had a chance to play DC Universe Online yet, but based on the gameplay I've seen, I'm getting the same bad feeling that they'll be merging servers sometime soon (the "death cry" of massive subscriber losses), lowering prices, and that it might need to become another F2P candidate. =]