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. =]

Cataclysm Sales: No Surprises There

Posted by Daeity On Monday, January 10, 2011

Blizzard has just made their official announcement regarding first month sales.

Just as a reminder from my previous post, though, there's a little caveat with their official announcement:

...setting a new record for monthly PC-game sales.*

*Based on internal company records and reports from key distribution partners. Includes digital distribution.
Now.. it's not really a PC game, is it? It's cheaper DLC or an "unlock" code really (since players don't actually need the DVD or even the download since it's just the old 4.0 patch), so you can't really compare it to any other game releases of the year.

The "PC game" also "sold through more than 4.7 million copies as of its first month of release, setting a new record for monthly PC-game sales.* Basically, what that means is that Blizzard's "first month" actually means 3+ months of sales.

Blizzard was supposed to make at least 5-6 million sales in the first (real) month according to expert analysts. So, it looks like their revenue for the quarter will fall short of the anticipated $600 million mark.

Cataclysm sales numbers are definitely no where close to the more successful TBC and WOTLK expansion packs. Although Blizzard has been putting on a strong game face, sources tell me that they were actually disappointed by the sales - much more was anticipated for their revival attempt of WoW.

To help put things into perspective, here's a breakdown of their expansion pack sales:

The Burning Crusade (incl. Pre-Sales)
2.4 million in first 24 hours
3.5 million in first month

Wrath of the Lich King (incl. Pre-Sales)
2.8 million in first 24 hours
4.0 million in first month

Cataclysm (incl. Pre-Sales and Digital Downloads)
3.3 million in first 24 hours
4.7 million in first month

Since Cataclysm is a special case (players able to purchase and install the retail on Nov. 3rd) and if you ignore Blizzard's fine print, sales figures were actually:

Cataclysm (incl. Pre-Sales)
2.2 million in first 24 hours *
3.3 million in first month
4.7 million by second month

* It's probably even less than 2.2, I would estimate maybe 1.5 - 2.0 million based on average sales trends.

Take it for what you will, though.. all I know is that expert analysts were predicting 6 million sales on the first day, Blizzard said it was 3.3 million, and I'm guessing that it was less than 2 million.

WoW had already peaked a couple years ago, plateaued, and now it's slowly meandering downwards. I don't think they'll be able to pull off the same kind of "record shattering" announcement for their next expansion pack since they have already taken advantage of the Digital Download-skewed "24 hour sales" numbers.

(Well.. there are some ways to do it actually. One way is to extend Digital Downloads to more than 1 month before launch and really push promotions. The second way is to reduce the cost of the expansion pack. The third way to to have multiple "opening days" in different geographies - for example, release the game in the largest (subscriber) geography a few days before the smaller ones. That way you can include several days of sales up-to-and-including the "opening day" of the smaller geographies.)

I think Diablo 3 is going to do phenomenally well though, and it probably will shatter PC game sales (it's a much better comparison too, since it's actually a stand alone game and not paid content). And then there's the next gen MMO.. that's going to do really well too - I just hope they don't inflate subscription counts like they did with WoW. I like it when companies listen to their customers and are more honest and transparent with game sales and the development process.

Long Lost Games: A.I. Alien Intelligence

Posted by Daeity On Friday, January 7, 2011

Back in 1995-96, Flatline Studios, LLC. pitched a game demo to Interplay and they were signed on to do a title which was eventually called AI: Alien Intelligence. Unfortunately, Interplay shelved the title after their unsuccessful IPO (and Flatline's 2 years of development). It was cancelled in 1999 just prior to the retail release.

Flatline consisted of about 20 employees at the time and they were responsible for all aspects of development (video, sound, coding, gameplay, cinematics, etc.) They were royally screwed over in the deal, and the company died after AI was shelved.

Being an avid Starcraft player, I was really looking forwards to the game back in 1998. It was a very ambitious project for it's time and it had the potential to succeed Blizzard's Starcraft. If history played a little different, we might all be playing "World of Alien Intelligence" right now. =]

So, imagine this scenario: It's about one year after Starcraft is first released and another Sci-Fi RTS arises. It has superior graphics, cinematics and sound. You can manage units on multiple planets throughout a universe (which you can also explore) and you can also travel between (ie, trade with), colonize, or conquer other (un)inhabited planets. All of this is in realtime Starcraft-style but with simultaneous land and space combat.. and even planetary bombardment. Oh yeah.

Not only that, but throw in:

- Massive technology research trees (150 levels of tech that you could develop or steal.)
- Six alien species (with their own characteristics, technologies, play styles, and combat strategies.)
- More advanced NPC A.I.
- Over 10,000 ship designs
- A playing field that spans multiple star systems.
- Diplomacy, trade and resource management (4X features).
- Non-linear sandbox-style gameplay in an realtime game universe (more of an epic feel rather than linear missions).
- Superior multiplayer support (LAN, Modem, Serial, and TCP/IP Internet).

(Historical Note: Starcraft 1 provided no method to play TCP/IP games over the internet other than through which was extremely slow and unstable at the time. Many players couldn't even access due to lack of internet connectivity (school, university netorks, LAN parties). There were also other major problems with such as substantial cheating and the inability to locate friends.)

Anyhow, here were some old videos I was able to dig up:

Descriptions for each race:

1. Psionids - "highly evolved, possess strong mental powers that they use to confuse the enemy in the heat of battle."
2. Strixthes - "Insectoid, behave like ants with mindless drones being controlled by a queen."
3. Arkanians - "Insectoid, more like roaches that can construct anything out of garbage - they're also excellent thieves."
4. Munzoids - "Closest to the human race. Descended from Mongolians captured and enslaved by an alien race. The Munzoids are extremely aggressive and never surrender."
5. Metalloids - "Somewhere between Star Trek's Borg race and the T1000 from Terminator 2. Artificially created as servants, their individual thought processors are controlled by a central computer known as The One. They reproduce by absorbing metal and then splitting, amoeba like, in two."
6. Drache - "Dragon-like. These former slaves are skilled workers and can transform a barren landscape into a habitable world."

Here was an old write-up about the game:

"The planets that you colonise will give your race not only a place to grow, but also many resources. At the same time, planets have their own ecosystem which could be upset if you choose to meddle with it. For example, you may decide to eliminate a creature that becomes a pest, but in doing so, the predators that live off those creatures might start viewing your race as an alternative food source.

Once you've successfully populated one planet, you will want to expand and for that you need ships. In addition to outpost and colony ships, there are seven basic hull types for each race, all of which can be customised to some degree. Some of these are ideal for ferrying troops to newly discovered planets, while others are combat specific. Not only can these interstellar behemoths face off against enemy fleets, but they are also capable of bombing planets.

War is avoidable, though: diplomatic relations are a large part of the game and you can maintain neutrality, enter into hostilities or even form an alliance with another race. Trade is another area and will provide you with resources that you cannot get for yourself and money, which goes towards the development and running of your colonies.

Naturally, careful resource management is central to the success of your empire. For your colonies to flourish, you need sufficient food, as well as plenty of buildings and structures. You can't have buildings without metals, which must be mined, and power, which is derived from radioactives. And of course, you can't build anything without money, which you'll need for units, ships and structures. Fortunately, resource management is made easier because materials can be used anywhere, not just in the area they were acquired."
I was sitting on this blog post for quite a while now, but I was hoping to get some more information before posting this (e.g. more details, screenshots, videos), but my contact (Eric Smith - former President of Flatline Studios) got a little busy and forgot all about me. =[

Maybe if he finds this blog in his travels, he might get back in touch (I'm looking at you Eric!). Apparently, he still has Pre-Production boxes and a few Demo/Beta CD-ROMs lying around somewhere. I'd love to get my hands on some old videos or screenshots of live gameplay!

While preparing this entry, I also pleasantly discovered a recent post about Alien Intelligence here. Glad to see that it's memory is still being kept alive.

It has been described by some as a Turn-Based Strategy (what MOO3 should have been) and by others as a Real-Time Strategy (like Starcraft but on an epic scale). The demos seem to indicate that most of the game was a real time strategy - so I assume it had a lot of features like a 4X game (ie, resource management, diplomacy, espionage, etc) but there might have been a way to task a NPC to micromanage certain aspects of your empire for you. And, if you had time between building construction, combat, or travelling to other planets, you could do some micromanaging on your own. Without playing the actual game, though, I can only fill in the gaps with my imagination. =]

Oh well. At least I'm comforted in knowing that A.I. Alien Intelligence survives somewhere in a parallel dimension where Interplay made smart business decisions, the game shattered sales records, and my counterpart was addicted to it for several years.

Blizzard Please! Free Faction Changes Are Needed

Posted by Daeity On Monday, January 3, 2011

There, I said it.

Free "One-Way" Faction Changes are desperately needed. ("One-Way" meaning that you can only switch factions to side with the small population.)

Almost all realms are imbalanced - they're a complete and utter mess. It's a worldwide WoW issue too and it's not just limited to NA or EU realms.

Blizzard designed WoW to be balanced and they're constantly making minor changes to keep this balance. Because of this symmetry, if something is not balanced it causes a domino effect on all other facets of the world.

- Tol Barad and Wintergrasp are brutal and almost impossible to join. 30 people can join out of 1000 waiting every 2 hours. And it doesn't even matter how early you queue. Nice.
- 30-120 minutes wait times to join a Battleground, only to find out you're outnumbered 15:10.
- So much wasted time and customer frustration. In some cases, even scaring them away from WoW completely.
- PVP growth rates (ie honor gain, collecting gear, etc) are imbalanced, giving an unfair advantage to factions with smaller populations.
- The imbalances have completely reshaped the culture of players: what they do, where they go, what items to make, what to sell items for, what to gather, which guilds to join, who to interact with, who or which areas to avoid, etc.
- Population imbalances effect markets and economies, completely destroying the value of gold and player professions on one side. They're probably doing more harm than gold farmers ever could.

In essence, you're penalized for wanting to join groups or find more friends. Blizzard constantly encourages socialization and joining guilds, but they don't show the fine print.

"Hey guys! Invite your friends! Join Guilds! Socialize! Oh by the way, you'll pay dearly for it."

If by design the World of Warcraft was supposed to be balanced for everything to work properly, why is Blizzard performing several _other_ balancing acts, but not where it matters the most? This is the one item that they're not doing anything seriously about. The only difference between this balancing act and the others is that there's potential profit involved. It's the only reason I can fathom that they're not opening up Free Faction Changes.

The "World" is definitely not working the way it was envisioned and designed. There are constant patchwork jobs for something that's NOT working as intended and yet there's an available fix nearby. Hell, Blizzard.. at least do an experiment to see if it actually works or not! Test it out on one realm, as a "special gift" or "anniversary reward". You'll shut me up (and the others) if it doesn't work.

I'd love to move all of my characters over to the other faction just so that I can PVP again. But there's no way in hell I'll be paying $600.00 USD to do it.