You get what you pay for…

Or “there’s no free lunch”, or a number of other ways of expressing the same sentiment.  Most of us have learned this as children, and find out the hard way that it’s true as we get older.  It’s not an absolute.  Sometimes there’s a good deal.  Sometimes overpriced goods are of poor quality.  All of us have eaten at that one restraint that inexplicably charged way more than any place comparable, or bought the bargain bacon at the grocery store only to find it a mangled mess when we opened the package.

MMO players, however, seem impervious to this reasoning.  That may be because of the tendency of game companies to all charge the same $60 for the box and $15 a month for a subscription (at least, as long as they still have subscriptions, and not counting discounts for purchasing multiple months) but what you get for that money isn’t necessarily of the same quality.

Vanguard: Saga of Heros launched in 2007 as Brad McQuaid’s new masterpiece.  The game had, for its’ time, very beautiful high-end graphics, gameplay that used the successful WoW formula combined with slower leveling and more EQ-like difficulty, plus an innovative “diplomacy” system for non-combat gameplay and a fairly complex crafting system.  It had a wide variety of races and classes, and a large game world with plenty of room.

It also was a spectacular failure; heavily bug-ridden with much of that huge world empty, and graphics that were too demanding for most computers of the era.  Yet it charged the same price per month as its peers at the time.  Even if it weren’t buggy, it ran into the same problem as many later games – WoW was, and is, the king of the hill in terms of numbers of players, recent drops notwithstanding and one wonders why, if one is going to play WoW, why would one not just play WoW, which is well-developed at this point with few bugs, a large community, and tons of content?

Much of the MMO community wants WoW gameplay – class-based, formulaic gameplay that involved progression and betterment, with just a sprinkling of PVP that plays out in well-balanced pre-made scenarios.  Those who are a little braver can play on PVP servers.

EVE is the other elephant in the living room; a niche game (albeit a very large niche indeed) of players who like A) flying spaceships and B) gameplay that is not mainly about “progression”; the occasional The Mittani ALOD article about someone who “leveled up their missioning ship” notwithstanding.

Much is made of the supposed “greater profitability” of free-to-play gaming.. yet Blizzard and CCP both refuse to go this route.  Why?

In the case of EVE, the entire PLEX system handily prevents this.  PLEX sells for several dollars more than a month of subscription, and definitely more than a long-term sub on a per-month basis.  It beautifully combines the free-to-play and pay-to-play systems – everyone’s playtime is paid for by someone, but those who play enough, and well enough can buy their game time from someone with in-game currency.  Those who wish to pay the way of others to play get direct benefit, in the form of ISK, out of it, and can choose when and to what degree they participate.  Best of all, because PLEX can be destroyed, occasionally CCP gets a windfall when someone’s ship full of PLEX blows up and it doesn’t drop, and the player has no one to blame but himself, much as if it HAD dropped and was stolen.

It never makes sense to buy PLEX for your own use to extend your subscription.  If you pay real money to play, it’s cheaper to subscribe.  Using PLEX for an account only makes sense when purchased from another player, using ISK.

Despite EVE‘s problems and missteps with DUST 514 and the cancelled WoD MMO, players get continuous effort and support for EVE.  That effort may be poor, and often not what the players want, and too slow for their tastes, but in many cases “what the players want” isn’t a good idea anyhow, since at least 90% of player ideas are based on failing to appreciate the necessity of someone else’s playstyle to the game’s overall health.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, uses a few free “on-ramps” to get people into the game, such as a “free to 20” trial, faster leveling for people teamed up with a friend they recruited, and insta-level 80s and 90s for returning players to avoid the grind before doing high-end content.  While it’s possible it will go FTP, WoW still had over 7.5 million subscribers last year.

Free-to-play games make their money either by giving players just enough to get them to buy a subscription (EQ2 used this method when it first came out, locking classes, and if I recall right races, behind a paywall) or from “whales”, who are players that spend much larger sums on the game than everyone else.  In both cases, the “free” game play is used to get players in, either in hopes that they’ll like the game enough to subscribe, or in hopes they’ll be one of the 0.5 to 6% of players that actually spend money in free-to-play games, assuming the same data holds true for MMOs that holds true for App Store game players.

Even if MMO players are MUCH more likely to spend some money in a model where the game uses a cash “shop” rather than the “get people to subscribe for access to everything” system, each player that DOES pay must, on average, spend MUCH more than a subscription per month just to break even.

Let’s say 20% of the playerbase, rather than 0.5 to 6%, spends.  With only 1 player in 5 spending, they must spend an average of $75 a month each for the company to break even with the same number of players all subscribing.

But, FTP brings in more players!  People try the games out because there’s no entry cost now, and so more of them spend!  If the playerbase triples, now each payer only has to spend $25 a month compared to what the game would have made under subscription.

Seems reasonable, right?  I mean, if $15 a month is pretty affordable (and it is) why not $25 a month, if you really like the game?

The question though, is how to get that $25 out of the player.

Various methods to do this have been tried, some with greater success than others.  The Diablo III auction house (yes, I know Diablo III is really buy-to-play, and is not an MMO) didn’t work out too well, and was abandoned.  Pay-to-win forumlas notoriously drive people away, feeling that they’ll be outspent by a few real-life-rich players.  Other games have used cosmetic and other non-gameplay upgrade items, or “convenience” items that reduce gameplay tedium without increasing power (mounts, for example) with much better success.  SWTOR was, at one point (and might still be; I don’t know) offering additional hotbars for its UI as paid items.

There’s also the method of giving out the base game free, and adding DLCs that add content for a premium.

Every one of these methods, however, runs into 2 problems, in varying degrees:  It takes money to develop the “for sale” items, features, or content, and at least some players are going to bitch about having to pay for it.

Remember that the appeal of free to play is that it relies on the player getting something for nothing.  The player wants as much game as possible for as little money as possible.  Therefore, the developer must strike a careful balance between putting so much of the game behind a paywall that players leave in disgust, feeling they’re being “milked” or “nickel and dimed”, and not selling enough stuff, so that they don’t make any more money.  They also must make sure the stuff they’re selling is stuff players actually want.  Finally, the need to develop more and more stuff to sell in the store can lead to the game world becoming a morass of silly vanity items and driving off otherwise-dedicated players who can only take so many people riding pink unicorns.

Up to this point, free-to-play, in the MMO world has been the method of low-quality games like Runescape, aging games like Everquest trying to keep going, and games like SWTOR that, well, failed at beating WoW.

While free-to-play makes sense for all these games, it most likely won’t totally replace subscription games, especially for titles that succeed early on.  EVE won’t go free-to-play as it already duplicates all the advantages of FTP with it’s PLEX system while avoiding most of the downsides (it has its own downsides, but they are unique to it and not in the purview of this post).  WoW won’t; it’s making a handy profit as it is, and for a good reason – people are invested in WoW.  They have lots of sunk costs in it already, in money and time, so they will keep coming back for the new thing.  With the ability to insta-level to 90, it has an even stronger incentive to return, rather than level up in a new game to experience the same basic gameplay.

New games, like ESO, wanting to do a subscription model need to be of high quality, and they need to not try to duplicate WoW, at least until it ages to the point that it’s just another competitor. 

ESO has accomplished the latter; it is not trying to duplicate WoW.  Whether it hass accomplished the former depends on who you listen to, but I caution everyone – malcontents and naysayers are always the loudest in any game community.  ESO is not without problems, but the problems are not what the naysayers claim they are.  The problem ESO does face, however, is a playerbase that badly wants free-to-play.. and that’s a topic for the next post.

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