Tobold's Blog
Monday, December 07, 2009
Free2Play gone bad

Any moderate opinion risks getting misrepresented by those who have extreme views on the same issue. That is why some people believe I am a proponent of the Free2Play and micropayment business model, when in fact I'm broadly neutral on it, and have repeatedly stated that are both good and bad microtransactions, and that I don't play Free Realms any more because I found their microtransaction system to be bad for gameplay. But as I also pointed out that there is a general trend towards this business model, and some people hate that trend with all their heart, I tend to get a lot of angry comments when writing anything not completely condemning microtransactions.

Having said that, I do agree with Ancient Gaming Noob Wilhelm2451 that there is a risk with Free2Play games in that they can be changed by a patch from a good microtransaction system to a bad one. I only played very little of Battlefield Heroes, the game Wilhelm2451 is talking about, so I can't talk from own experience. But the Ars Technica article he cites sounds pretty dire. What is clear in any case is that if you were previously playing without paying any money to EA, you will in future be a lot less competitive if you continue playing on the same schedule. You'd either need to grind a lot more to earn victory points, or start paying money to stay at the same level of performance. It is easy to see how that would make players upset.

Something similar happened to Free Realms as well. SOE found that apparently too many players were happily playing that game without paying, by sticking to the Free2Play classes and not using the premium classes. So they patched the game and now you can play any class for free, but only until level 5, and you need to pay if you want to play any class beyond that level. I'd say its a case of turning an already bad micropayment system into a worse one, but the principle of a patch changing the business deal remains the same.

In more general terms, the issue is that this are basically stealth price increases. Assuming that at least some players will want to keep up with the Joneses without increasing the grind, EA will make more money out of Battlefield Heroes in the future, which is obviously the idea behind the patch. More players are likely to pay SOE for keeping their characters beyond level 5. So even if a game has a balanced and good system of micropayments, a patch can at any time turn this into a bad system, by simply changing some parameters on how hard it is to achieve something in game which otherwise has to be bought, or by changing the pricing model. It would be a lot harder to do such a stealth price hike for a subscription based game. Monthly subscriptions could be raised, but that is a pretty obvious change, and not a stealth hike. The only way a game company could deliver less value for money in a subscription based game would be to slow down or stop the addition of content by patches.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to tell you the latest joke about EA and their Battlefield series of games: EA originally wanted to call their latest release in this series Battlefield: Electronic Arts. But then somebody in marketing told them that this was too obvious a self-promotion, and so they called it Battlefield: Bad Company instead. :)
Not sure I'm sympathetic.

You can still play Battlefield Heroes for free, you just can't play for free with an uber weapon putting you at a significant disadvantage.

I quite happily have played a game called Shattered Galaxies for years. It's a MMO Starcraft clone and free players are cannon fodder for payers. Yet it's still great fun free.

It sounds like Battlefield Heroes was a game where you simply didn't have to pay at all. That simply couldn't last.

Of course it should never have gone out like that but you can't really blame them for fixing it once they found out less and less people were paying.
Could this same logic be applied to subscription games or is the market enlightened enough to demand more enjoyment in exchange for continuing their subscriptions? Was ToC/TOGC worth it's cost in time? Will Cataclysm be?
I don't like free to play but you can pay to get in game items. It makes the game feel wrong, you should be able to get rewards in the game by playing the game not by handing over cash.

Instead the should let people pay to unlock content. Charge one crystal for a single access to a game area or raid instance, change 10 crystals for a month's pass or 35 for permanent access.

You should pay for *access* to content, not the content itsself. I feel that would work far better and would fit in with the RPG concept too.

For example in WoW instead of just selling non combat pets, why not sell access to a special zone that kicks off a long quest that allows you to get the pet. Not so immediately popular or profitable perhaps but much better for the game long term
The grumpy old man in me thinks is surprised that so many naieve people actually believe that they can play these games for free. A moment's thought will surely lead to the realisation that someone has to pay the bills.

That said the game companies are themselves guilty of promoting this image of "free-ness". If they were honest they would admit it is no more than an extended free trial.

I disagree with you that Free Realms new model of paying to advance beyond level 5 is in itself bad. The real difficulty stems from the crude way they changed the rules and squashed the legitimate expectations of many customers.
Microtransactions or not, the first thing a game needs to be successful is fun gameplay.

Battlefield is not fun so people don't play it. Because of that the creators are in financial trouble. And now they try to get back on track by asking more money. Which makes the game less fun.

It's a vicious circle.
Of course, sub based games can go from good to bad overnight by being patched as well... Star Wars NGE anyone?
The Sims Online....

In March 2007, EA announced that the product would be re-branded as EA-Land and major enhancements would be made. About a year later, Electronic Arts announced the game would shut down all activity on August 1, 2008.

(from Wikipedia)

Your joke at the end is no stranger than reality!
The Free Realms change looks to me to be a typical SoE error of judgement. They made a great game with masses of completely free content that was fun to play. They marketed it brilliantly to great success, making a huge play on the "Free" part.

Consequently they got a mass-market success that wasn't making any money. Sony as a company is having a lot of issues and the last thing they need is nearly 5 million non-paying customers.

This is a real problem for F2P games. If you make the base game too good you get a lot of players and no income. If you make the base game unattractive for players who don't buy additional content you struggle to attract sufficient players, or to keep them.

It is not, however, an insoluble problem. It jsut requires a good business model and good implementation. Some companies are going to pull this off, many will fail to get the balance right.

I'm currently playing the Allods beta. Frankly, Allods could launch as a "buy-the-box, pay the sub" game and it would be a success. It's better than a number of recent "AAA" launches already. I'm planning on playing it for free, and I will be spending some money in the Item Mall when characters go permanent. I already know I will buy bag and bank space, assuming they are reasonably priced.

Allods runs the risk of being too good for a free game, but I am fairly sure that a game that locks players in to its characters and gameplay on the basis of its high quality will be able to monetise that success somehow. I hope so, because for players who aren't min/maxers or obsessive Achievers, AAA quality for no box fee or sub is one heck of a good deal.
...why not sell access to a special zone that kicks off a long quest that allows you to get the pet.

They do. It's called an expansion.
"Was ToC/TOGC worth it's cost in time?"

From a developer perspective, the answer has to be a resounding yes.

1 tiny instance + 5 raid bosses + 4 heroic bosses + some random dailies + repeated loot = another 3+ months of subscription for 5+ million players...
It'll be interesting to see how these changes affect the bottom line. On the one hand, you get the idea that, just like the subscription option, a company only gets one chance to set the price point. On the other hand, how much do the complaints matter in the long run? How many people stop playing vs. how many pay the higher rate?
I think F2P shouldn't feature pay options that make a character more powerful. That effectively means the game is no longer free, because I don't get a level playing field unless I fork over money.

Things I don't mind seeing as items players pay extra for are bag slots, bank slots, character slots, mounts, pets and other cosmetic items, and even boosts to leveling and treasure drops.

Don't sell swords that are more powerful, but sell a fiery glow you can add to a sword.

With Battlefield Heroes, I'd rather sit through a sixty second ad before each game starts. I'm guessing there aren't enough players for advertising revenue to float the game, though.
Free Realms is a perfect example of why I just don't trust the F2P model. It opens up a flood gate for greed and gives developers a legitimate way for them to try and exploit players.
I found your blog tonight as the top result in a Google search for "design mmorpg economy." I've read archives through October (after reading the initial search result from 2004) and am very pleased with what I'm seeing; will become a regular here.

I'm one of the surely thousands of gamers who designs only for fun his or her ideal game, with no real hope of the design turning into anything. Regardless, I've been studying economic models and banking/stock markets with great interest. May or may not someday start my own blogspot with some ideas posted, if for no other reason than to get it off my chest.

As far as F2P is concerned, I either pay to play or I don't. I played WoW about a year before it grew boring. The one-strategy raiding you mentioned was a big turn-off for me once my main reached 80, and I grew tired of endlessly leveling alts.

I choose not to buy into the microtransactions, no matter how lucrative they may seem. I think that a game is only as good as they make it for the free players, and the rest is just icing on the cake for those who want a prettier cake.

In runes of magic, on the auction house you can buy diamonds (bought with real money by other players) for gold you make by normal playing.

In a way, when I've bought diamonds on the AH I've supported runes of magic, without paying a cent. Because I'm supporting the buying of diamonds for AH that wouldn't happen if there were no buyers.

It's something for other free games to consider.
Buying diamonds on the auction house doesn't really support the game at all, since it's just circulating an in-game item. You're not providing any money to the company; just using in-game currency to get something that someone else paid for.

Besides, a lot of games with micro-transactional models do this. Mabinogi, for instance, has a huge market for the buying and selling of item shop goods for in-game currency. It isn't really something "for companies to consider" as it's been done for a long time.
"Buying diamonds on the auction house doesn't really support the game at all, since it's just circulating an in-game item"


The value of cash shop items = what they can be traded for in game. If there is an AH market as well as a diamond price tag on the shop items diamonds have higher value so paying $0.25 for one (or whatever) is a better deal.

In Eve there is a system like diamonds but without the cash shop. You buy plexes which can be redeemed for 30 days game time specifically to sell them on the auction house.

This effectively gives Eve a slider where at the bottom is free and dull, in the middle is standard $15/month and moderately dull and at the top is expensive and interesting.

Eve has players who would not want to play the $15/month moderately dull game. They only want the interesting expensive game. So the cheapskates keep these players active (and incidentally provide them with targets) which makes the company a lot of money.

In addition if there is trade there will be stockpiling. There are 16 000 unsold plexes in Eve in speculator stockpiles. That's about a quarter of a million dollars worth of revenue the company has received without needing to provide any service for yet.
Bukz, you don't understand customer demand and supply.

When someone buys 10 diamonds to put them on the AH, if the AH did not let you sell them, or if there were no customers, that person would not buy those 10 diamonds.

Without the AH allowing that and me buying them, that person wouldn't buy those ten diamonds of course, cause he wouldn't be able to sell them for gold. So clearly he would buy fewer diamonds. So when I buy them I'm part of a system that means more diamonds are being bought than otherwise would.

I don't need to convince you of this fact, I'd just prefer to be able to talk about it equally for social reasons, rather than just me knowing how things work.

And on other mmorpgs doing it? Well, I asked on forums whether DDO was doing it and people said no. And I thought DDO was fairly big. So I treated that as evidence it's not being done in all the more significant FTP mmorpgs.

Thanks for reading my post
I don't think you see my point, though. I'm not saying it doesn't stimulate the economy of the game. Sure, of course it does. Money is still being spent.

The problem I'm trying to point out is that ulimately games provide you with two options: You either spend time or money. What I mean by this is that you can buy items from the item shop to use, right? Typically that gives you an advantage over someone who doesn't do that, which is fine. The problem is that if you can also sell them to other players for large amounts of in-game currency, you have double the advantage because you get both the items you buy and the in-game currency for those you sell.

That's the inherent problem with item shops. You invest in the game, that's great, but it also gives you usually a large advantage over other players, and if there's any PVP in the game whatsoever, you can't make it if you don't spend the money. There's no such thing as being on even ground.

That's why, overall, I find subscription games tend to be more fun. Everyone is equal because you can't just spend 5 bucks and get the uber sword of pwntasicalness, or triple experience for 5 hours. You just pay your subscription fee and the rest is up to you.

I didn't mean to come off rudely.
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