Free to play done right
In this entry I want to look at the ever increasing popularity of the Free to play or Freemium models of gaming, and challenge a few perceptions, as well as share my opinion on how this type of payment method could be done in a way that would lead to a greater acceptance and greater gaming experience for us all.
Firstly lets define the difference between freemium and Free 2 play. The former Freemium is a subscription model if we are honest that allows for what is essentially a massive but limited trial. If you enjoy the product you can either purchase the bits you want or subscribe and get the lot, I know quite a lot of Lotro players and AoC players and it is pretty much agreed that if you want the full experience of the game, you subscribe. The buffet method of content delivery is just not worth it in comparison.
Free 2 play on the other hand is where the entire game is free, however there is a cash shop attached, this is where it gets a bit murky. The Cash shop could be a good one or it could be what many like to call a pay to win where the items within are of a higher power than what is obtainable in a game. There are many examples of Free 2 play games, some of them have even made it on to steam Forsaken World, Spiral Knights and if you venture out into the newly growing Moba Genre League of Legends, all of them have a slightly different take on the monetization of their product.
In spiral Knights there are items that are locked on your character sheet, trinket, and jewellery slots you can unlock these slots for a fixed amount of time for cash, there is also a system called energy, each level of the giant dungeon you attempt costs you energy, you get 100 for free every day, you can buy more with ingame cash or from the cash shop. To me this is an example of a cash shop that while good for the very casual player requires a lot of investment if you wish to be more hardcore. The energy system ensures that without purchasing energy you can only do a limited amount of the dungeon, while it is feasible to purchase energy for ingame cash, the amount of items you need and other sundry costs not to mention the ingame currency required for crafting makes this an option only if you are prepared to spend days farming cash between attempting any of the harder levels.
Spiral Knights also has a respawn system that uses energy and believe me the boss encounters are designed to make you make use of this. While the Cash shop does not fall under pay to win, this cash shop is classified by me as pay to be viable. While not as bad as pay to win, it did enough to put me off the game.
Now lets look at Runes of Magic, this one is not on Steam, and the Cash shop quite clearly falls under the pay to win variety, not only are items bought and sold there but item improvements can also be bought and sold there, along with convenience items, the RoM cash shop is firmly into the pay for power variety, although its possible to be PvE viable to an extent, your power level will always be dramatically reduced from the person who is prepared to sink cash into the game. As a note, the currency used in this cash shop "Rom Diamonds" used to be tradeable ingame between players, but this has been disabled for some time.
Now lets step away from the MMO genre and into the Moba, League of legends for me is an example of a cash shop done right. League of Legends for those not familiar is a Player vs Player arena game, each team picks 3 or 5 champions depending on the game type selected and attempts to kill each other, there are monsters to kill for gold and items to buy for that gold. At the start of each match each champion starts at level 1 and progresses to 18. There are also two forms of player advancement, Summoner levels (with obligatory talent trees) and rune books.
The first thing to note is you can not buy ANYTHING for cash in league of legends that directly affects your ingame power. You can buy convenience, and style but not power. You can get an XP boost, an Influence point boost (the ingame currency used to buy champions and runes) champions (which are also available by influence points), skins (new looks for champions) but all of these with the exception of boosts and skins are also available simply by playing the game enough. You earn influence points after each match based on performance.
So the cash shop allows me to obtain champions quicker, levels quicker points quicker but at no time does it allow me to obtain power which I can not get via any other means. In fact the runes which you fill your rune page up (Each rune contains a small permanent stat boost) Are only available via the ingame earned points.
Indirectly I can increase my power faster via boosts but not directly, which brings me on to what I want to now suggest is the RIGHT model for a free to play MMO (Because the last thing I want to sound like is a LoL advert, believe me I have my issues with that game too but they are not relevant to this post).
The Right Model in my opinion is one that allows you to pay real cash for, Convenience, Style, optional content but never power.
Consider this for example, most of us have played wow, in Vanilla wow there was an armour set called Twill, it was a plain brown set of cloth armour. Now in my ideal free to play game, the twill armour would come with stats, it would be dropped in game it would be functional, you could play the game and be viable wearing twill.
But pony up a few pounds/dollars/Yen and I will give you the ability to make that twill, and any other armour you get look stunning, like the best raid armour your class has seen, give me a few more dollars and I will let you add a nice visual effect like glowing eyes or wings or what ever is suitable to the game.
Now lets assume our game is a Themepark (Because in my opinion Sanboxes make for terrible cash shop games, just look at Eve's Plex and Aurum systems for a way this can cause issues). So the leveling content in the open world is free, the instances as you level are free. But hey i have this urge to max out my level faster. No problem, pop open the cash shop and get an XP potion right? This to me is a grey area, because what you essentially do is fast track people to end game, which as any guild leader knows leads to people being inexperienced at their class/role. But from the perspective of a free to play discussion, I would say is acceptable.
Now lets say our game has mounts, lets use the wow mount system. So for ingame currency I can get a plain horse nothing fancy just a nice chestnut mare or somesuch. Slip me a bit of cash and I will let you turn that baby into a tiger, a bike what ever you like (This assumes of course that drop and achievement mounts are not in game). I dont get any functionality I cant get elsewhere but I do get style.
Repair bots, these were useful little things to upgrade your gear after dieing, but again you could just travel 5 mins to the vendor. So would having these be acceptable as a cash shop item, to me yes they would.
Finally lets look at "optional content" lets again look at wow, lets say every 6 months a new tier of endgame content (Instances and raids for this example) is released. Do you think it would be acceptable to charge for this content while it is fresh, perhaps when a new tier comes out have the old one move down to the free to play price point? in my opinion no, because then indirectly you are making ingame power the proviso of the cash point customer, but what you could do is release two new raids every 6 months, one for the free to play player, make it a small one with a couple of bosses that have the loot table of nearly all the bosses in the second one. The aforemention second raid would be for the first 6 months only available to people who paid a small amount of cash for it (note a small amount not a large one). After 6 months when the new tier comes out this one is moved to the free to play area.
So we have alternate appearances for armour, mounts, items of convenience and some optional content, No restrictions on play, no two tier power level just an incentivised system of buying content that rewards people who wish to without alienating the rest of your audience.
I am not a business major or a market analyst, so I can not say for certain if it is financially viable. But to me this is free to play done right. They tell us Free 2 Play is the future so lets discuss how we want to see that future pan out, personally I quite like my vision but what do you think?