War wages on MMO forums everyday pertaining to what subscription model is the best. Most of the time this is based on personal preference without taking into context what that game is, it's past market, and what is most healthy for it. In this brief blog I will attempt to discern the appropriate measures I feel would be best for one game in particular: Elder Scrolls Online.
There are typically three types of stances when the discussion arises regarding preferred payment plans.
A) People who like Pay to Play (henceforth referred to as P2P) plans whereby they pay roughly $15 a month for access to a game.
B) People who enjoy testing multiple games and investing time and money in Free to Play games (henceforth referred to as F2P).
C) People who are found of Buy to Play games (henceforth referred to as B2P) and are able to play the game they bought whenever they want.
But before we go into deciphering what game is best for what crowd or what type of game, let's take a much more focused look at each of these categories.
A) P2P "Has anyone else seen a singing, dancing frog?"
Most who enjoy P2P games typically enjoy either one of two (if not both) things: It's usually worth the subscription to them personally, and it has two barriers for entry to prevent others from playing.
The last portion of that could be misconstrued as being anti P2P on my part, or elitist on the part of the player, but what is meant by it is the theory that the more something costs, the higher quality it is (presumably) and the less chance trolls will exist in their game.
It could be argued that money does not equal maturity; that kids will access games regardless due to their parent's credit card and age does not necessarily mean good attitudes and amicable personalities. Indeed, taking a look at the highest subscribed P2P game World of Warcraft we could see a very real argument against such barriers actually providing for a mature community. Now, this could be for a variety of reasons such as systems introduced into WoW ( LFG and Addons that judge other people such as their gear and DPS) to give tools to one's inner "I want to own" gamer ego or by simple statistics that more people equals more bad apples regardless of the financial barriers.
If you're one to subscribe to the theory that more money does not equal more maturity, then we're left with the statement that people will pay monthly for the game if they think it's worth it. That, as a whole, great games become a success and subpar games will be sent to a series of ridicule throughout their lifespans. This requires further elaboration into what exactly is a great game.
The common response of someone who enjoys P2P often says that the market is big enough to support the P2P premium of essentially buying a game and then renting it every month in order to play. The fact is, that there are indeed many people who are willing to pay monthly fees, as seen by the cultural phenom that is WoW, but there are a multitude of obstacles one has to overcome other than just being that "perfect" game.
What are these obstacles? Let's take a look at just a few.
1) There is no perfect game: Everyone has different tastes and their viewpoints of what a "worthwhile" and to try and please everyone would, in the words of many developers, spell doom for your product. This is perhaps the worst enemy of the group of people who constantly state that the P2P crowd is large enough to support itself. Not only is the MMO payment plan splintered by three different financial plans, it is further segmented by the fact that this group (for the sake of argument let's say that a full 1/3rd or 33% of MMORPG fans are a part of the P2P supporters) may have individual needs and / or wants of their own required for a game to be "great". This means that 33% is further condense by another 1/3rd (which is in my opinion a generous assumption and again a guess for the sake of brevity) by people who may or may not like a game or the direction said game takes. Add to that the natural decline of subscribers after a few months and a game may as well be essentially niche before it even gets out of the gate.
2) The community: It's been stated that much of the interest and maintaining a lively population is due to the fact that relationships form and the community develops its own social archetype. But coming from the previous obstacle, the game in question is already cut down significantly in the amount of people who will give it a chance or believe it to be worthy of a subscription. It is no secret that the less financial barriers there are, the more people will try the game. And, as many people have stated, if the game is good, people will stay: But the problem therein is that with monthly fee the game has to border on near perfect if not great to maintain a successful quota of gamers where as another payment type is slightly more forgiving (and thus different tastes is less relevant). The main key here is that the less accessible a game is, the less community it has, and the less likely that "that one" person who stays and befriends a dozen others who would have otherwise left would occur.
3) The IP: The IP has to be above and beyond popular for any chance at success. Though this is not a win all case, as you have to look at the context of what type of crowd has made it so popular and what they're used to. In addition, all of these obstacles are still in effect and need to be considered as well. Let's take a look at the Elder Scrolls online IP. Upon going to PAX East I noticed that the Elder Scrolls Online was almost always packed; MMORPG even gave it a reward as it seemed to be a very good game indeed. Forgetting that each person has their own tastes and the fact that many may feel alienated at new changes that need to be made because it's an MMO, what payment plan should we feel is the best for ESO in terms of
a) The health of the game
b) The fans that have supported it for all these years
c) What type of MMO player would be interested in said game (since there are hundreds on the market).
Let's face it (for as much as I love my modded Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim), the crowd that gave ESO it's popularity was not computer based and it's likely only a very small percentage have even played a MMO before in their lives. Again ignoring the fact that you have to split that small number into payment plan preference segments, we're looking at a very likely 9/10th fanbase who are either console based fans of the series or have played it on the computer but aren't fans of the MMORPG genre.
In an overall frivolous personal study (not backed by anything other than personal curiosity and thus can be discarded by a shrewd individual) whereby I asked roughly 20 console gamers if they would ever give World of Warcraft a chance, almost every single one said no (some more mocking than others). The main reason for this is the fact that they "don't want to rent a game
Now let's look at the Elder Scrolls Online playerbase and what they might expect. We're looking at a very high amount of people who may feel the same way. In addition, the small amount of people who are both fans of MMOs and ESO are split in three ways as it is. Add to that the backlash the game could receive if the ESO fans feel betrayed in some way in addition to having less players actually try the game (again split from personal tastes if looking at the P2P crowd) and you have a game that could only perform at a shadow of it's true capacity.
4) Competition: The fact that World of Warcraft has so many people, so many fans and a community embedded in it's very core has been a deterrent for many would be successors for a long time. That community is established and has a very specific culture. It stands as a testament to what the P2P model can be, while also being a major factor of it's downfall. To be incredibly successful with the P2P model you not only need to be "great" to as many people as possible, but also give ample reasons to jump ship. Most of them will not, even if the game is blatantly superior, simply because their friends will be unwilling to pay for a new game (either the box price or the additional monthly) in addition to losing all progress they made in the years they played WoW. The less financial barriers there are, the more likely it is that one friend would be able to convince another to join them somewhere else to at least try it. The more barriers, the less likely this will occur. In addition, significant social features will need to be implemented so that they instantly feel like they belong. WoW makes people feel like they belong. Their friends make them feel as such. Their characters, which they spent years on and grew attached to, make them feel at home.
5) Hype: One of the greatest enemies of a new MMO. Hype is something that makes a great game turn to just a mediocre one in the eyes of the public. If something appears only half as good as one's dreams of it, it is typical human nature to say the game "sucks" or "did not live up to the hype, and thus is not worthy of my attention". It does not matter if the game is objectively good or not in this matter. This may also be a part of the whole potential Alienation of a existing fanbase that are not used to either P2P plans or the changes that MMOs will bring.
Things to consider: The Megaserver technology will presumably help with the population problem present in most all MMOs.
If ESO went this route: They would have to do some serious convincing to the console crowd. ES is viewed to be "their game", and the systems therein (including how they buy the game and then how they purchase DLC micro transactions from the shops to support the game when they have the money) will likely have them be extremely picky. Overall I believe purchasing the game to be fundamental in actually caring about it when it comes to an IP such as ES. Though I don't think many are willing to take the leap to "rent" the game, as that will feel like it's being held for ransom rather than being something that they are truly apart of.
Enough tearing down the P2P structure; let's jump on the "hate train" for another payment plan.
F2P: "The easiest path to heaven, is the quickest path to hell."
Some games just need to be F2P going out the gate. I don't think many of us would argue against that. But why is this exactly? Is it truly just because it is not a great game? Is it because another game is so popular that it simply does not have a chance even if it is good? Is there an ideological reason? That everyone's tastes are so different and so many are cynical that trials are needed? Perhaps it is just the newest and most successful trend, adopted by those who, in their hubris failed to get the P2P attention, or those who from the onset wanted to build a F2P game from the ground up.
There is nothing inherently wrong with modern F2P games. Most have well constructed cash shops that do not provide advantages. Many developers would argue that they are free to focus on what they want, when they want with F2P as opposed to waiting six months for patches just to string people along with hype. Yet, there are many examples of games that simply focus on the cash shop thenceforth and do not add much else to the game unless it could be packaged and sold in the box that is their virtual space. This mainly occurs in games that originally intended to go P2P, or started out as such, but then made the transition. Those who, from the ground up, prepare for this payment model typically have more to offer.
But we are starting to see a rise of high budget games going free to play. Why is this?
There is no single answer to this. Indeed, one's assertion on the matter is as good as anyone else's. But let's break this down and see if we can get at least a good idea of what's going on, shall we?
1) The presumed start of F2P MMO games.
Back when games were coming out and online gaming still young and exclusive to the computer, many games such as Starsiege Tribes came out and allowed dozens and dozens of players inside of a virtual playground and interact with one another on a competitive level. This game costed money: Buy the game, and you were able to play on a server (usually set up by another user using their connection) for as long as you wanted. This was much like the console "B2P" games whereby you bought it and you owned it.
Then game one of the first MMO games (aside from muds), such as Ultima Online. This game charged about 9.95 a month in addition to a box price. It caught the imaginations of many, and had no real term attached to it other than Massively Multiplayer or an online game where hundreds could be on the screen. It later became known as one of the first Sandbox games. These games were of high quality and took massive amounts of development time.
Probably seeing these and looking at the potential for money making, the first F2P online games started to surface. Most of these were very grindy, and the whole experience was essentially just to get more powerful and sell items or aesthetics to make money. These are probably some of the first F2P games and the core of the payment model: Make something easy and watch the money flow in as free things bring about curious and or bored people and from there human behavior sinks in what with wanting to be a "snowflake" or prove how "strong" they are.
There was another game that mimic'd this feature quite well, but sold it with a box price along with free online play on their widely successful internet service that was called "Battle.net". This game was Diablo II (yes I know there was a Diablo, but as I recall internet was not added until much later), and essentially targeted that same human nature with the same grind and loot farm. But one thing that was different, was that it was a high quality game, and was a sort of "new school" in terms of B2P online gaming.
With the blatant selling of power in some of the "grandfather" F2P games, as well as there being a large black market for items in D2, and selling of real estate and accounts in Ultima Online (and Eve later on), many began to distrust F2P and dislike selling items as a whole (as it, for all intents and purposes, preyed on human weakness and gave a disadvantage to those with stronger wills than to buy everything available). From there we got new P2P MMOs such as Final Fantasy XI -- which formed entire task forces to eliminate Real Money Trading (henceforth written as RMT) -- and World of Warcraft, which was against selling accounts as a whole (although it was frequently done clear up to Wrath of the Lich King). The MMO market was still relatively fresh and young, with limited investors, and people were getting tired of F2P buying power.
Enter the cultural phenom World of Warcraft: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvK8fua6O64
Video credit goes to MrbTongue and I have had no part in his thoughts or the making of his video. But it is better than any example I could give through text.
As the video explains, many games attempted to be the "new wow". They came so caught up in saying that they were not WoW clones, that they forgot that it's the public's perception that would deem such. In addition, it did not help that so many common themes and perspectives were similar to WoW (in addition to a more skeptical MMO crowd). With the onset of new and higher quality F2P games, we started to see another shift in the industry. As he stated in the video "There is now room for 5 100 lb guerrillas instead of one 500 lb one."
But this all seems to be praise for the F2P payment model? Not really. This is because this is the polar opposite of the P2P model in that there is literally no financial barrier to keep trollish individuals out of your gaming experience. What is a good example of how toxic a game could get if it's totally free?
League of Legends.
But, Yaevindusk, LoL is not a MMO! You're correct. But for all things considered, it may as well be in this context. It's F2P no matter how you look at it, and while not an MMO, we're looking at the F2P model itself and not just the type of game it's attached to.
Note: It is worth noting that LoL is a simple concept and MMOs are usually much larger and more complex (thus hard to comprehend by some).
In LoL it's commonly said that you need a group of friends to play with to enjoy it. That random games are full of kids who cuss at each other if you take a mob or "kill steal" from them. It may or may not be that bad, but it is indicative of just how bad something could get without some sort of barrier or system in place to promote community, inter connectivity and working together without competition (with regards to your own team and not your opponents).
But something should be mentioned about League of Legends. It frequently has around 100,000 viewers on Twitch.tv and has the money to offer million dollar seasonal tournaments. There is no doubt that such a thing could be massively successful. But it will also get a bad reputation, and will need to take full advantage of the playerbase it has (or have wonderful marketing) as many would then refuse to give it a chance after hearing all of the vulgarities it may have.
Then again, WoW isn't known for having a great community either. In addition, that fact that LoL is free would lessen the fact that some might not like an infamous community; they can see for themselves if it's something that's as bad as the rumors say without costing them a dime.
What does the F2P model have to worry about?
Trolls: There is an influx of player after player coming in to see your game. This is especially true if it's a popular IP. The situation will have to be handled carefully and systems in place to promote good behavior.
Business model: Most players don't like seeing items that could give another an unfair advantage or give them an edge in PvP.
Updates: Having a balance of free content updates, cash shop updates and paid expansions to go with the core game is still crucial to long term success unless you have a wholly dedicated community that can play the same thing over and over again (LoL).
Appearance: People do not like to see that a game is falling apart. It makes them worry that the work and time they spend in your game might be for nothing. At the same time, if it's blatantly obvious that you're hurting (for whatever reason), being honest about it and showing that you have a clear vision and plan will be more beneficial as a whole. Vision is the key word here; if I only see cash shop updates in my F2P mmo, I start to worry for it's future and the overall vision the developers have for it. An announce expansion or content update, whether it's free or not, helps with at least quelling my fears or allows me to be oblivious / ignorant to many things.
Spammers and Exploiters: Without a cost associated with accounts (the initial box price), the likelihood of cheaters will increase quite a bit. It is the box price that helps deters this, as anyone can just make a new account with free to play or completely P2P (without box price) and not worry about a thing their first few months. As time moves on, accounts get worked on more and people worry about them (as would be the case with any payment model). Though this is definitely a con on the side of the F2P model, and something those who run it will have to deal with, as many don't enjoy seeing such things in a game that they play.
How do I make a community love my game?
Answer: People. The main reason LoL gets so many views is that people have their favorite teams, their "frenemies" in chat (think sports rivalry), and watching their favorite players with a community of people who also enjoy watching them. Sadly, it's mainly about the personality more so than it is the game when it comes to popularity contest with Twitch and Youtube. It is important to note that not all games have the capacity to do this as they may not have that competitive or creative core that helps do so.
When it comes to F2P games, the more arguments that start in chat, the more exposure a game gets and the more hits a video in general gets. It's kind've the double edged sword of the payment model. This is true pretty much with any game, though. It's why to this day I wonder why certain companies do not allow comments to be made on their videos. Ultimately F2P games have the luxury of avoiding most of the negative effects of "bad press" as people will have the ability to try the game out and decide for themselves as opposed to "wasting" money on your product after reading a bad review.
If ESO went F2P? I wouldn't recommend this route personally (unless the following is done), but I believe a split could be made to satisfy both P2P and F2P parties. Originally I would recommend that different servers be set up: Subscribers having subscriber only servers with the ability to use their character on any F2P server (so that they can play with non-subscribed friends) to promote that community and allow for one's friends to play the game (and thus give them one more reason to stay). But since the Megaserver is in the picture, I'd say using that system whereby if you're a role player and check the role player box, you'll be with other role players... in the same way. Also have a greyed out box ( as an addition and not to replace the RP box) that is only available to subscribers, and if they click it, only other subscribers show up. This may also work with B2P in case someone just wants that extra financial barrier instead of the middle ground.
B2P: "Ignorance is bliss."
There are many examples of B2P games, which can even loosely be described as every single console game and most games on Steam. They are games that you buy once and you practically own them. It gives you a sense of belonging, that you have invested something into your game without feeling the slave in some way. B2P games have a history of selling either Expansion packs or most common today: Microtransactions in the form of DLC and the like. This is what players such as The Elders Scrolls: Skyrim fans are used to as a whole. In fact, it is a short hop, skip and jump away from being a cash shop microtransaction as DLCs could still be placed there (expansions) as well and little aesthetics here and there and people will just eat up to both support their game and further invest in it for their own reasons (whether it's to help the game or just feel snazzy) when they have the money.
Let's take a look at a few recent examples of B2P games in the MMO market. You guessed it, let's see how well both Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have done. While we can only speculate in terms of financial success, Guild Wars 2 has performed admirably despite not being a very big IP. In fact, it had to contend with great amounts of Hype, but still came out ahead as legions of fans are willing to defend it. Indeed, it's hard to be objective and hate on Guild Wars 2 simply because of the content you get versus the money you've spent. It's something pivotal in the success of Elder Scrolls games: Hundreds of hours of content for only $60, the time and money you spend on it, and future purchases for it. But it must also be noted that Guild Wars 2 is far from perfect. But why is it still held on such high regard? Why is it that in the recent MMO gathering from multiple respected developers at PaX East did Guild Wars II still get such a brilliant cheer when their game was announced? Surely after six months the hype would have died down and it would've only got a courtesy round of applause? Except, that it didn't. Yes, Guild Wars II is a quality game. Yes, there are those who think it's not so great. This goes back to the whole "there is no perfect game" in the P2P area and the fact that not everyone can be satisfied.
So why is there the overwhelming appearance that everyone *is* satisfied?
Well, there's little to say other than one word: Fanboys.
I know, you're probably cringing right now regardless of how you stand on that game. But treat your customers well, advertise your payment model sublimely, and make them feel like they actually own the game in some way and you have the recipee for a large standing army of people who will buy your game and defend if even years after they decide to stop playing (which is inevitable for most any game). Let's take a look at those who managed to quit WoW and how they view the game. Most just look for ways to hate the game, as if trying to convince themselves that they did the right thing by leaving. You see multiple excuses as to why they left, and most generate a lot of negative feeling. Add to this a rather elitist community and you see even this cultural phenom starting to bleed gamers playing their game. Let's think for a moment and ponder that If there was no subscription to that game, would half as many who blatantly despise WoW (for whatever reason) be actively spreading their hatred of it? If they were still able to log in without having to rent the game or have their characters practically held hostage? Do you think more would come back with patches and expansions in the future?
But when it comes to Guild Wars 2, these "fanboys" of that game are the golden boys; ultimately they're right. The game has enough content for the money spent. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but objectively you can't bring more faults to it than you can the positive and core nature of the game. If you can, then it's irrelevant because you don't have to further rent the game out just to get your money's worth, and if in the future a change is made that you felt was missing you may begin to enjoy it all over again or for the first time.
The Secret World is an even less known IP; it was not a sequel and had much less hype. But still, it's numbers presumably increased a great amount since making the jump to B2P. In fact, we can look at tangible evidence regarding this in that the game's rating went from 8.20 to roughly 8.64 on MMORPG.com once the subscription fee was dropped. More people tried it and the response seemed to be overwhelmingly positive from those who would have otherwise not even given it a chance. We can see much of the same with Guild Wars 2 in that they keep on releasing monthly content updates (actual content and system updates) and a few aesthetic options in the cash shop as opposed to just spitting out expansion after expansion every six months. In fact, they have said that they haven't even had the need to worry about an expansion yet and are in a great position to just update the core game.
Could you imagine what the purchasing power of The Elder Scrolls online could bring if it went B2P? Suddenly the "I don't want to rent games" response will be millions of ES fans considering buying this game if their computer is strong enough to handle it.
But therein lies a prudent line: If their computers can handle it. It would have to be up to the developer in general to make sure their games are able to be run on as many computers as possible. After all, as stated before, these are still mainly console fans of this game.
In addition, we still have that one less financial barrier that some of the P2P seem to enjoy. This is more of a middle ground than anything as of yet. Yet, if the evidence we have today means anything, we still seem to see frequent updates from these games, and at a much faster rate than the 4-6 month updates we see in even the most profitable MMO in history.
What are some pros and cons of this overall? Let's take a look:
Fanboyism: There's really no other term that can show this as much. Many do not like fanboys. They will defend something even if it truly needs some help. This may make it harder to get accurate feedback regarding a product as they will just kiss your toes and thank the developer for any crumb they throw at them. This may be a pro for the developer and investor, but it's a con to the average gamer in my book as it will bring about another eight years of more of the same once we have the next big thing.
Morality: There is something special about having your product bought and the community that forms around it. This isn't about the morale of your gamers, but rather of your team. That pride when something ships, that people were willing to pay for it and the devoted fan base that forms around it. B2P is perfect for this, as if harkens back to the old days of buy one, play forever, while also acquires an overzealous fanbase who will defend you to their last keyboard. You needn't fear much about the comment "there's nothing to do anymore" as P2P do because your product already paid for itself with it's immense depth and sheer amount of gameplay hours. The fact that you will (presumably) have frequent patches and expansions will only sweeten the deal. The acceptance of a non-pay to win cash shop will also bring about extra income in the same way DLC has been taken in by the console crowd (which would likely frown at required monthly fees as a whole).
Buying Power: Going hand and hand with Morality, the IP in question needs to have selling power if it intends to go B2P at the start. It's still subject to some scrutiny as people may wait for reviews before paying for the $60 box price (after all, it is a middle ground between two extreme payment plans). Though ultimately more will be looking at it if they see there is no "renting" fee associated with their game (in this case, especially, with regards to the ES franchise and how they're used to the B2P and microtransaction model). There may also need to be some sort of hook and appropriate marketing (though probably not as much marketing as P2P as you need to do a lot of hype / convincing then), such as Defiance's decision to go B2P with their Television angle (which they recently got 100% pre-order with the artificial sale bar on steam, with Defiance reaching upwards of 3rd place in overall best sales on Steam). One has to know their audience and know their game.
Ignorance: With B2P games a player will feel both invested and content as a whole. Many will still show some discontent, but will be abruptly targeted by knights in shining armor for the game. It does not have a monthly fee, so many things can be forgiven. The occasional interview, a preview of what will happen in the next patch (a few bones here and there) and you're golden as a developer as your fans just eat it all up.
Entitlement: This is more so a problem with F2P games, but some of it translates over as well (since it's a middle ground between the two extreme payment models).
Promotion: Increased promotion and availability for the game; people logging in in droves when compared to P2P and be less threatened by the MMO King that still charges monthly. High likelihood people will switch over, especially if the game is good and word of mouth travels. People would be willing to leave WoW to test your game and either play both or pick between their favorite. If their friends come it will also help them with the transition to your own game (especially if you add recruitment promotions for friends or special offers for both them and their friends to come and try it).
Income Recoperation: Like P2P, B2P belongs in a guaranteed instant cash flow to help recover the funds lost during the development of the game. This is mainly due to the box price, followed by the monthly income (or daily when it comes to B2P and their micro transactions). Though it also fits in nicely in the B2P category because it supports a much greater audience potential, especially when considering the context of the game one is to release (in this case, an Elder Scrolls game). As a whole, it indirectly supports the "more people, more friends, more value" topics stressed herein of this blog.
If ESO goes B2P: This the the model that I support the most both as a MMO gamer and as an honest belief to be the best suited for Elder Scrolls in general (based on my reasons and analysis above). It provides both a sense of fulfillment or ownership of the game which is important to feel with this type of game, while also providing a potent vehicle to drive it into the market with little resistance to stop it. If this game has what it takes to topple any other popular MMO, then this is the model that will bring ES fans together as well as maximize the potential for profit with the MMO community.
About my preferences (ammo for those who think me bias):
Personally, as someone who has had up to five P2P MMOs active at a time, I'm quite tired of the P2P model as a whole (and mainly see only negatives regarding it nowadays). I've experienced a great deal of it and now just view it as the company in question holding ransom the character I worked on. Nowadays I will not even give a P2P game a chance so as to not fall into that trap, and am a supporter of B2P game styles. I do not like F2P games much, but I do at least give them a fair chance as there is little stopping me since there is no financial barrier and it's only fair to give new titles a fair shot in this market (especially since some do not meet the criteria of going B2P successfully).
This blog is based entirely on my own perceptions and opinions. It is a brief summary of things as I see them and should not be taken in whole as fact. As it is a brief analysis, it is likely that there is much more to each section than what is written, and if anyone thinks there is any value in what was said, they should also note that there is much more to consider and prepare for with each payment model than what is displayed above. I take no responsibility if someone blindly follows them as everyone who has an interest in it should perform their own research to see if it holds any truth in their opinion.