A familiar name popped up recently when word crossed my desk about City State Entertainment, a development studio that opened its doors earlier this year under the aegis of President and Creative Director Mark Jacobs. He and I go back a ways, nearly 15 years now, to his days heading Mythic Entertainment, even before it gained broad attention by creating Dark Age of Camelot. After that company's acquisition, he served as an EA VP and GM until departing in 2009. He has yet to reveal what his new venture is up to, but its website has a decidedly light-hearted tone that suggests he's having a lot of fun.
About a decade ago, Jacobs gained attention as an outspoken opponent of gold farming and selling in MMOGs. In certain quarters, this was inaccurately interpreted in a wider manner, as negativity toward any form of item sales as well as the entire free to play business model. We hadn't specifically talked about such matters in a few years, so I thought it might be interesting to touch base and see what his feelings are now.
Starting off, he noted that versions of F2P have been around since before many people think. As an example, he cited AOL in the '90s. "A number of years ago," he recalls, "I sat on a GDC panel where I took the position that the market is robust enough to support multiple models, and that other than the ever-cyclical, rollercoaster ride that is our industry, no single model will rule them all. My opinion really hasn’t changed on this. I'm all in favor of having multiple options for players and developers."
"I've never been against F2P," he continues. "What I was, and still remain strongly opposed to, is gold farming in games, especially MMOs, that weren’t designed from the beginning to handle those kind of transactions, and also to the groups that seek to profit from such transactions. What I really dislike isn't so much the gold farming / selling itself, but certain behaviors that occur in games where this happens."
Jacobs explains that as a player, he hates being unable to complete quests or even simply grind levels because all his preferred spots are staked out by people trying to make real money, and who may even behave aggressively if not left alone. His focus, he says, has always been the good of the game and the gamer. However, he also points out something he has said before - it's up to developers to choose which model(s) they want to follow, and "if they design a great system that handles such matters brilliantly, more power to them".
When I bring up the revenue model switches that have taken place recently in the west, he seems content that some titles have reported increased revenues, opining that it was positive for the associated companies, and also for gamers if the alternative was shutting down or going into life support mode. As to whether we're likely to see more such shifts, he's unsure. "Switching to F2P isn't as simple as just turning off the billing," he says, "not if you actually want to see some revenue from the game. This requires at least some effort from the developers, which means they must believe enough in it to be willing to spend enough money to make the switch successful. And of course, not every game that has switched has succeeded; some have failed and been shut down, while others have floundered."
As for F2P currently gaining market share in this hemisphere, Jacobs submits that "the biggest factors driving people to F2P have been the economy, a lack of really interesting MMOs plus some that needed more time before launch, and some really good F2P games as well as the maturation of the mobile, tablet and social gaming spaces." He thinks this trend will continue for at least a little while, but does sense the possible start of a swing in momentum. "I think we're beginning to see a slight shift in consumers' awareness of the downside of the F2P (just as they did for subscription games), and that the market may begin to react if things change from both the developer side and from consumers (such as the economy improving)."
Wrapping up, he thinks we're at a very interesting time in the MMOG space. In particular, he feels the impending arrival of what is apparently EA's most expensive title ever, The Old Republic, which takes place in a property he considers a "license to print money", will show just how viable the subscription approach presently is - with the caveat that it's a great product. "If so, well, it won’t matter what people like me might say or think about the MMO market; the game’s numbers a year after release will really tell the tale."
Another tale as yet untold is that of City State Entertainment. Mark Jacobs says it's "a team in every sense of the word", and that he's happier now than he has been in years. Both seem like very positive indicators that the studio just may be up to something special. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing and learning more.