As always, many things related to Free to Play caught my attention during the past week or so. Among these, two that I found rather interesting involved games with a common heritage; they both launched using the subscription business model. One recently shifted. Champions Online: Free for All launched four weeks ago. The other, Age of Conan, is currently the subject of rumours that it will do so as well. This is the latest renewal of talk has come up and subsided a few times before.
Champions Online reports large initial increases
In a press release last week, Cryptic and parent Atari made it known that some key numbers for Champions Online have risen dramatically since FFA went live on January 25. Actual figures weren't forthcoming, but it was stated that the online concurrent user, unique login and revenue totals have all gone up by over 1,000 percent. Since user longevity weighs heavily in determining the success of MMOGs, it's still premature to deem the change of business models an unqualified success or to predict a prosperous long-term future. However, the early indications certainly seem positive.
Not surprisingly, the announcement sparked a mini-burst of declarations from portions of the anti-F2P faction to the effect that FFA is not F2P. If we use the limited definition whereby F2P means the sole form of revenue generation is item sales, that's true. Champions Online is free for levels 1 to 40, with optional premium content including adventure packs, gear, powers and wearables. It also offers a monthly membership that is basically subscription.
I'm fine with calling such business models hybrid, freemium et al, but the "not F2P" position often seems to be uneven. At one end, it's conveniently narrow. A game that primarily relies on item sales while also offering a monthly membership-type package is still referred to as F2P, not as a hybrid or freemium. At the other, when a title with a required monthly fee adds optional content for sale, it's still called subscription. Wouldn't it be more accurate to call it a hybrid too?
If we look beyond the confines of our hemisphere, another gray area looms large. Almost invariably, some members of the "not F2P" camp bring up WoW's global subscription count. In doing so, they blithely ignore the fact that roughly half don't pay by the month. In China, the game's largest market, it's P2P but not subscription - at least not as I define it, which means there's a set mandatory fee.
Let me be clear. I'm not advocating for wider use of the F2P label. That said, the name isn't likely to go away any time soon, so as long as we're aware enough to understand it can and does include more than the "pure" item shop-only version, and that many MMOGs, perhaps even the majority use business models that are hybrids to some extent, I see little if any harm in using it unless and until some other term gains sufficient acceptance to replace it. The same applies to releases that aren't "pure" subscription; using that tag is also fine.
Age of Conan F2P rumors heating up again
I may have mentioned the possibility of Age of Conan moving away from requiring a monthly payment in the past. While I've never received any indication from Funcom that it intends to do so or even that the possibility is being seriously considered, rumors to this effect aren’t new. The latest spate, which follows the addition of some new pets and consumables for purchase, is about the fourth go-round, probably spanning a couple of years.
My guess is that it's only a matter of time before AoC switches to some form of hybrid approach. The reasons for thinking so continue to pile up. One is that the company already did it before with Anarchy Online. It's also well aware that the growth rate of F2P surpasses the subscription sector's, both here in the west and also globally. Not changing would mean remaining a modest-sized fish in the smaller of the two ponds, which is expanding less rapidly and thus has less potential, and where the impending arrival of SWTOR seems likely to have a significant impact on the competitive balance.
On the other hand, successfully adopting a different revenue generation strategy - my feeling is that a version of freemium might be the best bet - would position the game as one of the larger and more prominent titles in a space with greater possibilities. To extend the above analogy, this would be akin to becoming one of the larger fish in a lake. And since it's relatively hard to see any huge obstacles or probably major downside risk...