Recently, Trion unveiled Founder’s Packs for ArcheAge, which is currently in alpha and will be headed into beta. While you will be able to play the game for free at launch, you can secure guaranteed beta access and numerous other perks much sooner for a fee. This is similar to what SOE has offered for its upcoming EverQuest Next: Landmark, a game that will also be free to play and cash shop supported. Trion also offers “support” packs for its upcoming release, Trove, that run up to $2500. These aren’t limited to MMOs, as MOBAs have also started to get into the founder’s pack game.
Community response to the ArcheAge and EQ Next: Landmark packages, as well as Trove support levels seem to run along similar lines. Some who were excited to have an option to get into the game in an earlier form welcomed the option. Others felt that it was a cheap cash grab for free to play games. Some felt the prices were just too high. Trove lets you get into alpha on the $20 level, while packages for ArcheAge run at the $50, $100, and $150 levels. EQ Next: Landmark founders packs offer immediate beta access and other perks at $20, $60, and $100 tiers. Some expressed interest in lower-priced packages, but not the current offerings.
For the developer, the benefits are clear. One, having a revenue stream for a free to play title from consumers even before a game has launched is obvious. Development, and sometimes localization and adaptation in the case of a game like ArcheAge, isn’t cheap. The second is having a group of invested players in the game. Not only do they have your money at that point, but they also have your attention. If you’re a person willing to drop $100 or $150 on a planned free to play game in alpha, then you’re more than likely to be highly interested in the end product that results. This is an advantage for the devs in its own way since invested players are good sources of feedback. Yet, if charging for these things, it’s on the devs to make players feel like they have an impact.
So where does this put the average person when it comes to beta and alpha testing games? The early access promise is now not just a preorder marketing tool, but it’s a marketing tool for free to play games. The concept of players being able to snag a free invite to a game’s early stages and help shape development is hurt, some feel, by essentially selling these invites to those with open wallets. Those who don’t have a lot of cash should still be able to assist in helping along games they are excited to play and could even help support financially in smaller one-time payments than say, $60. People play free to play games for multiple reasons, often citing the lower barrier to entry, but it’s also nice to not be on the hook for a payment just to enjoy playing and it’s perfectly conceivable that someone plays a game and drops $5 or $10 into the cash shop in a week or month. Sure, the free invite hasn’t gone away, but charging like this is unlikely to disappear either.
Ultimately, game testing programs are in place to help test and prepare the game for release, but selling access is unlikely to go away. Players and services built businesses on the backs of game studios’ work, selling keys, items, gold and anything else they possibly could. As some of the experienced devs in the MMORPG.com Future of Online Games panel stated at PAX East this month, studios and publishers are taking those services back and providing them themselves when it comes to free to play games. Yet founders pack type items seem to be on the rise. Getting players involved early can also help build word of mouth and hype if the game you’re putting out is a quality product. Tradeoffs for players seem to be early access being a promotional item, and of course, the lack of a subscription.
Yet it’s not uncommon to see players feeling increasingly nickel and dimed from even early stages of development. What is the solution, aside from delivering a quality game? One might look back to 2012’s independent RTS Endless Space for potential guidance. Developer Amplitude Studios started a program called Games2gether that was both a way of funding its game and of increasing community participation. Everyone could participate in this system, in which player forums were there for open suggestions. Anyone could vote on suggestions, but those who had invested had more vote say. So, while good ideas could come from anyone, and multiple community requests were later implemented, those who had supported Amplitude got a little more of a say (with some checks in place). While that’s not a 100% ‘fair’ system, it was a successful one, and Amplitude not only got the game out but also produced an expansion full of community suggestions.
Additionally, a greater variety of price points for these packs would be a welcome change as well. Starting at $20 isn’t bad. That’s a budget game title. But maybe other options, like Trove’s $5 beta access tier. For that, you get beta access and shop credits, as well as beta forums. This sort of level ($5-10) would be a great starter for a Games2gether-like program, where you’d get one vote and the ability to propose ideas.
Since this is the reality and unlikely to go away, there are methods to make the process of selling early access and pre-launch packages a valuable way for the community to have a real impact. An MMO is on a larger scale, but having a truly collaborative experience between community and developers is not an impossible goal. A program in place that works along the lines of Games2gether, which was not just voting, but also having devs’ ears and eyes on the game’s art, mechanics, and more, could make an early access founder’s pack option more valuable.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez