"Imagine an MMOG based in a fantasy world with multiple classes to choose from. You can customize your look. The core play includes leveling up your character, defeating creatures, improving your equipment, and getting other players together to defeat some pretty tough bosses. You can trade items with one another, fight in PvP battles, send in-game mail, and form guilds. Am I talking about World of Warcraft? Warhammer Online? EverQuest II?"
While the feature set listed by Chris Lena is common enough to be in quite a number of releases, his questions point out an undeniable reality, which is that many people would initially associate it with major subscription offerings. In fact, he's referring to Dragonica Online, the free to play game launched a couple of weeks ago by publisher THQ*ICE.
In his role as its Executive Producer, Lena has come face to face with the numerous preconceived notions that exist about F2P titles. Some of these perceptions were his own, the result of having spent the previous eight years in the subscription sector, including a series of positions at SOE, then as Senior Producer on Cryptic's Champions Online. During a recent discussion, he noted that the change had been "eye-opening" for him as a developer. Although some of his industry colleagues had expressed similar sentiments to me before, he was the first one willing to do so more extensively for publication.
Lena reports he expected the change would provide a learning experience, but was still surprised. "I've always believed that if someone is telling you he's an expert on MMOs, then he's lying... or, at best, delusional. Keeping that in mind, I knew moving over from subscription to free to play would be both interesting and educational. But I didn't know what an understatement this would be."
One revelation was that "Subscriptions make you lazy." He explains that the monthly nature of this revenue model tends to promote thinking from one patch to the next, which may be a couple of weeks apart, but can be far longer. In the F2P space, this time frame is significantly compressed. "The barriers to entry and exit are much, much lower, so you have deliver to your players all the time: content, contests, automated events, GM-driven ones, special offers... and whatever else people want. It takes almost no effort for them to try another game, so you have to prove yourself constantly. Everything happens faster."
Another important difference is what Lena describes as the lack of a safety net in relation to how quickly users receive initial gratification. He recognizes sooner is better, but also notes that conflicts with long-term satisfaction can arise. With subscription games, he says people are pre-disposed to allow more time before they start feeling like they're having fun. This is because they've made some degree of mental commitment, which isn't so for F2Ps.
To illustrate this point, he cites an example where someone logs into one, plays for 10 minutes, then decides there's no reason ever to return. "There isn't the nagging feeling of wasting a month that's already been paid for," he declares. "Thus, we have to create a reason to come back." The fierce competitive environment further intensifies this need. With hundreds of choices already available, more arriving every month and the major western publishers starting to take a more active interest, simply being free isn't enough. "Your game has to be high quality and bring something interesting to the market, or you might just as well pack up and go home."
The final topic Lena chose to bring up was the balance between the economy and the gameplay experience. In the subscription realm, the only major question is whether the latter is worth the monthly fee amount. F2Ps require other significant considerations. He put forward two examples. One is how well they warrant the investment of time, the other the degree to which the items offered for sale enhance the purchasers' enjoyment without creating untenable imbalances.
Lena sums up his experience so far in the F2P world as "eye-opening and exhilarating", with a fast pace and varied problems that don't always have obvious answers. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he says. In this respect and in his obvious eagerness to learn, I can't help but compare his attitude with that of certain self-proclaimed experts he mentioned earlier, the ones who repeatedly insist they've played every MMOG, and who talk as though anything other than unquestioning acceptance of their opinions is tantamount to heresy. Thankfully, I have far more occasion to interact with people like Chris, and to advance my own knowledge in the process.