At The Back Of The Line
I was playing a freemium style MMO the other day, and was subject to an interesting discussion. A player had gotten stuck in the environment, sent in a petition to the GMs and waited five minutes before beginning to complain to general chat that he had waited too long. An altruistic player tried helping the situation by pointing out that subscribers to the game receive priority in the customer service queue over free players. The player responded, "If they treated me better as a customer, I might pay for the game." Naturally, a flame war erupted, one side claiming free players weren't entitled to anything from the game company, especially free customer service.
It seems pretty simple; paying customers have a part of their subscription fee go toward the salaries of customer service staff. Free players, who have not paid anything to the game company, do not pay these same salaries, and therefore are not entitled to any customer service - or at least a limited amount. As the argument goes, if you play for free, you can't complain if you don't get something -- you're not a paying customer and therefore not entitled. Case closed.
Or is it?
We know it's not that simple. Say you're let into an amusement park for free. You'd still expect broken rides to be fixed, operators to be running the rides, working restrooms, and so on. If there was a problem with anything, you'd expect more than "Well, we let you in for free, what more do you want?" Sure, you might make concessions to a few rides being closed to you, or certain food stands not being open, but you would expect to be treated on an equal level as a paying customer. Besides, paying park goers aren't really entitled to anything, either. There's no guarantee on the ticket that you'll get what you want. Why should a virtual theme park be any different?
The fact is, free-to-play and freemium games are free for a reason, and it isn't kindness to the wallets of gamers. The game companies hope for us to eventually pay them in micro-transactions or subscription fees. They bet on that percentage of players who will go beyond the free model that will donate money to keep them running for all players - a sort of social, yet virtual, economy. In this sort of game system, free players become more valuable because of their potential spending. That potential is represented by their own pockets, and also by the pockets of the friends they can bring to the game. So why is it that some freemium games (GoPets, Fusion Fall and DDO are some explicit examples) are going toward a model that prioritizes subscribers for customer service, and puts free players last - sometimes not at all?
An argument could be made that paying players deserve "extra love" and attention. Because of their actual (versus potential) spending, they deserve priority treatment. This sort of argument doesn't work in the customer service world. I used to work for a cable company, and despite a few certain customers begging for priority because they paid for premium packages, the company never gave in to their demands. Why? Because for every customer that paid $200 a month for his entertainment, there were ten who paid $50 a month. This is where quantity counts in business. Those ten customers would have happily lost the company $500 if their need for customer service was not treated on an equal level as the $200 customer who is statistically less likely to spend his money elsewhere. This is a simple principle that applies: the more money a customer spends, the more they are dedicated to the product or service. Apply this to freemium games, and it's easy to see that a free customer is worth more because they're more likely to leave if not treated right. Leaving isn't just about numbers. It's about negative feedback to dozens - potentially hundreds or thousands - of gamers that could generate more income for the game.
Free players aren't arguing that they should receive priority for customer support because of their potential income; to do so would be to bribe the game company for potential favors. Cast aside the more extreme arguments of free players who want everything for nothing, and look at the basics: if I play a game for free, and have a great encounter with customer service, I am more likely to continue playing that game, and even support it financially. This is where the MMO industry has a unique way of thriving where other game industries cannot: interaction with players. Artix Entertainment went from a single free-to-play online game with an optional upgrade, to four games, including an increasingly successful web-based MMO not simply because the games were fun, but because the staff of the game was friendly, interacted with players on a daily basis, and worked instantly to resolve problems, no matter what level of player reported them. The Chronicles of Spellborn, in its beta infancy, often had GMs present in zones to chat and help players with questions, as well as open developer chats - customer service works that drove many people to subscribe (before the free-to-play SNAFU a few months after launch).
During this year's GDC, John Erskine of NCSoft commented that in a free-to-play world, there might be a market for premium support, but only if the support offered is "truly premium." That could produce a fair resolution: offer subscribers a premium customer service that goes beyond basic customer service needs and is an unnecessary, but beneficial, offering to paying customers. This way free players are not put last in line for customer service needs, and subscribing players could get something extra. Ideas for "premium" service could include a GM staffed advice channel, subscription only GM-run events, special forums designed for subscription only feedback directly to customer support, or a concierge service. Subscribers would be much happier with options like these than simply being first in line when their character gets stuck behind a barrel.
So, what's the bottom line? Not only do free players want to be treated with as much respect as a paying player when it comes to customer service - they deserve it. Argue the worth of a dollar as much as you'd like, but there's no reason why a free player would have a lesser right to be unstuck or protected from harassment than a subscriber. The free player that's treated the same as a premium member when it comes to customer service may soon become a premium member themselves.