That was quick. Last Tuesday, only a day after my column that included mention of recent rumors saying we'd see more subscription publishers embracing the free to play business model, Atari announced Champions Online will make the shift. The stated timing of the move has closed beta starting a week tomorrow and Q1 2011 launch date. Premium content offered for sale will include adventure packs, items, powers and costume pieces. As well, "current players may continue subscribing" via a $14.99 per month membership option.
Predictably, it took somewhere in the vicinity of a nanosecond for the first comments to appear about this being the so-called "Turbine model", which isn't really F2P. It's certainly true that what Atari and Cryptic will implement isn't the "classic" scheme with an item shop as the sole means of revenue generation. However, monthly package options aren't new; while they're not universal by any means, they became available in some MMOGs years ago. Since that time, I don't recall seeing even a single instance where the valiant defenders of P2P - presumably some of whom are the very same people speaking up now - said this meant such titles weren't actually F2P. Might this be a convenient double standard?
What's more telling for me is the way the announcement was framed. The game is being presented as F2P with a monthly flat fee option. It would certainly have been possible to position it as a subscription title that offers a way we can play at no cost. But that alternative wasn't selected. Neither was another possible course of action, separate servers.
Of course, the case was also put forward immediately that this is an act of desperation to rescue a mediocre release that would otherwise die. I have no idea if or how much such thinking factored into Atari's decision. I also fail to see why it's an issue. If I were a subscription-only player who considers Champions Online to be middling or worse, and so not worth my forking out $15 per month, why would I care what happens to it? If changing business models lets it find an audience of people whose values differ and who enjoy it enough to keep it going, that certainly works for me.
While I seldom put great stock in rumors, this game was among those named specifically, so the news isn't a huge surprise. Considering there are still several others that look like decent candidates, I can't help but wonder how soon it will be until the next similar announcement. Just for a bit of fun, since it happens to be the first of the month, I think I'll set the over-under at two months. Will we see another subscription title committing to F2P by the end of this year? I'm interested to see what you readers think, and whether in 2010 or not, which ones are most likely to mover over soon, and why.
The other subject I'd like to weigh in on this week is the Schwarzenegger vs. EMA (Entertainment Merchants Association) case that will go before the US Supreme Court tomorrow. The matter for consideration is a California state law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. This question clearly extends far beyond the MMOG category, but there's a twist to it that I find rather intriguing.
What if a game isn't sold?
This situation applies not only to F2Ps, but also to many subscription offerings that are available as free downloads. Also, if the law only covers the sale of physical copies at brick and mortar retail locations, that seems more than a bit ludicrous. On the other hand, the inclusion of digital - I don't know if it is or not - would raise a variety of questions, like where an online sale actually takes place. And even if we do buy a box locally, what if the servers are in another state... or a different country?
So there's no misunderstanding, I'm not against reasonable measures to address what children see in games, including not just violence but other themes that aren't suitable for all ages. I'd like to think most parents care enough take responsibility for the ones their kids play, and also that a rating system completely independent from the development industry is a practical although not perfect approach.
Several other states have declared their support for California in this matter. Being Canadian, I'm not directly in line to be affected. However, is this a matter where circumstances vary so much from one jurisdiction to the next as to justify different solutions? I doubt it.