Free to Play, ArcheAge, and LoL - Is Riot’s Model Better?
Last time around, I discussed free to play and so-called entitlement in the MMO community. While I do think that some are called out or made to feel guilty for simply enjoying what developers and publishers are putting out, that could’ve perhaps been a narrower discussion. Again, this time around, payment models get another look, and it’s in part due to some recent topics that have come up in both the greater gaming community and among MMO players.
A recent opinion piece by Ben Kuchera over at Polygon discusses the League of Legends monetization model. In essence, some devs and publishers believe that Riot is giving way too much of the game away for free, and could be making so much more money if it simply placed a few more gates down. As one can play League of Legends in full without spending a dime, with 32 million active accounts at least released count, many suspect the number of paying players is relatively low. Yet, having a mere sliver of players buying things in free to play games is so common that the term “whales” was coined to describe the big spenders keeping many others afloat. The conclusion of that piece is that Riot, flush with cash and with a strategy that has been working in a documented way over a period of several years now, doesn’t need to change its model, and that maybe others are jealous competitors at how LoL has worked without the “BUY ME” popups, gates, or forced wait time that appear in many other free to play titles.
Now, this made me think about some of the questions and criticisms swirling over ArcheAge recently, now that there have been a few beta weekends and more players seem interested in the game. Namely, the discussion over the customer tiers for the game’s Trion-published North American release and a highlight on the game’s Labor Point system. Labor Points, for the uninitiated, are the fuel of most of the things you will do in ArcheAge. The game does have traditional health and mana for general questing, hunting, or running around, but Labor Points are going to be what you use to create anything within the game, such as planting trees, building houses, and even gathering.
Free players will generate one point for every five minutes of active online gameplay, for a maximum of 288 points every 24 hours if you stay online for that entire time. Most will earn significantly less. Subscription players (“patrons”) will generate 10 points every five minutes while online and five points for every five minutes offline, which will put the subscription player at a significant advantage, since free players will not generate any points while offline and generate reduced points overall. Free players also won’t be able to sell on the auction house without the purchase of a special access unlock from the game’s cash shop (which will also feature a selection of loyalty items for patrons only).
Taken at face value (and ArcheAge fans, put your pitchforks away), this is a significant gap but the reduction almost works similarly to the way free tiers work in other games. Most that offer an optional subscription tier seem to limit progression of free players in one way or another. Time has become the commodity every game company seems to be going after. Subscribe to our game and you’ll save time. Pay for this unlock to save time and not have to wait for an arbitrary timer to wind down before you can continue. Many free to play games feature this deliberate mechanic to try to get impatient players to fork over a few bucks here and there. Some, however, find this disparity in the ArcheAge system too much, since it completely blocks progression and meters it out in a timed way if a person doesn’t pay. Paying to win in this case, means paying to do anything that isn’t just a quest or mobs in a reasonable amount of time.
Does it suck to feel hampered like this in an MMORPG, especially one that has a large and persistent world, one that players will be able to build in and make their mark upon? Yes. But the Labor Point cap, even on free accounts, will still let you do almost whatever you want that requires points. While free players can’t own land, they can level up and enjoy the game. And the economy allows for others to use their points and land for other people. Maybe your friend subscribes and you don’t? Your friend can give you access to part of his land for a rental fee or simply let you use it.
Labor Points and the potential in the ArcheAge economy were what came to mind when thinking about the Riot system. Riot gives League of Legends away, excluding most champions and their skins, and is a success. Valve gives DOTA 2 away, including all of the game’s heroes, and charges for things like skins, voice packs, and couriers, and is successful. Could this be one argument for the buy to play with cash shop model when it comes to MMOs? With ArcheAge, because the game is designed to feel like a world, and one with player impact, the tiers of access seem to feel a little more like the ones in games like Farmville. I think the arguments from the community, and some of the dissatisfaction stem from that particular discontent. Not that free players can’t progress just as fast but that the perception (as those in alpha and beta really haven’t been able to test Trion’s version) of the free tier is that it’s too restraining. Of course Trion would love it if every player subscribed, and the free tier can, as some argue, be seen as more of an endless trial.
With online games, including MMOs, experimenting and succeeding with all types of models, comparing them isn’t easily done one to one, but it is clear that many MMO players have embraced free to play in some form. MMOs aren’t free to develop or run, so it’s obviously key that a game make money. Some might not think it’s completely fair to talk about the success of Riot, which rode the same lightning in a perfect storm as WoW did a decade ago, but with that success maintained and grown over several years, it is enough to discuss how maybe free tiers might be too restrictive as to sour players on their experiences rather than encourage them to subscribe. If you’re feeling punished and not a real part of the community, maybe you’ll leave rather than pay a full sub. Cash shops can bridge that gap, but these too need a measured balance. I think this is something worth further discussion. What have been some of your free to play experiences? Did restrictions ever lead you to subscribe - or leave?