The Wrong Way to Do Free to Play
Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade and the developers’ decision to limit free players to the deliberately weaker Ork Boyz is a troubling precedent in the freemium game space. It’s not unheard of for some games to limit your race choice based upon how much you are or aren’t paying. Yet those races you can choose from aren’t usually so severely gimped that you need to gang up en masse just to take down one member of another. This is the situation in the upcoming PvP-oriented game, and it’s concerning.
Many have been justifying the decision to present the free to play option as it is for lore reasons. Bear in mind that I am no Warhammer expert, though I understand the reasons stated and disagree. While Orks and specifically, Ork Boyz are known for being a more disorganized lot, hopelessly gimping them shows a lack of respect for free to play players within the community, especially when the assumption is that these players won’t really be too invested in the game anyway.
While subscriptions are still quite alive, plenty of gamers prefer to pay as they go, or to at least be able to try out a game before they sink money into it. Sometimes schedules are such, and the choice of games to play so vast, that maintaining a subscription to a game or even more than one isn’t feasible. Maybe those players would love to try the game out and then ultimately be motivated to buy other races or even pay in full for the game. By giving them an extremely gimped introduction to the game as a first impression, it’s not going to give players the best view of what they can expect. In fact, it could even backfire, given that games often sink or swim based upon word of mouth.
Freemium already separates players into tiers - was another one really needed? Separating the community out into tiers of this nature, where even gear sold in the cash shop will be somewhat weaker than that found in the game for full-paying members, is a mistake. There’s just no other way to define this other than “pay to win”, since you’re drastically weaker if you’re a free player and if you spend money in the shop but don’t buy the game outright, you’ll still suffer possible penalty to your maximum potential. It’s obvious that games need to make money somehow, but this system is outright unfriendly to players that don’t pay and even hurts customers that choose to buy solely through the shop.
In gaming, when talking about when free to play works well, we keep coming back to the League of Legends model. While you need to buy champions to permanently unlock them, you could play from the free roster forever if you wanted to. The free roster is the way players can get to test out and learn various champions before possibly buying them. And those champions aren’t gimped down to ? the strength of everyone else on the field. That would be wildly unbalanced in any match.
Most MMOs aren’t only catering to the hardcore fans of the central IP, and would love to attract new players too. By doing this in Eternal Crusade, it doesn’t give players an adequate taste of what they can expect from the full game, so it might not necessarily sell the game to players as well as it could. This in spite of the WH40K fans who might appreciate the feeling of playing as the Ork Boyz in an authentic way. Devs need to be as welcoming as possible since they need players to play the game, and positive word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool. Sure, most devs know that most of their free players aren’t going to pay, but at least they don’t blatantly disrespect, weaken, and gate them for it. They take the time to make players feel on mostly even footing.
With the crowded MMO market, there are few second chances. Today’s MMO market is heavily catered toward solo players. While personally, I believe MMOs are best played with others in an interdependent system, there’s plenty of evidence that today often belongs to the solo player. With the recent Veteran Rank changes to The Elder Scrolls Online, including balance tweaks to make the endgame content easier so it could be readily soloed, we see this trend continue. With so many people wanting to solo, why would you try to attract players to try your game with a weak race that needs large groups and isn’t balanced for the rest of the content?
Now, it all remains to be seen exactly how it plays out, but I have the feeling that if this model is successful and if so, inevitably duplicated, freemium is about to get a lot less fun. That may please some gamers, but alienate many others.
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