A Touch of Free-to-Play Hubris
Sony Online Entertainment's (SOE) Director of Development for the Everquest franchise, Dave Georgeson, talked to IGN about the free-to-play model. While he says there's “nothing wrong” with subscriptions, he now says “free-to-play is the way that gamers should want their MMOs to be, and the reason I think that is that if we don’t do a really good job and we don’t entertain the player, we don’t make a dime.”
Georgeson admits he's “cocksure of himself” when he put forth this opinion, and while I can certainly respect that he knows more about ins and outs of game development, his statement above makes me think that he's a little overconfident in his assertion. The word I'd use is hubris, but it's a little too strong, so perhaps it'd be better to explain what I mean with more than a single word.
Game Makers as Buskers
Perhaps the thing that sort of struck me as askew in Georgeson's interview is the rather imperfect analogy of game development as busking. More to the point, I don't think you could call Sony Online Entertainment anything remotely resembling a busker.
A busker – or street performer as Georgeson put it in his interview – goes out and puts on a show for people, singing and dancing in the hope that a good performance will net the performer some spare change from passersby. He added, “And I think that’s the way games should be, because paying $60 up front to take a gamble on whether the game is good or not? You don’t get that money back.”
Sony Online Entertainment is not a busker. It is more fitting to call them – at least at this stage – a group like Aerosmith. They've had a long, relatively successful career, and they're still going at it with new songs every so often.
People know them – or at least the Everquest franchise – well enough that they simply have to hint at a new concert, such as Landmark and Everquest Next, and players who have had positive mental associations with them will throw money to be at their next big gig. Heck, I threw in $20 to support Landmark, if you folks remember.
Even that analogy is imprecise, because Aerosmith (as far as research shows) was not exactly born rich from the business of its parental units.
Game developers like Sony are not street performers. That said, I will agree with Georgeson on one thing: when a game goes free-to-play, people “get to go in, take a look at it and find out” if the game is worth supporting. As he noted, it is a development team's responsibility “to make sure you’re entertained. That’s the way things should be in my opinion with free-to-play.”
Lessons of Hubris from Eorzea
The funny thing about Georgeson's statements was that it let me recall one of the great failures of the MMORPG industry: Final Fantasy XIV.
While A Realm Reborn is now a relatively successful game, it wasn't always this way, and that was because hubris played a role in the death of Eorzea 1.0.
At the 2014 Game Developer's Conference, FFXIV: ARR producer Naoki Yoshida thought that an overdependence on earlier successes as well as the inability to adapt to changes in the MMO industry caused Square Enix to develop FFXIV 1.0.
This was a game that had great graphics – I believe the GDC talk mentioned that the game's flowerpots had 1,000 polygons and 150 lines of shader code – but needed a lot of processing power to work properly. Worse still, the game looked great but had not-particularly-fun gameplay and systems. This MMO couldn't entice many people to justify a long-term subscription to it.
The Well-governed Country
To turn it around, Yoshida noted, the MMORPG development and operations process had to be run like a well-governed country. Let's call that country Eorzea.
The dev team is the government, and the players are the citizens. The leaders need to understand the needs of the people and it has to work with the people and adapt its strategies to fulfill citizens' needs to make a prosperous country for all its inhabitants. Otherwise, people will simply revolt.
In return for good governance, at least in A Realm Reborn's case, people pay a subscription fee to maintain the proper operations of the country.
In a Devil's Advocate piece from June 2013, I also noted one important point that Yoshida made. He said “Choosing the model that’s right for your product and being successful with that is what’s important.”
In FFXIV: ARR's case, Yoshida believed that, “the bigger the game, the larger the scale of the MMO, it’s going to be better for the game if it’s on a subscription model.” The mindset, of course, was that by having subscription fees and a general audience number to count on, long-term development was easier to plot out.
Going back to Georgeson's thoughts, I have to remind everyone of the recent increase of openness with SOE, which came about when SOE President John Smedley discussed the company's vision of the sandbox.
I think SOE is doing a lot of things right. It is running the development of Landmark and EQNext like another country with a different taxation system. It's being more open with its lines of communication. Also, Everquest Next and Landmark are being developed specifically to try and position the company as the innovator.
The one thing it has to be careful of is to entrench itself in hubris and overestimate its capabilities and successes before it can even really gauge it properly for a long-term view.
If it's chosen the right model for the product it's coming out with and its strategies are in place to make the most of the revenue model it has set up, then it shouldn't need to push one revenue model – free-to-play – over other types as the future of MMO revenue streams.
Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the Everquest Next/Landmark column (and formerly the Devil’s Advocate column) for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.
Links to more covereage:
- Last week on Landmark: New Name, Slightly Different Game
- On the Devil’s Advocate: Commitment is a Strange Word
- Smedley, the Sandbox, and Online Society