I’ll warn you now that this post will contain some snark. So let me start with a disclaimer, which doubtless will not help: I like Keen’s blog, subscribe to it, and think he often posts good commentary and makes salient and insightful points. But unfortunately, on certain subjects his voice gets muffled by having to talk with his head in his own ass. One of those is the F2P revolution currently (slowly) sweeping through the MMO hobby.
This is the route games take to retire. AAA/High Quality/Highly Funded (you know what I mean so don’t nitpick) MMO’s are STILL not launching as F2P. F2P is the backup plan.
F2P is a seemingly successful business plan. It does, to my knowledge, often increase revenues for games that were doing poorly. However — and this is where things get a bit tricky — it’s still not good enough to be Plan A. Time and time again F2P is simply Plan B or the model for mass-produced shovelware titles. I think the trends really are starting to speak for themselves. We’re still without a AAA F2P game.
With the snark hopefully out of the way, let’s break the statement down a bit. There was indeed a time, in western perception, when variations on the free-to-play model were limited to, as Keen puts it, “mass-produced shovelware,” but that was a year or two ago. Then DDO proved that this model could work in our market, with some adaptations to make it palatable to western tastes. Those adaptations, developed by Turbine, have now been adopted, more or less, by the followers in the race to go F2P (EQ2X, PotBS and Champions Online.) With the success of this family of model, we all know we’re going to see more conversions in the future – and some entirely new games launched with the new model in mind, whether Keen believes it or not.
It’s really LotRO, the game Keen hopes will fail, that underlines the absurdity of his statement. LotRO was a “AAA” game when it launched and kept a large and loyal audience. It was one of the top handful of MMOs in the western market until the day it went to F2P, and then it moved up a place or two. Nowhere was there a whisper of LotRO doing badly. The game is good, the fans were devoted, and stats were high on every tracking service. Press releases out of Turbine emphasized the game’s continuing success. But by Keen’s logic it must have been failing, or it wouldn’t have gone free to play.
This notion can only be rooted in hidebound expectations of how one should pay for MMOs. It’s a trap I suspect we’ve all fallen into at one time or another. Change is scary, and we were mostly comfortable with the cover charge + subscription way to pay. I’m not sure why.
To be honest, Keen is in the same place I was on the subject a year or two ago, before seeing the Turbine model in action and finding that it actually does work in a non-intrusive way, lowering the entry barrier while encouraging players to choose to spend money, rather than locking them out for being reluctant to do so. And more importantly allowing players to spend money at their own pace, rather than on a schedule set by the publisher.
I get that there are reasons to be concerned about F2P, based on examples we’ve seen and heard about wherein players are hard-locked out of gameplay unless they spend money, or wherein the microtransactions themselves are priced too high, or wherein it’s possible to literally buy your way through the game. I get that the publisher needs to walk a fine line between trying to fish money out of the consumer and maintaining a fair playing field for that consumer, and that some games (Allods Online, I’m looking at you,) will choose to err on the side of profit. One could certainly make the case that not every converted title has done this successfully (witness the blunders made with EQ2X.) But we now have at least two examples of titles which, despite imperfect implementations, don’t suffer from these drawbacks.
Over the next couple of years, new subscription titles are going to get rarer and rarer. Titles which were in development when the trend became apparent in the west (maybe a year ago, when Turbine started talking about the huge surge F2P brought to DDO,) are of course still going with some variation on the traditional model; so-called “AAA” MMOs are huge projects with hundreds or thousands of people shoulders-deep in millions of lines of code. And they cost many millions of dollars of investors’ money. Those investors were told, in detail, where their capital was going before the checks got written, and how, in detail, they could expect it to be made back, along with some profit. One doesn’t turn a project like that around by suddenly deciding to use a different money model three or four years along, scrapping what’s probably tens of thousands of man-hours in coding and design work, to react to a trend that’s starting in games that the team considers of lesser stature than their own. Not to mention having to go back to your investors, hat in hand, and explain that you’d actually been wrong four years ago and this would be a much better idea, really.
In the first wave of this new paradigm it stands to reason that we’d be seeing more old titles converted to the new model than new titles launching with it; MMOs take a long while to develop. But there are big-budget titles, like Guild Wars 2, on the horizon that won’t carry a subscription fee. One might argue, as Keen does in the comments, that games like Guild Wars are not F2P, since they carry a cover change. Which is true as far as it goes, but at this point we’re splitting hairs, having painted ourselves into a corner by defining such terms solely to suit our argument, rather than by any basis they may have in reality. The genuine concerns over “F2P” lie with the nature of the microtransactions, not with whether one pays an up-front cost to play or not. I fail to see the downside, from a player perspective, of not paying a cover charge. At that point, what’s the problem? Real concerns over a microtransaction-based MMO economy or simple stodginess over a global shift to a new model we’re not comfortable with?
Even if, contrary to expectations, the F2P trend stops where it is today, with shoring up older games – even if Keen’s right, and that’s all this is good for – what’s the problem? That those older games might become more profitable and therefore survive longer? That those fans devoted to them might be able to enjoy their favorite virtual worlds for a few more years? Again, I can’t see where a rational person would have an issue, especially one who doesn’t even play any of the games in question. But then, I’m not the kind of guy who wants games I don’t approve of to go under.
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves the question: what is fair to us as consumers, and as gamers? Is the subscription option really the fairest solution? For everybody? Or most players? If your answer to that doesn’t contain a great deal of room for gray areas, positive and negative examples, and different folks’ varying playstyles, then you are viewing the issue in a stark and superficial light. The idea that Cover Charge + subscription = good and NCC + microtransactions = bad grossly oversimplifies the issue and ignores almost all of the many variables involved. It is ideology rather than opinion, and as such it’s not susceptible to the vicissitudes of reason or reality. It is, to put it bluntly, moronic.