Warhammer Next?

The new Warhammer Online producer’s letter hints at big things afoot. The letter is from James Casey, and not from Carrie Gouskos, WAR’s actual producer, who is “still working on WAR, but is looking at a different aspect of the game.”

That’s certainly intriguing, and one is tempted to draw the obvious conclusion, as Massively does, that a free-to-play change is being looked at. WAR already has a sort of truncated F2P thing going on, with their “Endless Trial,” which lets you basically play as much tier 1 as you want. A move to full-blown F2P might… well, I’m apt to say “save WAR’s bacon,” but it’s worth discussing what I mean by that.

Warhammer is a game I have been very hard on. Partly this is bitterness on my part, for its initial promise not panning out, and part of it is to stick an imaginary thumb in the eye of those people who felt that they had to attack the superior Age of Conan in the wind-up to WAR’s release. But at the same time, and I’ve said this probably as often as I’ve laid the hate down on it, WAR has a lot of things going for it. The game essentially has two issues, one of which is that the quality of the WAR experience is very dependent on a robust player population, even more than most MMOs. The other is that is a world with no real exploration and only a halfhearted crafting system, there’s very little reason to engage in World PvP as opposed to, say, scenarios. There’s very little reason to even expose yourself to the opportunity for world PvP, and no reason to even go into the areas where it happens unless that’s what you’re going for. A lack of players in the world contributes to the feeling that the population isn’t robust, especially when the population that is there is imbalanced in favor of one faction or another, such that scenarios don’t fire very often for the disadvantaged side. That leaves players filling in the gaps between the occasional scenario run with PvE, and WAR’s PvE is not strong enouigh to sustain a subscriber without Public Quests, the cornerstone of the game’s PvE content and by far the most interesting thing it has to offer that doesn’t involve killing other players.

The two problems feed one another, in a pattern I’ve called the Warhammer Death Spiral a time or two in the past. But if one could increase player churn, it may be that both problems could be ameliorated, for exactly the same reasons. A move to free-to-play might do just that, as demonstrated by other titles that have taken the same plunge.

I see two potential issues with this. One, WAR’s not going to be the first game on this particular bandwagon, so the package will want to be fairly attractive. Which means substantial access for free accounts, and cash shop options that seem reasonable. The other is that WAR is predominantly a competitive game, and cash shop items that grant a competitive advantage would have to be heavily controlled, if not entirely absent. And is the market really there, among WAR’s player base, for cosmetic items and the like? Or would we see more of a “modular DLC” type of setup, where you pay $10 or so for regular content packs? (Which itself could be said to grant an in-game advantage.)

I’m not sure I see F2P as a viable solution for Warhammer, if indeed that direction is something that’s being explored – and the last six months or so have, I think, shown that it is. But maybe not F2P in the way we’ve seen implemented so far in games like LotRO and EQ2X. If we see something new, that would itself probably be a good thing, giving future developers another data point to plan against. In any event, I think some in the community will think, as I am inclined to do, that F2P has a good chance to seriously shake up WAR’s current situation. Whether that’ll be in a good or bad way, the future will tell. Maybe.

3 responses to “Warhammer Next?

  1. I’m finding the turbulence in pricing models for Western MMOs increasingly fascinating. It’s not at all clear yet where the market is going to settle, I think.

    As you say, WAR has a problem (another one!) if it chooses to drop the mandatory subscription fee, namely that it’s going to be the fifth Western AAA title to convert in the last 12 – 18 months. WAR had the opportunity to lead the charge with its “Endless Trial” but stumbled with the limitation to Tier 1 only. I’m certain that a conversion to some kind of fully “free” model will still get the game a great burst of attention, but how much of that will convert either to additional income or to a significant number of players who stick with the game to the higher levels and keep logging in remains to be seen.

    It’s very interesting to me that the two new MMO garnering the most fervent enthusiasm in the first half of this year, DCUO and RIFT, both use the standard subscription model. I believe I spot a sound marketing decision here, and one which explains the apparently counter-intuitive move on SoE’s part in launching a console MMO with a subscription.

    It looks as if there is a substantial body of players who are prepared to pay a monthly fee to play MMOs. Why, then, miss out on the opportunity to take their money? If you can launch with a large box sale (most AAA MMOs seem to be able to achieve that) and take an additional subscription from a substantial portion of those buyers for six months to a year, why would you want to miss out on that revenue stream?

    Once the shine is off your game, the reviews are mediocre, your tourists have packed their bags and gone back to their old games and you’ve merged servers to match the numbers of the core players you have retained, it’s THEN that you move to some kind of F2P model. This gains you a huge burst of publicity, most of the people you lost come back for another look, along with many times more who were always curious but didn’t buy the box.

    I suspect this is the pattern we will see for AAA MMOs in the near future. Progression from subscription to F2P will be built into the projected life of the game. Of course, if the numbers hold up with a sub in place, that transition can be delayed indefinitely.Even if this progression becomes apparent to customers, few gamers have the patience or willpower to hold off buying a game they are keen to play for a year or more just to save money. Whatever transpires, it’s really interesting to watch how this plays out and as a customer it seems like an overall improvement on “pay or don’t play”.

  2. I suspect a shift to F2P if it happens, is partly due to Rift. I think WAR is likely to bleed players the most when Rift releases if it’s still a sub model.

  3. I’d love to see WAR hit anything like it’s potential. Tons of interesting class designs buried in a fundamentally flawed game. The Book of Knowledge also had tons of potential.