My Thoughts on the AoC Free-to-Play Model

Having thought it through overnight, examined what we know so far, and having been through multiple examples of this transition before, this is my opinion of Funcom’s free-to-play model for Age of Conan, as I understand it so far. Bear in mind that a number of points remain to be clarified, and some things could be changed outright even before this goes out the door.

So. The logic behind an MMO going from subscription-only to free-to-play runs like this:

  1. Make the barrier to entry zero.
  2. Lots of people will try your game for free that otherwise would not.
  3. Some of them will like the game and stick around.
  4. Since free players don’t pay subscription fees, you make up the difference in microtransactions.
  5. If the pool of free players is large enough you end up making more money than you would if you offered only a subscription plan. This is true whether or not you offer subscriptions alongside your microtransactions (although the specific microtransactions available will be different if you don’t.)
  6. Prospective players need to feel like they can get the full game experience for free. Whether they do in practice is irrelevant, and you don’t even need to even make it easy to do. But you can’t make it impossible. This means that everything or almost everything in the game will be available to free accounts, either as part of the free package or via microtransactions.
  7. Existing, sub-paying players need to not feel boned by the change. Ideally, just as freebie players should feel like they’re getting a deal, subbers should feel like their sub is more valuable than it was before the switch.

So here’s the problem I see with the AoC free-to-play plan: it ignores points 5-7. This is, coincidentally, much the same problem that many had with the EQ2X model, although that game has addressed this up to a point since launch, and has a couple of additional issues besides. In both cases, though, the model seems to be to drop the “cover charge” and then drive players toward subscriptions. I think this is the wrong approach.

Now, this isn’t a wretched model – it avoids the other issues with the EQ2X method, and I think it will help the game overall – and I think that a lot of players will return to AoC or try it out for the first time, find that it’s awesome, and choose to subscribe. But it’s inferior to the best examples of the hybrid model. In terms of how effective I think these models are, I’d rank the games like this:

  1. Lord of the Rings Online
  2. D&D Online
  3. Champions Online
  4. Age of Conan (tentative)
  5. Pirates of the Burning Sea
  6. EverQuest II Extended

See Turbine as the clear leader here? The reason for that is their particular attention to points 6 and 7. When DDO and later LotRO went free-to-play, there was some grumbling at first, but the player base was delighted overall with the changes, which brought in a huge number of new players who ended up spending money even if they hadn’t planned to. Free players felt they could play their way into the whole game by earning points through play, but many of them ended up spending money either anyway or on top of what they needed for progression, and veterans like the plan because they got a stipend of 500 points a month along with their subs and there were appealing things in the store to spend them on. This caused revenues of those games to explode, which is good for everybody.

It’s not clear to me that AoC’s plan will have the same impact; the free package has too many absolute limitations and there’s nothing about earning points through play, yet the subscription package does not look attractive enough in comparison because there is no talk of a points stipend and there’s nothing that subscribers will get under the new plan that they don’t get now. There also happens to be a huge content bundle coming and a tie-in with a movie that might end up being a hit, and that’ll help, but ultimately Funcom has to maximize the appeal of AoC to players both actual and potential. Right now, while this is by no means the worst model I’ve seen and I support the transition to some kind of f2p model in general, the plan as currently laid out isn’t doing that.

ADDENDUM: The fact that you will be able to spend Funcom Points in other Funcom games is a good idea and something new – Turbine and Cryptic don’t allow it. But how appealing is it? Who the fuck plays Anarchy Online, anyway?

7 responses to “My Thoughts on the AoC Free-to-Play Model

  1. I hear ya and couldn’t agree more. Can’t really speak to the current sub players persepective. But when I heard the announcement I thought of your recent decision to make AoC your go-to game.

    I tried AoC at launch but didn’t stick around after Tortage. The F2P announcement got my attention. But then I saw the class restrictions and was disappointed. Not with the restrictions themselves but by the method of lifting them .. the only way to play the other classes is to sub. That’s a boneheaded decision. They should parcel them out for a fee in the item shop. LOTRO does it that way with a number of the classes from the expansion, i.e. Warden and Rune Keeper. LOTRO gives a better feel for having a good game experience.

    Instead of gating F2P players at clear expansion lines, AoC has simply truncated their basic game and gated everything else behind the sub. That’s a poor choice but at least its reversible. I recommend they think really hard about the microtransaction shop.

  2. I think they are gearing up for Secret World.

    For me, Funcom made some pretty braindead decisions when they released AoC, and I’m apt to stay away from them completely in the future.

    I just don’t get how all of these companies see how well Turbine has done with their F2P model, and yet have managed to create something so inferior. It’s like they don’t even do their homework before making their own F2P plans.

    As a founder and lifer at LotRO, I was pretty upset when they announced the F2P. But then I tried it and I really do like it. And I’ve spent money on TP’s when my monthly stipend wasn’t enough and I was happy to spend it because I really felt the value of the purchase.

    I’ve spent extra money in Guild Wars and in EQ2, but this was grudgingly because all of their stuff is way way overpriced! I felt roped into those purchases because I knew that there was no other way to get the things I bought. In LotRO, you gain TP’s as you play, and a lot of the stuff you can buy you can actually get in game if you have the initiative.

  3. “The fact that you will be able to spend Funcom Points in other Funcom games is a good idea and something new”

    When Turbine announced LOTRO TP would be separate from DDO TP, some wondered why they would do that. One reason we came up with, aside from the potential IP issues, was that with combined points, a VIP in one game could buy whatever they wanted in the other.

    Having the cross-game points here may be one thing preventing a plan to earn points or get them as part of the premium package. While other Funcom games right now may not be so appealing that it makes a difference now, if future games are rolled into a similar model, Funcom would probably not want AoC players to get a points boost that could be used for the new shinies.

  4. If you dig through the forums, you’ll find an odd clarification to the class issue:

    http://forums.ageofconan.com/showthread.php?t=233503&page=5

    Basically, if you sub for a month you can make as many characters of restricted classes as you like, and then switch to FtP and keep using them (assuming you’ve opened up enough slots on your FtP account). It actually ends up being considerably cheaper than unlocking classes in EQ2X if you think about it (which run about ten bucks each at the standard exchange rate if I recall correctly). I think it also means that if you have restricted classes in your first two character slots on your current account, you’ll be able to access them forever.

    • Wow .. some efficiency experts there over at Funcom! Isn’t product pricing covered in business schools anymore?

  5. I’m not unhappy. Not making character classes purchasable is a mistake, but it avoids many of the mistakes SOE made with EQ2X (most of which they subsequently fixed, but the bad initial press still comes up when you google EQ2X).

    Finally, ‘for free’ and ‘without a recurring monthly access fee’ are different. I dont expect to get content – and by that I personally mean dungeons and explorer areas – for nothing. But I do want to be able to buy it by the chunk.

    EQ2X gave away too much content in my opinion, leaving a bunch of money on the table. From looking at the outside, AOC appears to be a reasonable amount of free content, and the rest of it purchasable.

  6. I was ok with LotRO FTP a lot more a few months ago, they’re really desperate and becoming increasingly so to get us to spend our points, some of the stuff I’d buy is hugely expensive so I don’t – then they always have sales anyway, so there seems little point. I think they’re worried we’ll be able to buy the expansion without spending any cash – and with some of the grinds I’m seeing players who’d been around for 3yrs finally packing up, albeit knowing they can come back at any time. In the end, perhaps this free-return clause will mean more than the monthly microtransactions.

    I reactivated my AoC acct cos I always liked the game but my friends left it. And I want to see what my new graphics card makes of it. The FTP means I’m more likely to leave it installed and pop in a few times – though I doubt I’d play it too much, because well.. I just don’t know anyone, I just know I quite enjoyed what I played of it. TSW is a game I’m hugely anticipating though, so want to boost Funcom a little!