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:
- Make the barrier to entry zero.
- Lots of people will try your game for free that otherwise would not.
- Some of them will like the game and stick around.
- Since free players don’t pay subscription fees, you make up the difference in microtransactions.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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:
- Lord of the Rings Online
- D&D Online
- Champions Online
- Age of Conan (tentative)
- Pirates of the Burning Sea
- 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?