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.