Sunday, 2 June 2013

MMO business models

The MMO market is becoming extremely competitive and I seriously wonder if the subscription model can survive much longer.

Blizzard have recently reported that WoW subs are expected to fall further and that their unanounced MMO, codename Titan, is undergoing a major redesign.  Funcom, which enjoyed "sleeper" success with The Secret World last year before a major internal reshuffle and switch from a sub to B2P model, has released it's Q1 report stating it actually made more money. Go Funcom!  Likewise EA reported that the F2P switch for Star Wars: The Old Republic doubled their revenue. Wow.

Blizzard have blamed declining audiences in the East and the rise of free browser games for their "woes" (still world's biggest MMO by miles and raking the cash in!) but the total rethink of Titan suggests, at least to me, serious concerns.  Maybe they are redesigning to better support a B/F2P model?  Let's face it, games that plan for that from the start are surely going to have more success than those that switch and are then often branded "failures" by the community.

By their nature sub-based games have to keep you interested by providing new content, usually in the form of an ongoing story, and new gear (treadmill).  This inevitably creates a barrier to entry for new players who feel behind when they start playing and face a mountain to catch up.  Gear treadmills can also backfire in a big way.  Final Fantasy 11 just released a new expansion which included some weapons which rendered every weapon earned in the last 11 odd years obsolete.  Apparently they are quite easy to get too.  Why did they do that?
Actually, that's a good question.  Was it to entice new players?  Maybe but then  Final Fantasy 14 is about to be released, wouldn't you want people to play that instead?  What about if it's the other way around - what if SE just drew a line in the Final Fantasy sand and said "Hey, you're all back to square one.  Level peggings.  Do you want to start over?  Maybe you'd be more interested in this new game!"

In a sub-based model in-game success has to be linked to time invested.  You can't level the field to cater for both casual and hardcore players.  You can't put a cap on what a hardcore player can achieve by failing to provide new content.  You must release at a speed that keeps them satisfied.

B/F2P games don't need to do that.  In the case of Guild Wars 2 all you need is a bit of a story on which to base your next lot of cash shop "merchandise".  A neat trick that Arenanet played was to give "hardcore" players a dungeon that rewarded you with gear that made that dungeon easier but conferred no gameplay benefits outside.  That's genius.  They created a gear treadmill in a microcosm.

For me, the acid tests for a sub model are the (re-)release of Final Fantasy 14 and which model NCSoft has planned for Wildstar.

I played Final Fantasy 11 for many years and my average monthly bill was in the region of £11.  I started playing in the August before the release of the Wings of the Goddess expansion on November 22, 2007.  The expansion added two new jobs (classes), new battlefield content, zones and a mission arc.  That mission arc was finally concluded in November 2010. Yes, that's 3 years.  That's £396 of subs plus the price of the boxed expansion product.  For the company that's great money but for the consumer that's terrible value.  In fact, it's a bit of a rip-off.  Can FF14 really survive using that model in the current climate?  Should it have been re-incarnated as F2P or B2P?

Moving on to Wildstar, the $64k question: F2P, B2P or sub?  Personally, I think a F2P release for a AAA MMO is crazy talk.  Sure, switch to F2P when "boxed" sales stagnate, and your first "boxed" expansion is ready to ship, but otherwise why pass up at least £40-£100m in revenue?  Guild Wars 2 has shown that B2P works and that a key aspect of that is replayability.  Different story based on race, different play experience based on class and a really decent effort to put PvE and PvP (including WvW) on an even footing.  Wildstar is mirroing this variety very closely: there is early emphasis on both PvE and PvP and the race/class/path combinations mean replayability.  Carbine and Arenanet might be separate studios but it looks like NCSoft knows a good formula when it sees one.

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