AoC, APB go F2P. What happens when free isn’t enough any more?

The big MMO news yesterday (apart from Blizzard nerfing their last raid tier) is that Age of Conan will be switching to a Free to Play payment model sometime this Summer. And it’s calling itself UNRATED – which most commenters are interpreting as ‘with more boobs’ (because the world might end if they showed a naked man.) Funcom claim that Howard’s Hyperborea has always been a sexy setting … whatever turns you on, I guess.

APB, the cops and robbers co-op shooter which had previously won a name for itself as shortest lasting ‘MMO’ in existence, also gets a F2P relaunch under new owners.

But I wonder if the trend towards AAA games shifting to a F2P model to get warm bodies through the door is starting to backfire. ‘Free’ isn’t as exciting a proposition as it was a year or two ago. You only have to look at the reaction to the reparation offer that Sony made after the PSN outage to see that; many gamers complaining that they weren’t happy about being offered two free games. Free on its own was not enough to make people excited, it had to be something free which they would otherwise have wanted to buy.

Even when Bioware was giving away free copies of Mass Effect 2 to DA2 owners, there was a substantial outcry that there weren’t enough DLCs included. (It was free, remember.)

So the point to take away is that free stuff is always going to be worth more to some people than others. If you don’t want an item or already have it, then free is worthless and might even be seen as an insult.

(This is a strange concept to those of us who go to conventions with the express goal of picking up as many freebies as possible, especially if they are random things we don’t really want.)

Having said that, AoC is a solid MMO if you’re bored of whatever you are currently playing and the first 20 levels in particular have a good reputation for story and gameplay. So it’s really just a case of whether you have the time and energy to bother downloading it.

Blizzard downgrading Tier 11 raids

I do think the increasing number of F2P MMOs is affecting Blizzard’s strategy. It looks to me as though they’re seeing each content patch as a new chance to win back customers (who have drifted off, possibly to F2P games when they are done with WoW’s current content), which means that it is a priority to make sure that returning customers feel that they have a chance to see the new stuff.

Nerfing older raids so that it’s easier for people to use them and gear up via PUGs plays a part in that strategy, or in other words I agree with Rohan on where they are going with this.

I vaguely remember commenting during Wrath that I felt we were being herded through the content on Blizzard’s timescale rather than our own. So it goes. TotalBiscuit has a fairly incisive summary of how he feels things have changed since TBC. If you ignore the macho “I did this content in beta when it was harder than you can even imagine” posturing, the main complaint is that the timing of progression has been taken out of the players hands. So now if you struggle on content, the smart thing to do is not spend every minute of free time trying to get into a top guild but instead just chill out, wait for the next patch and … yeah … maybe noodle some time away in a F2P game instead.

If you are hopping back into WoW, incidentally, and wondering what class to play, a poll on MMO-Champion voted by large amounts that mages had been the most favoured class this expansion so far. Availability of a legendary caster staff certainly won’t hurt that.

23 thoughts on “AoC, APB go F2P. What happens when free isn’t enough any more?

  1. Sadly 30% of MMO champ forums are ‘special people’, 30% small children, 30% casuals and rest is staff and knowledgeable players (not participating in stupid threads).

  2. Blizzard’s strategy has nothing to do with F2P and everything to do with their “The forums said Wrath was too easy, so let’s turn up the heat” strategy blowing up in their faces. This was Bashiok recently:

    Q: Blizzard, you do how little people post on the forums yes? how about doing some in game polls to really see what people want, and not what the idiots on the forums want

    A: You want them to not be nerfed, you’re on the forums…

    Just saying.

    By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums.


    Emphasis added. I detailed the beginnings of the difficulty U-turn back in March, when they delayed Firelands and nerfed heroics for the express purpose of trying to save the abysmal LFD completion rates. Perhaps the bevy of other quality MMO titles is loosening the traction of WoW’s gear grind, such that Blizzard cannot make decisions by fiat anymore. Heaven knows the designers probably wanted the endgame to remain hard, as everything was pointing that way – remember the awkward Ghostcrawler blog about keeping things hard, and then the 15% nerf rolling out two weeks later?

    • What I don’t get is how Blizzard somehow weren’t paying attention during Wrath when it would have been fairly clear from the metrics that people did like accessible raids.

      And yes, I remember that Ghostcrawler blog (link here) — and it does come across as confusing to have the designers blogging about design decisions that are only going to be valid for a few months as if they were more permanent.

      I also noticed that they really have no answer to the issue of ranged vs melee except to say that there may be a few firelands fights which are melee friendly.

      • Of course they were paying attention. This nerf isn’t some spontaneous thing, or some reaction to recent F2P games. It was planned all along, probably before Cata even hit beta. The only reason the T11 raids were so hard to start with was because they were going to nerf them later.

        This is basically their way of providing more than two difficulty levels, without having to provide more than two levels of gear reward in each tier.

        Now, the interesting question is: is providing more difficulty levels actually a good thing? I propose it may not be. As you add difficulty levels, you are in effect giving each player a PvE rating. I think a lot of players don’t like to be given accurate assessments of their worth.

      • I just think it sends a message to casual raiders, saying, “Don’t bother with a WoW expansion until the first content patch because the raids and instances won’t be tuned for you.” And that’s kind of weird.

      • I imagine they were thinking that non-elite players would have been satisfied with just running heroic 5 mans for the first N months.

        But yeah. If they stick with this, and if I ever return to WoW for a future expansion, I won’t buy it immediately.

        One final point: if they expect non-hardcores to have little to do at the beginning, they are also probably going to arrange it so hardcores have nothing to do at the end. The final raid will go into nerfed status with nothing following it.

      • Nah, the hardcore are easier to cater to. Just add in a pointlessly difficult hard mode to the last raid tier and leave them to it. You never need to nerf the hard modes, since people who mostly want to see the content don’t care about them anyway.

  3. In general, I’ve never been among those that think ‘free’ is a good thing, usually quite the contrary, it makes me suspicious in a product and looking for a catch. the catch is usually there too, either the game is unfinished or lacking, or then the catch will show itself at later stages – to name Allods as an example it became rather clear later on how important that ingame ‘item shop’ was, which came down to paying even more money for pixels than with a monthly sub.

    Good things come at a price. our society is currently off on its track there (at least where I’m living) and the consequences of the cheap mindset are devastating in other areas of our lives. as for games and online worlds, I don’t mind giving free games a go, but I’ve never come across any that convinced me in the long run – nor do a lot of free items and shinies make any MMO better (see WoW).

    To go a step further – many players like to feel ‘good about their characters’, so having what everyone has is not such an attractive prospect at all.

    Neither did I. To be fair, I was very well entertained by AoC for weeks and didn’t mind paying, but the lacking parts of the game showed themselves way too soon. Going back is tempting, but not because it’s free, only if it got a lot more work put into.

  4. When I subscribe to a game I feel guilty for not logging on, alternatively if i play a F2P game I still feel guilty about not logging into my subscription games or another F2P game.

    For me F2P brings with it more problems about time management and they muddy that water when it comes to deciding what to play.

    With the F2P market becoming saturated, I feel many of the games aren’t really offering anything different and ultimately gamers may turn back to Subscription based offerings to obtain something unique and/or dictate what they spend their limited time playing.

  5. Nerfing raids as an expansion ages is nothing new, it’s been going on since their first expansion, Burning Crusade. I remember Karazhan getting nerfed shortly after all of the Tier 5 content was released. Then they removed all of the attunement requirements after Sunwell was released. I agree that this has always been their intention, to nerf raids as newer content is being released. It makes sense and I’m not completely against it. But then again, I go back and forth from casual to hardcore frequently.

  6. The F2P’s of triple A’s are most likely the result of their numbers imploding (ABP) or not doing as well as they would like to (LoTRO, AoC). Since to my knowledge has there never been a triple A that is F2P upon release. Thus this strongly suggests that the F2P (or Freemium) model is a last ditch effort and/or option before pulling the plug on the game entirely, as opposed to some industry spun trend that F2P’s are the only way to go for all MMO’s.

    I also find it highly difficult to believe that the nerfing of normal Teir 11 raid content is the result of said triple A content going F2P or even F2P’s in general. Blizz exec’s have stated expicitly their big concern seems to been over a little game known as RIFT sucking away their 600 k subs. I will argue niether is likely true. That instead, there have been some fundemental problems with Cataclysm (ie. catering to hardcore twits like TotalBiscuit), as well as WoW becoming stale in general that has driven players away. Players leaving will naturally seek something to do whether it’s RIFT and/or F2P/Freemium until the next big thing comes along. Just saying.

    • The F2P’s of triple A’s are most likely the result of their numbers imploding (ABP) or not doing as well as they would like to (LoTRO, AoC).

      I suspect DDO’s transition was as you describe, a “why not?” maneuver to see what happens to an underperforming game. When DDO’s revenue increased five-fold, I think they made an informed decision to change LotRO’s business model. LotRO’s revenues tripled. Of course, Turbine has been pushing the cash shop harder on LotRO than they did in DDO. (Of course, the real business question is how much profits went up, but I suspect the costs of developing content didn’t go up enough to make the profits lower.)

      The development pace of MMOs has slowed down, but I anticipate that we’ll see a top-tier MMO launched with a free-to-play business model in the next few years. This is a good thing, because it’ll allow for games to be developed that don’t have to topple WoW in order to be a rousing success financially.

      • This is why I stated “not doing as well as they would like to” as opposed to underperforming (that is losing mioney). LoTRO may have been doing okay, even turning a profit…under their old subscription system. I doubt they where pulling in a substancial return. Thus with the success of DDO’s switch, put them on the chpping block for F2P considerations.

        As for your prediction, it begs the question why don’t they do it now? I suspect there is some resistance, due to the subscription model, when the game is doing well, still gives them a guarantee return and likely a higher profit margin. The issue becomes when the game doesn’t do as well, then switching to a back up plan makes sense instead of pulling the plug on it. And that plan, the Fremium gives them both subcription or micro-transactions…thus it’s not an entirely a switch over. Since it quite likely many “triple A” gaming companies don’t entirely trust F2P’s as a business alternative. And I think that’s a good thing.

      • Utakata wrote:

        I doubt they where pulling in a substancial return. Thus with the success of DDO’s switch, put them on the chpping block for F2P considerations.

        From the rumors I’ve heard, LotRO was doing fairly well before. But, when you change the business model of one of your games and see a 500% increase in revenues, and thus you have experience in transitioning to the new business model from an old one, it makes prudent business sense to do the same thing to your other game. Even if they’re “only” making 300% revenues instead of 500%. Unless you live in some world where making whole multiples of your revenue is somehow bad unless you’re desparate, I guess?

        As for your prediction, it begs the question why don’t they do it now?

        Because AAA MMOs take 3-5 years to make, and free-to-play has only been “hot” for about a year now. That means any game designed from the ground-up to be free-to-play is, at best, 2-4 years from launch. And that’s why I said we’d see one “in the next few years” instead of “soon”.

      • Again, the semantics I refer to of LoTRO is relative to where Turbine possibley wanted LoTRO to be. I suspect as I’ve mentioned twice now, that they where doing well, rumors or otherwise…but not well enough in Turbine’s minds. So they went with a partial F2P model known as a Fremium. They did not go all the way over. And likely there are good reason for not doing so. Most triple A’s that have gone F2P have fallen into either Turbine’s catagory or finacial ruin if something wasn’t done to those games soon. No resoundingly successful subscription based MMO has gone F2P. Either they where doing okay or fizzled.

        As for triple A’s taking 3 to 5 years to develop, which ones are we talking about here? SW:TOR? Tera? Those games are coming to the end of their development cycle. They’re not planning to go F2P as far anyone is aware. This is where the credibility of your prediction falls flat. Thus I think this is wishful thinking on your part. Sorry.

      • Utakata wrote:

        So they went with a partial F2P model known as a Fremium. They did not go all the way over. And likely there are good reason for not doing so.

        Switching business models is risky. Turbine showed it could be pulled off, but SWG’s NGE conversely showed that changing things too radically mid-stream results in a lot of upset customers. Given that they changed an existing subscription game over to a “free to play” business model what they did makes sense in allowing people who were happy paying a subscription to continue doing so.

        I’ve been studying the free-to-play business model for a long time, as far back as 2000. But, when I relaunched Meridian 59 I didn’t use the business model. Why? Because the existing audience was used to subscriptions so I stuck with it. Which is probably one (small) reason why Near Death Studios doesn’t exist today.

        No resoundingly successful subscription based MMO has gone F2P.

        Unfortunately, few games have “resoundingly successful”. Despite there being dozens of MMOs out there now, I can count on one hand the number of games I’d categorize as “resoundingly successful”. Of course, when you are “resoundingly successful” then you have a motivation not to kill the goose laying the golden eggs. A game that is successful but not a market leader will still want to increase revenues.

        So, you have the compelling business argument for Turbine: 500% revenues. Let’s say you and a friend make $50,000 doing the same job at the same company. Your friend moves to a new company and makes $250,000 there doing pretty much the same work. What are you going to do? As a business, you don’t have the option to say, “$50k is enough for me!” (Even if LotRO “only” increased to $150,000 in this metaphor, that’s still a lot more than it started with.)

        As for triple A’s taking 3 to 5 years to develop, which ones are we talking about here? SW:TOR?

        Okay, let’s use SWtOR as an example. Gordon Walton joined Bioware Austin in 2005, so let’s mark that as the beginning of development. DDO went free to play in 2009. That means there were 4 years of development done on SWtOR before free-to-play became a topic in western games. (A few years before that we saw Korean games bring the business model to the U.S., primarily with Maple Story, but most people in the game industry didn’t take it seriously at the time, even if I gave a talk about the business model at the same Austin Game Devleper’s Conference where Min Kim from Nexon talked about the stupid amounts of money Maple Story was making in the U.S.)

        So, what were Bioware’s options in 2010 when the free-to-play model was proven successful? Haphazardly slap on the free-to-play business model after developing 4 years based on assumptions of having a subscription business model? Scrap 4 years of development and start almost from scratch to build the business model in? No, they did the rational thing: continue on with a subscription business model that has been the basic assumption of all design decisions. Now, they might believe subscriptions are still superior, but even if they did think the free-to-play model was better they would be risking a lot of work to change now. (Although, given this is an EA project with the Bioware name on it, and with the success of the sparklepony in WoW, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of item shop in the game to some degree.)

        Anyway, a game that started development in 2010 will have seen the success that DDO and LotRO had with the new business model and will be willing to copy it. Therefore, assuming we’re talking about a traditional AAA MMO project that will take 3-5 years to develop, we won’t see an MMO project launch with a free-to-play business model developed at the core of the game for another 2-4 years.

        We’ll see if this bears out. Given that I’m actively working on an MMO project with a startup, you can probably guess why I’m making the prediction I am. 😉

  7. I’m not entirely sure that the move is unprecedented

    Historically, older raids have always gradually been nerfed into the ground over time. It’s usually been a more gradual process but people should hardly be suprised by it.

    Secondly, the raids are over seven months old by the time these nerfs come in and let’s be honest here, If you haven’t progressed significantly on them by this point, even casually, you were probably never going to do it.

    The main difference being that in the current iteration of WoW, this process doesn’t lead you to have to raid the first half of Molten Core forever and ever.

  8. Regarding the WoW raid nerfs:

    What I’m hearing you and some of your commenters saying is, “we want it challenging, but if we know it’s going to get easier, we’ll just wait.”

    Does that make sense? You’re only going to tackle challenging content if you don’t know if, or when it’s going to get nerfed? And then complain about the nerfs and how in the “old days” it was so much more fun?

    The whole nature of MMO’s is that content gets easier with time, experience, gaining levels, skill, etc.

    “I just think it sends a message to casual raiders, saying, “Don’t bother with a WoW expansion until the first content patch because the raids and instances won’t be tuned for you.” And that’s kind of weird.”

    It’s not wierd. I like it. Gives me plenty of time to level up, gear up, run the challenging heroics as if they were progression raids. Walk into a raid or two, kill trash, and be amazed that players can actually defeat the content, then work on it seriously when its nerfed, and actually get some kills.

    It’s a great strategy. And Wrath successfully used that strategy, but with gear instead of nerfs until the ICC nerfs.

    What they DID listen to, is that getting epics through facepalm, obligatory random heroic runs was not popular. We want gear to be more epic and difficult to obtain, but raids to still be gradually accessible for casuals.

    Seriously, are you guys even playing the game?

    • What I’m trying to say is that I see mixed messages. And that the people who love the more challenging content levels get to play at their preferred challenge level from day 1 where people who would have preferred an easier starting point have to either wait 6-8 months until the first nerf or settle for (long, frustrating) heroics or hitting their heads against content that is overtuned for them.

      In Wrath, Blizzard basically gave people free boosts via gear in every new content patch, they didn’t really nerf the raids themselves to extinction until the end of the expansion. And heroics were quick and easy, and raid PUGs were common so more casual players could pick up 25 man gear to use in their own 10 man raids. And the first tier of raiding, before the gear boosts set in, was actually fairly easy.

      So while the hardcore did complain at the start (and fwiw, Undying was never really an easy achievement), the more casual raiders had plenty to do.

      In Cataclysm, the model seems to be that hardcore players can have their fun. Anyone less so is going to be bored or frustrated for 6 months. They can stay if they want, but ‘their’ content won’t be there yet.

      And as for committed casual raiders who have been working their way through the content at their own pace? They’re being dragged forcibly onto the next tier whether they were ready or not.

  9. I can’t get all that interested in any MMO business model other than the Guild Wars/Wizard 101 method of selling content rather than time or stuff. It’s probably a smart move for AoC, but I’d say that it’s too little too late.

    …and yes, the market is being saturated with this sort of move, so it’s not as splashy as it once was. That’s a *good* thing, as it shows the market is maturing.

  10. Pingback: Psychochild's Blog » Evaluating business models

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