Have your views changed on F2P games?

With yesterday’s announcement that Rift is offering a F2P option from June 12th, it seems like a good time to reappraise the various F2P MMO models.

(Incidentally, the Trion dev team did an AMA on reddit this week about their plans for Rift.)

Lee Perry posts a considered defence of F2P games on Gamasutra, focussing on things that F2P games seem to do better than P2P. For example, for all the emphasis on metrics, they really do have a good idea of what their players enjoy doing. They do have to offer new content regularly to keep people interested. Compare this with the WoW “lets try something completely different next expansion” and “lets do patches at a glacial pace” approach. (I know they’re doing better in MoP, I know.)

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

But can these forces ever really be used for good?

World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 11 (is 14 even live yet?) and Everquest are now (I think?) the only major AAA MMOs which still only offer subscription accounts. There are also probably lots of niche MMOs (such as Tale in the Desert, Darkfall and Wurm Online) which use this model, as well as P2P MUDs. Feel free to post about any of them in comments that I haven’t mentioned.

Guild Wars 2 has a B2P model where you buy the basic game and then there is no subscription, but they have a cash shop. EVE has a kind of hybrid subscription system where it is strictly speaking a subscription game but you can potentially pay for your sub using in game credits if you have them.

The majority of MMOs are now F2P where you can download the game for free and start playing without needing to subscribe. They make their money using a  mixture of cash shop items, paid DLC/ expansions, subscription options and selling in game gold for cash.

And then some games are totally free, such as traditional MUDs which are coded and run by volunteers. They welcome donations towards the costs of the server but there’s no reason to pay other than altruism.

One of the features of games that have transitioned from subsciption to F2P is that the player base tends to increase significantly in the short term (not surprising really) and also the number of subscribers increases in the short term. We’ve seen this most recently in SWTOR, which posted just under 500k subscriptions in the last EA earnings call. (They evidently have an effective “we will annoy you until you subscribe” F2P model going on.)

Green Armadillo compares a few different F2P models, dividing them into “Pay to Win” and “Pay for Others.” There are other ways to compare the different models, usually based on what perks/ virtual goods are being sold and how the game encourages people to become paying customers.

It isn’t even clear whether F2P does favour the casual player over the hardcore, as that also can depend on the business model. PvP games might lure in free players to act as cannon fodder for those who pay (World of Tanks), whereas other games make bank from selling cosmetic gear or lockboxes to casuals. It’s true though that if you do play casually, you can access a large number of MMOs without having to pay for any of them these days.

Liore describes the frustration that subscription players feel when a game goes F2P, the sense that the tight knit fabric of the game and certainties of the regular payments are being blown open, possibly to be replaced by an influx of rude casuals and a selection of annoying lockboxes (both of which have happened at pretty much every game which has transitioned). Without going that far, there is the potential for F2P to really divide up the player base and make existing players think hard about exactly how casual/ hardcore they want to be.

So – it’s a fast changing environment but the direction of the journey is very clear. Have your views changed at all on F2P games over the last months/ years?

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Quitting vs taking a break

There are two types of gamer – and by gamer I mean people who would list gaming as one of their main hobbies. And this is valid across different sorts of games; board games, RPGs, computer games, etc.

1. One main game at a time. You might not actually get married to your current game of choice but your involvement is very deep. You probably spend a lot of time thinking and chatting about the game when you’re not actually playing it, whether it’s about running guilds or scenarios, or reading blogs or mailing lists.

2. Lots of different games on the go, possibly with a common bunch of friends.

If you are a type #1 like me (although I have bursts of type #2 and I think I’m drifting more that way with age also), then sooner or later you’ll get familiar with burnout. That game which has been an important part of your life for months/ years/ etc just … isn’t any more. Maybe it’s because the community has changed, maybe your life has changed, maybe something else caught your attention, maybe the game itself changed.

The first time, it may take you awhile to realise this has happened. People are resistant to change, especially when it might affect their social network, and moving on will leave a gap.

But does moving on have to be a permanent thing, or is it more like putting the old game on the back burner for awhile? I’ve done both before, and a lot of it comes down to the emotional situation you were in when you left, plus the state of the game/ community when you are thinking about returning.

Taking a break from WoW

It’s probably been obvious from the content here but my sub to WoW ran out a few weeks ago.

I’m not writing a long and impassioned post about severing all my ties to the game because I think it’s quite possible that I’ll go back sometime. It just won’t be in the foreseeable future. This did make me think about the difference between quitting a game for good (“I’m never going to play this again!”) and not making that final decision (“I don’t want to play it right now, but maybe sometime in the future…!”)

Clearly, developers would prefer the latter because it means that the people who were just taking a break can be lured back. It may not be until the next expansion but they’re still potential customers. And this is particularly key in F2P games because there’s no subscription fee to act as an extra barrier for returners.

On the other hand, we know how big a factor the social networks in games are in keeping people playing. By taking a break, even a fairly short one, a player is probably breaking off those social networks. No raid guild, for example, will keep a spot open for more than a few weeks (if that). Many players have short memories online and if you take a break for over a month or two, you may log back in to find that you are remembered by a few, but things won’t be the way they were before.

Why take a break?

For me, taking a break from a game is when I still like the game itself but I just don’t want to play it any more. It’s when I still like the guild but the burnout means I can’t bear to log in.

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it is you (if you are the game) but I could forgive you in future, I just need a break. I don’t know what would have to change to make me want to come back. I just know it isn’t something I’m planning any time soon right now.

I’ve been through this before with WoW, personally. When TBC launched I was playing in a 40 man raid guild. It dissolved messily over a few months, and I was so invested in the guild (I’d been a class leader) that I just wanted to get away from the whole scene. I think I took about a year out, and when I did return, it was with a different server/ faction and I was astounded at being able to reconnect with my old guild (pre-40 man raiding on alliance, I mean).

It’s happened before, and it could happen again. So it’s goodbye, but not a final burning of all the bridges. I’ll miss my guild more than they’ll miss me; they’ll still be running the same instances and raids, chatting in gchat, working on guild achievements – just with one fewer grumpy person who was half burned out to take part. But then again, I have other things to do, games to play, people to meet. I wish them well.

Because this isn’t the first time I’ve taken a long break from a game, I had a rough idea what the issues might be in returning later. Those are mostly:

  • Can you pick up your old social network or is it time to start again? This is particularly tough for raiders. A casual raid group might be able to find a spot for a returning player, but you can’t rely on a more progression minded raid doing the same thing. This is especially true in a 10 man raid where they won’t be so big on having substitutes and rotations.
  • And can you catch up with your old character or would it be easier to start again? Blizzard are trying to make it easier and easier for a returning (or new) player to catch up with the current endgame, so as long as you don’t mind LFD, chances are that this won’t be an issue in WoW.

For example, I haven’t used realIDs in a big way in WoW, but once I decided I was taking a long break, I did swap realIDs with a lot of guildies and in game friends. It’s a practical issue at that point. If/ when I go back, they may be on different alts or in different guilds but I’ll still be able to touch base. It’s not quite like going cold into a new (or old) game where you don’t know anyone or can’t find anyone you know.

Plus I know I will want to play Diablo III when that comes out, and it will be cool to be able to chat to my WoW friends on battle.net when that happens too.

Have you taken a long break from a game and then returned? What issues did you face?

Design at Start vs Design in Play

Here’s a thought experiment. You have just bought a shiny new computer RPG (it can be either a MMO or single player, your choice). You load it up for the first time and are presented with character creation.

Which of these types of character creation would you prefer to see?

Pre-Made Characters

You get to pick one of a set of pre-made characters. The character may come with an extensive background and backstory, carefully designed to fit perfectly into the game. You may have some customisation options – maybe you can change the looks, name, and tweak the stats a bit, but your choices are limited.

Pre-mades have the huge advantage that it is very very easy to write an immersive story about a pre-made character. The writer can give the characters some good solid starting goals and story arcs. They can easily have pre-existing links to other NPCs, places, items, and background stories. They belong to the world, they have links with it, and they are connected to it.

Best of all, the player can take the pre-made character and trust that the storyline will fit. Good examples of this are Planescape: Torment or KOTOR – you get very few customisation choices at the beginning but the story is absolutely front and centre all about the viewpoint character. Using a pre-made character also doesn’t remove choices from the player later on, but at least it gives you a very well defined starting point.

Pre-mades in an MMO are more problematic, because players will interact. If characters ALL have the same background story then it’s difficult to really take things seriously (“What? You used to be a raider too? Uh … what a coincidence, so did my 37 friends over there …”)

Design At Start

Your character is a blank slate. Before you can start playing, you need to spend some time deciding what your character will be like, what powers it may have, and everything else about it. You may wish to write a long personalised background story too. Picking powers might be a complex process with many opportunities to optimise skills, but with some time and effort you should be able to create the exact character that you want. It will be perfect, it will be your ideal character.

This can be great for players who have a very strong concept of the sort of character they want to play. If you always play the same role, like to fiddle around doing research and number crunching, and enjoy min-maxing, this might be for you.

The downside is: You may not yet know the gameworld very well. You may not know which power combinations are the most potent. You may not yet have a strong concept of your ideal character. Your ideal character might not even make any sense in terms of the story. You can certainly write a novella of background information but there’s no guarantee that anyone except you will ever read it.

In a tabletop game, you can work with the GM and other players to tell great stories about your ideal character. In a computer game, there’s no guarantee that the game will actually support the way you wanted to play. So you get a taste of your ideal character, but you may not actually be able to play out the stories you wanted to tell about them. Even in a non-railroaded game, the options you want may not even exist (eg. if your character is a dispossessed aristocrat but the game doesn’t have any kind of NPCs or stories that will give you a chance to get your land back or have your relatives try to bump you off … or in other words, the game may just not interact well with the story you want to tell.)

Design in Play

Your character is a blank slate. But after picking a few minor options and customising the look, you’re straight into the game. You will pick up powers and abilities as you play, or at least gain the ability to customise whatever powers with which you start.

The idea is that as you learn more about the game, both storywise and about how it plays, you’ll learn more about what type of character you want, and will have opportunities to mould your character into that shape.

Although this can play like a pre-made character at the beginning, you will quickly have lots of options to tweak both the background and the skills as you play. A design at start character is a bit ‘fuzzy’ when the game begins, very little about it is set in stone.

It’s all down to personal preferences

There isn’t a right or wrong way to do character creation but some players  have strong preferences for different methods.

I’m a big proponent of design in play – in tabletop games, I’m discussing character concepts and how the world works with the GM all the way through the first session, so I can tweak my initial character sheet later if what I wrote isn’t reflecting the character I create through playing it. In MMOs, I love how the WoW dual specs means that I don’t have to commit to a role when I create my character. My warrior can tank or it can dps, depending on how I feel later. I love systems where you get better at skills by using them, so the game itself can try to figure out how you want your character to develop in play. (In practice that’s not really how it works but I like the idea.)

I really dislike games that ask me to make large numbers of character decisions or carry out number crunching up front, especially when I don’t feel that the game itself has given me enough information yet on which to choose.

I was thinking of this when reading Regis’ dismissal of the Dragon Age Character Creator. I’m not claiming that it is the greatest piece of software since sliced_bread.exe but it isn’t fair to fault the game for offering a limited number of races and classes in the creator. They’re running with a mix of pre-made and design in play design. It’s going to make for much tighter storylines later on, and more choices to make later on in play also.

I don’t get on with design at start type games (it takes me some exposure to the game to get some good character ideas together) and I struggled with design at start players when GMing tabletop – it’s hard to tell a compelling story when someone has such a strict idea of what their character is like and won’t allow  it to change and adapt at all.

Options are great and all, but at the end of the day, my favourite CRPGs of all time (Planescape and FF10) left their choices until later in the game and they were all the better for it.

Soloing, going casual, and the tragedy of the commons

People talk about soloing in MMOs as if having the option to solo to the level cap was a recent innovation. Actually I remember playing MUDs mostly solo. As long as there have been virtual worlds, there have been both players who just wanted to quietly get on with their own thing and those who wanted to play with others.

However it’s the players who want to play with others who create the in game community.

MMOs are all about options. You can have soloers, raiders, hardcore, casual, explorers, achievers, et al all playing in the same virtual world. And that means you can play different sides of the game depending on how you feel.  I used to be in a guild with a Finnish guy who occasionally would /gquit for a couple of weeks to get away from the world (including guild chat). He referred to this as ‘going on holiday to his virtual log cabin’. He could have just not logged in but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be alone in the virtual world.

Sometimes you’ve had a rough day at work and don’t want to be hassled. Other times you really want to be around other people, and I love that the game provides these options.

But, aside from the regular flow of people who switch between soloing and grouping as their mood dictates, there are a lot of players who never have any intention of grouping with anyone they don’t know. I’ve always felt that they were a large but mostly invisible segment of the population. You don’t ‘see’ them because they don’t talk, they don’t join guilds. I remember being surprised when a guy joined our WAR guild and commented that although he’d played MMOs for years, this was the first time he had ever joined a guild. He’d just been playing with friends and never needed nor wanted the guild.

So who needs who, really?

A soloer, or a small group of RL friends who only ever group with each other, is a self contained unit. They don’t need anyone else to play in their preferred way. They don’t really need access to a guild bank or guild crafters because there are Auction Houses and trade channels.

Some may choose to join guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere, and to share information, loot, and skills. But it isn’t really clear what the guild gets from having soloers as members.

Players who like to group, on the other hand, need to be around other social players. You can’t run group content on your own, by definition. And so social players tend to cluster into guilds because they like to be in a friendly atmosphere and to share information, loot, and skills, and also so that they can more easily find people to group with.

There are two types of successful guild, really. One is the very focussed one in which every member wants to do the same type of activity in game. These would be like raiding or endgame guilds. Over time they may ease the focus, let in more alts and social members, and evolve a more casual tier alongside the hardcore centre.

You can have a guild that is focussed on supporting casual members who are mostly soloers. But it’s very difficult to keep that kind of community together unless there’s a core of the guild who is a little less casual than the rest or unless you prearrange set times to play.

The other type is a larger social type of guild which is more of a broad umbrella under which members do what they like. And this kind of guild can carry a few soloers, maybe even a lot, but it absolutely must also have a critical mass of members who like to group because otherwise the guys who want to group won’t be able to find guild groups.

This isn’t just about grouping for instances or raids or PvP. I’ve been in RP guilds where we organised little RP events and were struggling to get people to come to them, while seeing half the guild online but off soloing somewhere else. Those are players who went to the effort of joining a RP guild but then when it actually tried to organise something that they could easily have joined in, they preferred to keep farming. They didn’t really want to be part of the guild or interact in any way beyond the chat channel.

And let me tell you, when you are trying to organise anything in guild and people flip you off for no real reason other than that they can’t be bothered, even though they are online and not busy, it will quickly put you off trying to organise anything else in future. This is why social guilds need to keep the number of soloers down and the number of social members up.

If the number of social members falls too low, then the rest MUST leave too for a guild with better grouping opportunities or else they’ll be very very miserable. And you can guarantee it’ll be the guys who mostly solo who will be tutting and complaining that people aren’t loyal to their guilds any more these days when they go.

The only guild that truly benefits from soloers is the solo-centric guild, made by and for other soloers. And ironically, most soloers who want to join a guild for the chat channel and crafters are not looking for that kind of guild.

Note: Yes, when I say soloers I mean people who have no intention of ever grouping with anything they don’t know iRL. I don’t have a problem with the playstyle. I still think it’s great that MMOs can cater to all sorts. And I do have friends in my guild who mostly solo because of RL issues, and we love having them around. But don’t join a guild just for its chat channel without telling them that’s all you want.

Just bear in mind that if I want to group, I need to have people around who want to do the same thing. If I want to solo (or play with a partner or fixed group), I don’t need anyone or anything. And a social player can provide all the same things as a soloer, but they’re also helping to build the community.

So why are you soloing in an MMO anyway?

Syp is tired of being asked why he would want to solo in a multi-player game. That’s a fair point, it’s no-one’s business what you do in the game as long as you aren’t harassing anyone (and by definition, soloers are very unlikely to be in this situation).

But he then goes on to explain that soloers may not really want to be alone, and thinks it’s reasonable to join a guild anyway. I beg to differ. It MAY be reasonable to join a guild, if you can find one that it copacetic with your playstyle.

He also comments that solo players may appreciate the support network that other players can provide. And they’ll provide you with this for no return why exactly? How is that not leeching? And why do you need a support network anyway if you are soloing?

But if you join a social guild, every time you are online when someone is trying to organise a guild activity and you could have taken part but you decided not to bother, you are breaking a piece of someone’s heart. But of course, you’re solo, so you’re not interested in being anyone else’s support network. Why should you care? Why should you help to support the guild, you’re only there for the chat channels? Maybe they’re the ones who  should  chill out and remember it’s just a game.

(I’m not convinced that MMOs offer more bang for your buck than single player games, though. I suppose it depends which single player games and which MMOs.)

Relying on the more hardcore

Actually, a lot of players do rely on more hardcore people to provide their player-generated entertainment. A guild leader or raid leader puts much more time and effort into the game than a rank or file member. Both types of player need each other, but one is definitely working harder.

So maybe a casual player wants to not be tied to a schedule, but still be able to log into a friendly guild and find competent groups whenever they want. In order for a guild to provide that, they need to have a core of more hardcore players who will be around more often, will play enough to become competent, and will want to group whenever the casual player logs in.

I don’t think people always see that side of things. In order for me to have my great casual friendly guild, officers and raid leaders need to want to put in a lot more work than I do. It isn’t that I’m not valuable, but I am relying on some people being more hardcore.

So … tragedy of the commons?

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?