24 March, 2011
I'm an MMO developer, but I'm also an enthusiastic player. Not every MMO designer has the luxury of spending a lot of time in games, but I think it's important to stay current with games given that I've spent a lot of my time running a rather "retro" game.
So, I like to think that I have a bit of insight on how the player side of things work as well as the designer. So, while I'm a big fan of microtransaction (or "free to play") business models, I certainly do understand how players can be wary, even frightened by this type of system. So, let's look at two games from the same company and see how they handle microtransactions.
My current MMO poison of choice is Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). I'm playing with my better half and good friend, along with some people who read and work at Massively, so it's a good way to spend time with friends. And, in the past, I played a lot of The Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) with my better half. Both of these are games by Turbine, and both have gone "free to play". (Or, others have put it, no cover charge.) Let's take a look at how these two games have fared.
Dungeons & Dragons
DDO went free to play a little while before LotRO did, so let's take a look at it first. I did start playing DDO later, and only after it had gone free-to-play. I have no context for what changed, so this likely colors my impressions.
I have to admit, originally I thought D&D was a terrible license for an MMO. I'm still not sure it's really a great setting if you want more than a niche following, but the D&D geek in me enjoys it. (I met my better half playing 2nd edition AD&D at university, so it's neat we're playing again. My good friend who plays it was also in our university group.) But, let's focus on the free to play aspects rather than digging into design (or artistic) issues this article.
In DDO, you pay for options. Character slots, races, quest packs, consumables, etc. You earn points either through buying them or by earning favor in the game, awarded per quest based on the highest difficulty you've run (meaning you can't run the same quest again for more favor unless you do it on a higher difficulty). Some people will roll new characters just to earn the minimum amount of favor on a server to get a reward then roll the character again. (100 favor, quests on elite difficulty earn 9-15 favor each usually, the reward is 25 Turbine points, about 25-30 cents worth.)
DDO also allows you to subscribe. As a subscriber (or VIP in their terminology), you get access to almost all the content. You must still "earn" a few of the options (such as the Drow race or the ability to build characters with slightly more stat points) by earning enough favor gained from completing quests. But, for some of these options you should be ready to do a fair amount of grinding to unlock them on a per-server basis, whereas you can often buy an option and unlock it on every server. VIPs also get another important perk: the ability to open instances on any difficulty level, whereas the plebs need to defeat an quest on Normal to open Hard, and then Hard to open Elite. This is a big boon, as you can just run a quest once if for the maximum favor award, especially if you have an experienced and competent group. Finally, VIPs also get a small amount of points per month (500, roughly $5-$6 worth depending on how many you'd buy at once at normal prices).
I'm used to buying D&D stuff
Honestly, this business model makes a lot of sense to me as an old (A)D&D player; I have a bookshelf full of (A)D&D books from 1st through 4th edition. (I didn't start buying the stuff in time to get the old colored D&D boxes. I do also have more shelves full of other RPG books; they're a pain to move.) So, I'm used to having to throw down a bit of money to buy access to something I want, like a book of expanded class options, etc. Consumables is a bit more iffy, but they aren't strictly necessary if you're a decent player. But, I'm used to the idea that if I want that new module, I fork over a bit of cash.
Personally, I've put about $100 into the game. About as much as I would have paid by subscribing for as long as I've been playing. I've also gotten some free points through other ways, codes from conferences, etc. My better half and good friend both subscribe, though, so Turbine is making subscription money from them. Given the time value of money, Turbine has probably made more money from my purchases than if I had subscribed.
I think I've gotten my money's worth. I tend to wait for sales before buying points or buying from the store. I avoid consumables and per-character items. I currently own all the adventure packs in the game and have all the account options I want. I'm sitting on a small amount of points for future releases (such as the anticipated Druid class and other packs.) It's also nice since I don't feel a pressing need to play as I don't have have a subscription ticking away.
In all, I'm currently happy with the arrangement.
The Lord of the Rings
I started playing LotRO with the release of the "Mines of Moria" expansion; in other words, I bought the expansion and was paying a subscription long before LotRO went "free to play". I noted in that article that the business model didn't seem quite so generous in LotRO as in DDO.
Recently, LotRO released a massive update which Green Armadillo over at Player vs. Developer called F2P LOTRO Version 2. The patch revealed some pretty massive changes to some core mechanics of the game, particularly at the higher levels, with changes in now controversial mechanics like radiance (now removed from the game) and legendary items (significantly changed, similar to some proposed changes I posted a while ago.) They also revamped some of the UI elements, which is important and I'll cover a bit later.
The business model works similar to DDO in that you can buy points or earn them. Earning points in LotRO is done by completing the numerous deeds in the game, although it doesn't always feel so rewarding. Quests in an zone must be purchased, but you can wander around in a zone kill monsters for xp, etc. There are also consumables and character enhancements to purchase if you want. But, there's a small snag with LotRO: the expansion sold in stores (plus the mini-expansion of Mirkwood) and lifetime subscribers. I think they dealt with these issues fairly (you keep access to that content even without a subscription, and lifetime subscribers get free VIP status), but it's obvious that this meant some people could avoid paying more. So, it seems the "monetization" of LotRO has been more aggressive.
Cash shop aggro
So, I don't think the business model transition has gone so well. I subscribed for just over 2 years, but I've dropped my subscription a few months ago. I hadn't really logged on except to do a bit of crafting and to post some stuff up on the auction house. Part of the problem is that I played LotRO to be immersed in the world of Middle Earth, and the cash shop kept harming my suspension of disbelief, even as a VIP subscriber.
It also seemed that being a VIP wasn't quite the "all access ticket" it's reported to be. For example, I wanted to collect every recipe in the game on my tailor; tailors could make light and medium armor, often in Elven and Dwarven variations. Even ignoring the one-time use recipes, there were a lot out there. But, when I found out that there is a cosmetic recipe only available from the store, I think that really cemented my exasperation with the game. (Another source says you can get the recipe from a seasonal event, but I don't remember seeing it.) In essence, even as a subscriber, I'd have to pay out cash to accomplish a goal I set for myself. (Ironically enough, the last patch also completed this task for me, as I didn't need to actually acquire the last few in-game recipes I needed since they changed how tailor recipes work for output.)
I was also very disappointed when mounts suddenly go missing only to appear in the cash shop. Maybe you can chalk this up to the devs deciding that the mount should be phased out, but allowing for cash shop purchases for people who missed it the first time around. But, what's the point of phasing out a cosmetic mount? To make the people who have it feel special, exclusive. But, if it's just available in the cash shop then it feels less so. Without a valid design reason for this change, then we have to look at the business reasons.
Finally, the cash shop is absolutely obnoxious. With the latest update they changed a lot of the UI panels to be larger. While I'm not sure it's better, exactly, there is an noticeable addition to the UI. See if you can notice it in this screenshot:
Yeah, that "enhance character" button at the bottom right-hand corner takes up a noticeable chunk of space. click on it and it expands into a menu, larger than most other menus in the game. I think Turbine knows what they're doing borders on obnoxious because they sent out some images with that button noticeably absent.
Sadly, this seems to be a trend for LotRO. Let's compare the button that takes you to the store in both games:
|The DDO Store button.
It fits in with the other buttons in the UI.
|The LotRO Store button.
Notice the size and color saturation differences and how it "pops out" of the normal UI.
The problem is, as I said above, I have played LotRO for the immersion into Middle Earth. Those buttons don't do it for me. Thus, I am no longer a subscriber.
Changing the terms of the agreement
The latest example of cognitive dissonance came in the most recent patch with the revamp of the legendary item system. Frankly, most of the changes are very welcome because it makes things less prone to randomness and gives the player more control, which is great! The fly in the ointment comes with the new policy on relics. Relics were items you put into a legendary item to get bonuses to stats. You could get the relics back every 10 item levels it earned, or if you deconstructed the item at max level.
But, they changed that. Let me quote the rationale from the developer diary I linked just above:
We've [...] removed the ability to remove relics safely from Legendary Items. We want relics to be things you gain and then spend (either by slotting or Refining), not things you keep around forever. However, the existence of the LOTRO store lets us offer Scrolls of Removal which will safely extract relics. We consider this to be a perfect kind of convenience for the store to sell; it is not required or needed for normal gameplay, but spending Turbine Points on it will give you a boost.
To me, that's pretty much an admission that they're intentionally taking something away from the players, particularly the VIP players, and adding it as a cash shop feature. Any justification about them "not [being] things you keep around forever" when you can pay to get around this restriction rings hollow. I'm reminded of the quote from the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining."
Free to Play done right?
Let me introduce a third game to the discussion: Puzzle Pirates. I think Puzzle Pirates does the free to play model very well. There are three aspects that make it stand out:
1. You can do almost everything for free. The trick is, you can't do them whenever you want. If you want to play a specific game in the bar, you have to wait for a specific day of the week to play it. The upside is that if you want to play against someone, you're more likely to find an opponent on that day.
2. You pay for only what you want to do. Want unlimited access to the tavern games? You can buy a 30 day badge. Want to buy a much nicer weapon off the AH? Takes a few doubloons. Before you scream about them nickel and diming you to death...
3. A market for exchanging microcurrency and in-game currency. To me, this is the brilliant part. Love playing the game, but don't have cash to fork out? You can go to the market and put an offer in to buy doubloons (the microcurrency) with your pieces o' eight (Po8). Have some disposable income, but not a lot of time to go farm Po8? Go to the market and put in an offer to sell doubloons for a certain amount of Po8. The players set the market so this isn't just about dumping currency into the game, and the doubloons still have to be bought from someone, so this is something more games should pick up on.
I fully intend to copy this model if I can in any game I help launch. Note that Puzzle Pirates implemented this model after already having been a subscription-based game. The free to play model was opened on new servers, separate from the existing subscription-based ones. So, the game was at the same disadvantage as DDO and LotRO were.
What have we learned?
Obviously, I'm a long time fan of the "free to play" business model. But, like any other aspect, it can be done well or done poorly. As I said in a comment to Green Armadillo's post above, subscriptions aren't inherently virtuous; witness many people's disdain for their cell phone provider or the usage caps ISPs are trying to impose on their subscribers to get more money. So, it's not the business model to blame here. I still think the "free to play" business model, when done properly as in the case of Puzzle Pirates, is the best for both developers and players. Players can choose how much to spend, and developers can see a direct connection between stuff they develop and items purchased by players.
I think the problems with LotRO are likely tied to the fact that it's a licensed property. An IP holder wants to get paid for licensing their work to you, and expect you to do better than someone else who might have wanted a license. So, there's an ever increasing pressure to provide better returns. Especially for a company that was recently acquired by a larger corporation, there's going to be pressure to carry your weight. Squeezing LotRO, unfortunately, seems to be the way they accomplish this.
What do you think? Is the cash shop always bad? Does DDO do it better? Why do people ignore Puzzle Pirates? Or is this just the brave new future because many companies always seek to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of their customers?