Out-voted

A box-only game is successful if people buy the box. How they feel about what’s inside the box after the sale is only important if you intend to start or maintain a franchise. If this is a one-off game, whether you sell a million copies because you created a great game or because you had a great marketing campaign does not matter; at the end of the day you sold a million copies.

The subscription model collects equal pay from everyone, and is successful when enough people continue to pay. The plus side for consumers is that if you sell a box and the content sucks, you are going to fail under the subscription model. The downside is that if 10k people REALLY like what you are doing, it’s still only 10k people and you most likely have failed (unless you aimed at 10k). The other factor here is that, for the most part, one sub is just as good as another, so the goal is to just get as many as possible.

The F2P model makes its money off a tiny subset of players, but those players end up paying far more than they would/could under other models. The model is successful if that subset buys and buys often, rather than how many people in general find your game interesting. You could have the world’s greatest game, but if the cash shop is a ghost town, you have failed as a F2P game.

I write the above (again) because, to me, gaming is going down a very dangerous trend in terms of ‘wallet votes’.

The first model is not perfect. Games could and do often sell on pure hype. How many terrible, terrible movie tie-in games have sold in the past for no reason other than having a trendy name on the box? And no matter how much you hate that Superman64 game, you still bought the box and effectively told the devs behind it “more please”.

On the other hand, positive word-of-mouth could lead to better sales, and high review scores ‘mattered’. While it still happened (ICO), overall good games sold well, and developers had solid reasons to make quality titles. A sad trend of “good original game, lots of crap after” happens, but hey, at least the original was worthwhile.

The sub model should be familiar to everyone here. The obvious advantage is that box hype won’t save crap (WAR), and solid titles can earn their teams far, far more money than just a single box sale. CCP is able to do what it does not because EVE is an amazing game for all, but because EVE is an amazing game for 100-200k people who pay CCP hundreds of dollars a year, every year, ‘forever’. Under the box model EVE would have long since shut down and been declared a massive failure, while WAR and SW:TOR would be considered great success stories.

The other big advantage here is that not only must a quality title be delivered, it must be maintained. If a year goes by and your MMO falls behind, or goes in a negative direction, players have a direct way to inform the company that they do not approve (unsub). Games that are well maintained and innovate while staying true to their core are rewarded, and as a player that is the ultimate win/win when it comes to the MMO genre.

The big downside, especially from a company perspective, is that each vote is limited to a set amount of money. Super fans can’t (reasonably) vote more by spending more, and if the core of your title has a somewhat limited market, your updates might only go as far as they need to in order to maintain, rather than push the boundaries aggressively to really make players extra happy.

F2P allows for that super fan vote. Or rather, it ONLY cares about the super fan vote. Left at just that, it should be the ideal model for true gamers, right? The more you and your niche love a title, the more successful you can make it while also getting more out of it.

Unfortunately reality does not align with theory. Current-day F2P games, for the most part, sell power (because power sells), and games that sell power become competitions of spending rather than of skill (or even time). By design, a game that sells power is inherently flawed IMO. The devs are too motivated to put walls in front of you that you can spend to climb over, or ‘encourage’ PvP to be determined by he who has the bigger wallet.

What really worries me is that, even if the above is accepted by most, it only takes a few to justify peddling F2P goods. 95% of people can recognize a poor game that sells power as something not worth paying for, but unlike the other two models, the 95% does not matter. If that 5% is buying, the game is a success. Furthermore, in order to KEEP that 5% spending, devs must keep giving them a reason to do so. If the 5% all already have the sword of $25 doom, then you better have the axe of $40 godslaying coming tomorrow, even if that axe drives away scores of the 95%. You never counted, so you leaving is a non-factor.

I’ll go one step further; I believe those who spend heavily in F2P games are generally dumb gamers. They are the types who want to level faster even if it means they burn out sooner. They are the ones who use god-mode codes even when god-mode just means you need to pay for another game sooner. They are the ones who read a walkthrough before playing a game, all while complaining about how easy and predictable everything is.

The crux of the problem is that now, with F2P, the dummy vote is the only vote that counts, and while long-term that might not be sustainable, long term and quarterly financial results don’t mix. If your favorite MMO shuts down because it sold one too many power items, you can bet that the company behind it has already reallocated resources to the “next big thing”, and the only ones really screwed are those who wanted to play the game that was originally pitched, pre-F2P ‘conversion’.

(Which is not to condemn F2P overall. F2P can be done right (LoL), and the results can be a massive win/win for players (more content) and devs (way more money than box or sub. But F2P done right is, as of today, sadly rare.)

24 Responses to Out-voted

  1. Polynices says:

    Yes, exactly. What you said.

  2. morg says:

    Yes, but
    Once a player montizes is more lickely to do so again. So a treadmill of $40 axe slaying is not good because the barrier to the first time spending is to high if the item is felt required. If most players see a required expensive item they leave.

    Additionally the non playing masses do matter. They are the content being sold. Without people to play against and a critical mass of players there is no game.

    I’m glad you mentioned LOL as they did it right. The barrier to spending cash is very low and in no way required.

    Really hoping PS2 gets it right as they are very dependent upon masses of players. They do mention LOL as a model to emulate.

  3. saucelah says:

    Tribes: Ascend, especially after its last major update, seems to get it right as well.

    Off the top of my head though, I can’t think of any major market f2p MMO that gets it right. Glitch gets it right, but the game is a niche within a niche, and the company is independent and small, answering only to investors that were never given unreasonable expectations. And there’s always the possibility they will get it up and running and sustainable and sell it off like they did flickr — in which case, I would expect all promises about never gating content by cash and not selling advantages to just go out the window. I don’t count GW2, first of all because it is not released, second of all beause it is buy to play. Is there any f2p MMO that gets it right?

    • Shadow says:

      I would have said DDO in the past, but I haven’t played with it in F2P for a long LONG time, so any current comment would be woefully uneducated outside of here-say.

  4. Aerynne says:

    What games out there sell power items in their cash shops? I have played CoH, Fallen Earth, WoW, GW, STO, SWG and a bunch of others I cannot recall atm, am currently playing EQ2 and a little LotRO, and cannot think of a single example of statted weapons or armor being offered for sale in a cash shop. LotRO probably comes the closest, selling stat boosts, for example, but even that is not really much of a “win”. I admit it – I probably support entire servers with my purchases of appearance armor and sparkle ponies, but none of the stuff I buy has the slightest effect on game play. I’m not being snarky – I am genuinely curious. What games sells stuff like an “axe of godslaying”?

    Also, I take strong exception to your over-generalization regarding those who “spend heavily” in f2p games. Indeed, most of the people I know who spend heavily in those games also pay for a subscription. I suspect your generalization may be true for those who purchase accounts on ebay, but just because I like to wear pink armor with rose petals scattering in the breeze ($5.00 on sale now!) does not mean I am not just as much a gamer as someone who is happy with the appearance of crafted or looted armor.

    • saucelah says:

      I am being snarky: does free to play mean any game in the world to you? WoW and SWG don’t belong on there at all. GW only sort of belongs as it is buy to play.

      And where have you been? LotRO started selling “epic” items in its cash shop in the last three months or so. And while it was always possible to grind Turbine Points, from day one there were cash shop items that the game simply cannot be played with. CoH’s conversion was horrid — even as a one year vet I did not have the right to use my Invention enhancements, and that’s like taking away raid equipment until I pay. And even paying only unlocks that right for 30 days.

      Going back to LotRO, I’m amused you bring that up, as it is probably the game Syncaine would use to illustrate his point about the 5%. They never promised not to directly sell high end gear — they just would say “we have no plans for that at this time.” But that 5% wanted to buy the items rather than play for them, so they changed their plans. Over objections from long time players. Let’s face it, the lifetime subbers actually matter less than the newbie with cash to burn.

      If you spend lots of money at the cash shop to buy pink armor with rose petals, then nothing Syncaine said applies to you or your spending habits. You shouldn’t apply his statements to yourself when he wouldn’t.

      • saucelah says:

        “that the game simply cannot be played *without*”

        fixed

      • Aerynne says:

        The question I asked (in all sincerity, btw) was “what MMO sells p2win weapons like an axe of godslaying” and the answer, I take it, is LotRO.

        I do not equate “items you cannot grind for” with “pay to win” but that is perhaps just semantics. I would object to purchasing a statted item in a cash shop. I could care less if someone buys a fluff mount you can only get in a cash shop so long as other mounts are available in game.

        That’s a shame about LotRO – the cash shop in that game is not one I use regularly, because frankly all the armor in that game looks pretty bad imo. I was not aware you could buy epic weapons and would not in any case, though I have purchased extra storage any chance I could get.

        Thanks for the answer to my question. I could have done without the snark, but hey – at least you took the time and trouble to answer.

        • SynCaine says:

          The best example I’m very familiar with is Atlantica Online. Amazing MMO that is destroyed by its cash shop of power. Allods as well, but at least Allods was trash even before the shop.

          Also if you are someone who spends often but sticks to an MMO long-term, you are the exception from what I’ve seen (which of course is just opinion formed from talking to however many people I’ve talked to over the years). And yes, fluff sales and P2W are completely different.

        • Aerynne says:

          Perhaps I am. I played SWG until they booted me off the server at shut-down, have played EQ2 and WoW since beta, raiding in both, have lifetime subs to LotRO, STO, and, alas, Champions Online. A few other games (GW, CoH, FE) I drift in and out of from time to time. SWG was my one great MMO love, particularly pre-CU, though I stuck with it to the end. My pure and abiding hatred of SWTOR derives from the death of SWG (thanks, LucasArts).

          Notwithstanding my devotion (obsession?) to mmo gaming, I am quite spendy in cash shops. EQ2 prestige housing was my downfall. But I stick to fluff. I was not happy to see LotRO sell stat tomes and if they are selling epic weapons, that makes me even more sorry. I was not happy to see EQ2 start to sell rez potions, but I always play a cleric, so there is that.

          I have never heard of Atlantica Online and while I have heard of Allods, I have never played it. I had some vague idea Allods might be one of the games you were referring to, so thanks for the confirmation.

  5. bhagpuss says:

    A lot of MMOs don’t fit into those models very neatly. Most “Western” MMOs use some kind of Freemium model that incorporates subs and cash shops, for a start.

    Whether F2P works in favor of the player depends very much on what the player wants from it. I like to sample a lot of MMOs because comparing and contrasting how they work is near the top of my list of reasons for playing them in the first place. Also, even in MMOs that I stick with for long periods of time, I prefer low-level gameplay to high level.

    Consequently the move to F2P both opens up a much wider range of MMOs for me to investigate, and allows me to go on playing the the part I like best for free. It would only be at higher levels that I might need to start paying (although in practice I spend virtually nothing even in the Freemium games that I do play at mid/high levels).

    If you want an experience comparable to what you would have had in the pure subscription market of 1997- 2007 (aprox) then it will certainly become increasingly hard to find. I don’t. I like what I’m being offered now more.

    In the end, though, I still believe it will be horses for courses. Subscription MMOs will continue to exist and the good ones will last. The main thing, as you imply, is for developers to know who their market is and balance their costs accordingly.

    • SynCaine says:

      So, you are happy that so much of EQ2s attention is in creating a weekly pair of wings? (serious question, as I know you enjoy EQ2)

      • Aerynne says:

        To be fair, SOE has continued to churn out new content for EQ2 beyond the marketplace, though not at a Riftian pace. You raise a valid point, however, and I would be lying if I did not admit that my carpenter is a bit irritated everytime SOE releases a new furniture pack that looks far better than anything I can make in game. Sadly, that does not stop me from buying it.

  6. Jason Mitchell says:

    To the question of what F2P game gets it right, I’d have to say World of Tanks. I started playing it after it had already been out for 6 months but I had friends playing it. I was able to spend money faster and also buy a higher tier tank that both allowed me to play with them and earn xp / cash faster. Which in turn allowed me to unlock other tanks and play the game with other styles. The nice thing is that you don’t HAVE to spend money until the top 1-2 tiers of tanks (they can lose you money if you have a bad battle). To make up for this you have a monthly subscription premium account which I gladly pay. It’s a fun game and Clan Wars allows the hardcore gamers a RAID-like environment where they spend money on enhanced bullets

    • Sylow says:

      WoT doing it right? Lemme see, Gold Ammo, Gold Tanks? Nope, not doing it right in my book. These things are almost as bad as my personal worst example: Shayja. End content there also is all PvP, and the cash shop sells buffs on your damage, hit rate, parry chance, health, armour, etc. Now imagine how a “regular” player fares against somebody who has all stats boosted by 10%. (Adding up all modifiers, from a mathematical point of view a player was able to power himself up to over the performance of two non-augmented players. )

      While i personally haven’t played WoT, i’ve read where somebody (would have to look for the blog, was some months ago) tested regular ammo vs. gold ammo in game. The difference was huge.

      My current personal example of “doing it right” would be STO. (Star Trek Online) Most stuff you can buy at the shops is convenience (bank space, inventory slots, etc) or decorational. (Uniforms of different series, other spaceship appearance, new bridge appearance, etc. )

      There are a few ships which offer tiny advantages, to the best ships available to non-paying players, but most of those feats are of “gadget” nature, i know enough players who spend money on the game but don’t use their bought “top tier” ships, since the “free” ships actually beat them for their purpose. (Or refit the “top” ships, removing the gadgets, to make them perform like the free ships, while only keeping the “cooler” appearance. )

      Though, i dare to limit my statement to “currently”. Lately some new ships were added and more are supposed to come. Those added up to now “only” bring new features to Federation side, which you were able to get for free when playing on Klingon side. (If you want to fly a carrier, play Klingon or pay some money. Formerly playing Klingon was the only option. ) So while the signs are not clearly on the wall yet, it’s very much possible that the next ships will be “more special” and actual power will be available in the shop at some time.

  7. So what you are saying is that the perfect financing model for encouraging good content is subscription based while milking super fans with a limited item shop that provides non-power based sparkly ponies?

  8. I’m curious what role a good Community Management team plays into this. Theoretically you could have people are a very vocal about the game and post to forums regularly, but who don’t purchase anything. Granted, I recall reading that forum posters are 5% or less than your total population. And if someone is a regular forum poster, they’re probably invested enough in the game to also be someone who regularly purchases things in the cash shop.

    But…I would think that a good CM team would help to dilute a little of the power of the whales.

  9. Maineiac says:

    Maybe I am just a bitter vet but I wonder how these “p2w” games are even enjoyable to people? The point of the game is to PLAY the game! Doesn’t paying real cash to skip the content defeat the purpose of playing?

    • spinkss says:

      My guess is that there are two main types of whales:

      1. hardcore players for whom making good use of the cash shop and paying more RL cash is part of the minmax metagame (like people who have multiple accounts etc)

      2. players who like the ‘status’ of being accomplished in MMOs but without putting in the time/ social networking/ skill building.

    • Z.T. says:

      I’d read the post about gold buying from a few years ago on this blog. It got a lot of angry comments and a few of them spell out the motivations for you. It’s not specifically about P2W games, but the base subject is the same: paying to advance.

      http://syncaine.com/2010/03/12/buying-gold-makes-you-a-bad-person-sorry/

    • Azuriel says:

      The point of the game is to PLAY the game!

      Just so. And yet one must often perform all sorts of tedious activities before one can play the game – or play the part of the game they actually enjoy.

      Have you ever played the Axis & Allies board game? It is lots of fun, but taking damn near an hour to set up the board is a pain in the ass. Many videogames are set up similarly.

  10. Devore says:

    “Furthermore, in order to KEEP that 5% spending, devs must keep giving them a reason to do so. If the 5% all already have the sword of $25 doom, then you better have the axe of $40 godslaying coming tomorrow, even if that axe drives away scores of the 95%. You never counted, so you leaving is a non-factor.”

    But if the 95% are leaving, that DOES impact the 5%. What use is power, if you cannot exercise it? You need a steady stream of players to reinforce the ranks of the 95%, or give them enough reason to stick around, despite having walls they are not able to climb over. They are the content for the 5%.

    • SynCaine says:

      While this is true, it only matters long-term, and most of these games are not really designed for long-term sustainability (as crazy as that is for an MMO). Also the ‘free’ aspect means people will give it a shot, and most P2W games don’t kick in until after a few weeks or a month.

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