After over seven years as a traditional superhero-themed subscription MMORPG, City of Heroes will transition to a free-to-play model later this year, publisher Paragon Studios announced today.
City of Heroes Freedom, as the initiative is being called, is much more than just an extension of the current 14-day free trial offered to new subscribers, the company says.
In fact, the team at Paragon has been working for about a year to figure out the best way to make the transition in a way that "improves the overall customer experience," executive producer Brian Clayton told Gamasutra. "Frankly, if the customer experience isn't substantially better than it is today, I don't think there's much of a reason to make the change."
Clayton said the company is falling back on seven years worth of MMO content created for the subscription game to provide a robust experience for free players. Roughly 80 percent of what's available today to paid subscribers today will be part of the free game after the transition, he said, with free players able to create two characters from among eight archetypes and take them all the way to level 50 using over 100 power sets.
"It's easy for us to make a majority of [our existing] content freely available to free players and reserve a large percentage for for our VIP customers and have both be compelling in their own way," Clayton said. "For some of these other MMOs that are only 2 to 3 years in, I feel like a number of them may be just they might just be flipping a switch to change up the business model."
While free players will be able to purchase some specialty items a la carte, Paragon hopes to eventually entice them to purchase an optional monthly VIP subscription. which will earn them a monthly stipend of in-game currency, as well as access to exclusive rewards such as powers, costumes, and in-game features unavailable to the free players.
VIP players will also be the only ones that can access difficult late-game Incarnate trials and signature story arcs -- monthly sets of missions that let you team up with signature characters in "epic story moments" that have "major repercussions" for the game universe, Clayton said.
Improving The New Player Experience
Freedom will launch alongside a number of client-side improvements designed to make the City of Heroes experience as inviting as possible to new players, now that the monthly fee barrier has been lowered, Clayton said. These include a streamlined store, in-client user registration, and a new tiered download system that lets players fiddle with the character creator and tutorial while the rest of the game content loads. "Within five minutes of clicking that button saying, 'Hey, I want to play,' players will be in there able to check out the costume creation system," Clayton said.
That tutorial will also be revamped as a set of new co-operative lessons that teaches players through actions rather than "walls of text," Clayton said. While the old tutorial simply threw seven years worth of content at new players all at once, that education will now be spread out across the first 20 or so levels of the game.
"The old strategy - and I think a lot of MMOs still fall into this strategy - was to squeeze everything into the first 15 minutes of gameplay," he said. "I think that first and foremost we're trying to put an experience in place where new players and perhaps more casual MMO customers can grok what the game is without being overwhelmed with all the depth that there is."
Keeping Old Players Happy
Before the free-to-play transition, current, paid subscribers will begin earning loyalty points that can be used for special items and abilities in the new game, Clayton said. Once the transition takes place, those paid subscriptions will become VIP subscriptions automatically, and players won't lose any of the items or characters they've built up in the past.
Those longtime players could well be worried that a horde of free-to-play newcomers will ruin the community they've built over the years, though. But Clayton said Paragon has taken pains to make sure that doesn't happen by locking free players out of features such as global chat, in-game mail and forum use. Subscribers will also be able to hang out in VIP-only servers if they want to stay away from the free-to-play riff-raff.
"We really want to keep the experience premier for our VIP players," Clayton said. "Certainly we've seen in some of our hybrid business models that our free players have sort of had the run of the place. ... Once [players] make a commitment to subscribe or purchase some things from the store, there's a much better chance they're a gamer that wants to really enjoy City of Heroes and not some gold spammer or griefer."
"It's Still A Subscription-based Business Model"
Even though going free-to-play might seem like a radical change for one of the longest-running current MMOs out there, Clayton emphasized that the move is being made from a position of strength for the company. While he wouldn't discuss precise subscription numbers, he did say City of Heroes had "as far as I know, the highest player retention in the industry."
Rather than saving a faltering subscription model, Clayton said, Freedom is aimed at growing the game's customer base by lowering barriers to entry that may have prevented people from joining in the past.
"I think it's very difficult for other types of entertainment to compete with the persistence and the compelling offerings of an MMO," Clayton said. "But I think people are daunted they need to purchase a box, and then there's monthly fee, and then how do they find their friends, and all those sorts of things, and where do they get the product?"
"At end of day it's still a subscription based business model but it's a new opportunity to allow more people to try before they buy, and really have a full compelling experience before fully investing in the uber-VIP experience," he continued.