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The F-Words Of MMOs: Free-To-Play


August 16, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

The Future of F2P

The successful F2P games of the future are going to be successful in the same way the bottled water industry is successful: they're going to operate on the principle of giving opportunities to people who want to spend money rather than trying to corner people into the position where they have to spend money.

What all three models I've described above have in common is that they're all based on extracting revenue on a user-by-user basis. All three look at each user and ask: "how are we going to get this user to spend money?" Most importantly, they all ask how users will spend money for themselves. In the subscription model, each user pays for their own access to the game. In the energy model, each user pays for their own play time. In the convenience model, each user pays for their own convenience.

This is all well and fine when you're selling a single-player game. But all of these games are based on the premise of being multiplayer. They're billed as massively multiplayer.

When the premise is playing with other people, why let your marketing schemes get in the way of people actually playing together? Is there anything worse than having a friend stop paying their subscription, or run out of energy, or fall behind in levels?

Recently, game companies have been taking note of the importance of social relations in player retention. No matter what your model, player retention is important, if only because players are what are paying you for your game.

But even more important is that a multiplayer game needs multiple players to be fun. When too many players quit, the rest consider quitting too. That's why server mergers have become a big ticket issue in trying to stretch out some extra life from MMORPGs that are running out of players.

Imagine that you were running a successful MMORPG, and in your MMORPG there was a guild of 30 people, but the guild master and one other "social glue" player canceled their subscriptions. The worst case scenario is that the guild completely falls apart and the other 28 players cancel their subs too. But, if you gave free subscriptions to the GM and that key other player, they keep playing and the other 28 keep paying. Win?

Not really. First of all, good luck identifying the social glue players in a player base of 10 million. They might not even be the obvious choices like guild leaders, officers, big forum posters, or people with lots of other people on their friends list. They might just be those quiet people in the background who get things done when no one's looking. Pigeon leaders, as my high school physics teacher would say.

[One day, in robotics club, our teacher told us a story about leadership. Imagine someone walks into a park with a bag of breadcrumbs, sits down on a bench, waits a bit for pigeons to show up, then quietly sprinkles the breadcrumbs around. All the pigeons flock to him. Now imagine someone else marches into the park, sees the flock of pigeons, and starts throwing fistfuls of crumbs at them yelling "EAT THIS!" Who do you think is the pigeon leader?]

Another problem with giving the two key people free subscriptions is that it isn't fair. The other 28 would probably demand free subs too. One of the problems with the "fairness" of the subscription model is that it is so fair that it's hard to circumvent that "fairness" even if it would be desirable to do so.

But there's an important lesson to learn here: people often play multiplayer games in order to play them with other people. If your multiplayer game has any barrier of entry, it could end up having collateral damage on these friends of potential players.

Here's another story. I have a League of Legends account, but I almost never (once or twice a month) play on my own. I don't really like the game that much. But I have friends who really like it, and these friends often ask me to play and even though I'm not terribly keen on the game itself, I am pretty keen on playing with my friends, whatever the game. So when they message me with "LoL?" I usually say yes.


League of Legends

League of Legends is interesting because it isn't based on the subscription, energy, or convenience models. In LoL, you don't need to pay a subscription, you don't need to pay in order to play the game, and while there are, technically, convenience items in the Riot store, they're hardly relevant to the gameplay experience.

Actually, convenience might be relevant in LoL because you can also unlock champions with Riot points, but since the free point system, IP, is sufficiently common to even casual players and the 10 free champions each week usually offer plenty of interesting variety, I don't find the game sufficiently "inconvenient" to categorize it as a convenience-model game.

Although Riot refuses to comment on its customers' shopping habits, I suspect that the way LoL primarily makes its money is through the sale of champion skins. Skins are purely aesthetic. Cosmetic. Bonuses. You never ever need to get a skin to play or enjoy or get the most out of the game. But lots of players do like skins -- including the friends I play LoL with. They play with skins, I don't, but that doesn't matter; we can all play together and enjoy the game together, no barriers to entry.

Then, this Christmas, one of those friends got me a LoL gift card.

Maybe it was a bit of a gag gift. We all got a laugh out of it, because I was so staunchly opposed to "wasting money" on skins, but I cashed it and, so far, have bought one single skin for my favorite champion. Go figure.

But here's the real point of the story: Riot sold that gift card because it allowed a player to play for free. More importantly, Riot allowed that player to play for free even though that player refused to ever buy anything from them, and that player would have left the moment the game became unfair for non-paying players. The company made that sale because it was happy to let a freeloader stick around.


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