F2P, or more accurately, F2T (free-to-try) is sweeping over our industry like a ravenous zombie horde, sucking brains, wallets, and customer common sense right out the window due to its insane profitability and a glitzy PR assault. Right now, in fact, someone, somewhere in the Funcom offices is no doubt running the numbers on whether or not tacking a cash shop onto Age of Conan makes financial sense. They may even be contemplating pulling a Turbine and going completely F2T. I mean, how could they not be considering it? With subscription-based games dropping like flies, it's only a matter of time before every game on the market is engaging in Sony-style double dipping (yes Cryptic and now Icarus do it too, but frankly the alliteration just wasn't there).
Hit the jump to learn why F2T isn't as great as you think.
So why does F2T suck for customers, and why do I loathe its possible future in Age of Conan? Well first we'll have to define the term 'customer.' For my purposes, a customer is a gamer who wants as much content for as little money as he/she can possibly spend. When you're talking about MMORPGs, that used to mean anywhere from $9.99 to $14.99 per month, and those rates got you everything in the game (provided you jumped through the requisite gameplay hoops). It didn't get you account services, and I don't consider them (or games that offer them, like AoC, EVE, and others) microtransaction-based.
Anyway, back to customers. Here's a dirty little secret that I learned over several years of consulting and running a small business (actually it's not so much a secret as it is common sense, which I also learned relatively few people possess when it comes to money matters). Smart customers love flat rate services. It saves them money in the long run, it gives them peace of mind and a feeling of security because they know exactly how much they're paying within a certain time frame, and it eliminates the need for them to keep detailed records of every little transaction.
Let me say that again for effect: smart customers love flat rate services.
Greed... greed is good
Conversely, businesses generally do not love flat rate services, because of the aforementioned money-saving that happens for customers over the long term. This dynamic is the reason that every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the MMO industry is desperately trying to find a way to develop (or convert) his game to support the F2T model. It's not solely because they want more potential customers, though that's a happy side effect. It's not because the companies want to give you the customer more value for your entertainment dollar, though that's what they hire PR people to tell you. In fact, it's the exact opposite. They want to move away from all-you-can-eat existing customers, because they're simply not as profitable as a la carte potential customers. Microtransactions are designed to be impulse buys, and the more budget-oblivious people that can be sucked into $1.99 here or $4.99 there, the better for Joe Gamemaker. From an industry standpoint, it makes total sense, but from a customer standpoint, it really makes very little, and that makes all the high-fiving about Lord of the Rings Online's recent announcement sadly amusing from my perspective.
To further explain, I'm not one of those die-hards screaming about "pay to win." I'm also not opposed to companies making as much money as possible. I am, however, against ignorance, and I see a lot of it going around in regard to this pricing-model fad. And make no mistake, it is a fad, and eventually people will realize that getting nickle and dimed to death isn't the way to go, at which point things will gradually swing back towards the sub model.
You know how I know this? Quite simply it's because flat rates provide a better customer value over time. Game companies know it too, which is why they're desperate to move away from them before people figure that out. Oh, sorry, you didn't actually think this bubbly F2T bandwagon was actually designed with consumers in mind did you? Yeah, the thing is there's never been a more consumer-friendly form of entertainment than traditional sub-based MMORPGs. I mean really, unlimited access to thousands of hours of content, any time you want, for $15.00 a month? That's a no-brainer, and while gaming executives used to salivate over the fact that nerds would gladly pay them recurring fees to keep servers running, they now salivate over the fact that people will gladly pay them to access content that they would've already had access to under a flat fee (i.e. the sparkle pony and other assets that take approximately zero man-hours to create, package, and sell).
Ignorance, bliss, and ballpark hotdogs
$15.00 is almost nothing, and MMO companies know this. The sub model is such an insanely good deal that I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has.
And yeah, I know there are just billions of you out there who will play LotRO completely free of charge, forever, resisting all the bright shinies continually batting their eyelashes at you from the smoke-filled window of yonder cash shop. Sure you will.
MMORPGs are literally entertainment for the unwashed masses, because, using the sub model, there is simply nothing cheaper. Think about it. $15.00. For unlimited access (prior to F2T). To unlimited content (prior to F2T). What does $15.00 buy you at the movies? Maybe two tickets. The ballpark? Maybe a couple dogs and a brewski. A cheap restauarant? Maybe two meals. The gas pump? Maybe five gallons of regular, or under a quarter of a tank for most people. The point is, $15.00 is almost nothing, and MMO companies know this. The sub model is such an insanely good deal that I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has.
What to do?
Sadly, F2T seems to be the only "innovation" this industry can get behind lately. Executives, and I guess developers, expend a lot of time and effort planning cash shops and item catalogs instead of fleshing out content, designing expansions, or working on sequels. The worst offenders, and I hope Funcom doesn't swing this way, are the double-dippers. While it's obvious that I don't like microtransactions at all, I like microtransactions on top of a subscription fee even less. And yeah, I've heard the tired defense of "they're just cosmetic items, don't buy them if you don't want to." Guess what, that doesn't jibe with my completionist sensibilities. I love to collect, accumulate, and explore, and if I'm paying monthly, I expect all content to be available to me at that price. So pick a model, Captain Greedy Pants, sub or cash shop, but not both. Furthermore, I don't even mind subsidizing this new brand of greed via my subscription. If some company wants to jack up the monthly price instead of adding an item shop, I'll gladly pay a premium because it will still be a better value than pay-as-you-go.
At the end of the day, that's really my only solution to this problem (if we can actually call anything relating to gaming "a problem" and maintain a straight face). The RMT model is reaching its zenith, and the only thing for people like me to do is ride it out and wait for the inevitable swing back to normalcy. In the meantime, please Funcom, if you're listening, and you absolutely have to toss in a cash shop, at least also toss in a premium sub fee that allows access to everything in it (as well as the rest of the game). I don't care if it's $19.99 or $29.99, I'll pay it. Just don't take away my ability to a) be a completionist and b) enter one line item in my monthly budget. If you do, all I'll have left is this damn concept art.
Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via email@example.com.