Today I'd like to indulge in some speculation regarding a potentially free-to-play Age of Conan. I know, I know, I've talked about this on multiple occasions before, but a recent conversation I had with a buddy (and former AoC subscriber) got me to thinking seriously about the pros and cons.
Hi-Rez Studios' recent announcement of its Global Agenda F2P re-configuration also factored into my choice of column topics this week since I made extensive use of GA as an example last time. Anyhow, hop over the cut and let's chat about it.
Bear Shaman re-roll has taught me (other than the fact that I suck at melee), it's that Age of Conan has a problem with its low- and mid-level player population.
Is AoC "dead?" Hardly.
Is it harder than it should be to get groups? Hell yes.
This isn't as apparent when you spend a lot of time at endgame, grinding away at various level 80 Khitai tasks like I was doing prior to kicking off my CMA miniseries. Even though I'm playing on what is widely thought to be the highest population NA server (Wiccana), it's still challenging to get groups for anything prior to 80.
Endgame is where all the people are, mainly because the 1-80 journey is pretty quick and the game is nearly three years old. Between old world raids, Khitai 6-mans, and level 80 PvP, there's a sense of urgency amongst AoC players to hurry through the progression curve in order to start the real game post-80. It's a shame too, because AoC has some really unique low- and mid-level PvE content. Dungeons like Stygia's Black Castle, Aquilonia's Sanctum of the Burning Souls, and Cimmeria's Cradle of Decay are dripping with fun and atmosphere, and any self-respecting themepark PvE fan should make it a point to run through them at least once.
My problem of late has been finding someone to run through them with. This is where free-to-play comes in, and as much as the something-for-nothing mentality is at odds with my personal worldview, I have to admit that a considered F2P application would likely help AoC far more than it would hurt it. Actually, let me rephrase: It would help AoC's existing playerbase in the short term. Whether or not it would make money for Funcom over the long term is another matter entirely (particularly if all the F2P fans who claim to never spend a penny are being honest).
Regardless, a Hyborian F2P option has a number of more pressing obstacles to overcome, though none of them seems insurmountable. First up is obviously deciding what to charge for and what to give away, and the groundwork for this is already laid. People have been buying extra character slots, transfers, and renames for a while now, and recently Funcom has begun to trickle out consumable item packs in what passes for its cash shop.
I say "passes for" because it's the strangest cash shop I've ever seen (but make no mistake -- it is a cash shop). For one thing, it doesn't exist in the game at all, although the under-the-hood functionality is there. For another, it doesn't exist on the game's public website. To get at it, you have to access your account page by signing in with your user name and password. It's almost like Funcom is acknowledging the need for F2P but is afraid to actually pull the trigger. Of course, it could also be that the devs simply lack the time; despite what disgruntled forumites will tell you, Funcom is working on a decent amount of new content for AoC, with new dungeons forthcoming and of course the whole Blood and Glory thing.
As I said in the previous F2P-centric column, I'm a fan of allowing unlimited access to content and charging people for the privilege of bypassing it (or at least, speeding the process). That initially sounds counter-intuitive, but when you have a game that features exactly one starting area and a definite preferred path for leveling up alts in an efficient manner, it makes sense. New players (or those who simply can't afford to pay) will get the full leveling experience. Those of us who've been through Tortage 20 times and would like to get to some higher-level dungeons in a timely manner could do so via XP booster packs much as in the Global Agenda model.
The pitfalls inherent in this model, from Funcom's perspective, mainly deal with the fact that less money is likely to change hands if you give all-in-one access rather than parceling out paid content. Once someone pays and theoretically unlocks all of AoC's content, will he pay for anything else ever again? He can't pay for cosmetic items because, you know, the game kind of lacks appearance slots (chop chop, devs). Consumables would seem to be the next logical choice, but you run the risk of venturing into the dreaded "pay-to-win" discussion there, with players potentially needing certain potions or items to compete in PvP or other situations, none of which will have a positive effect on the game's word-of-mouth.
Alas, as much as I loved the Hi-Rez Global Agenda model (it's really the only F2P implementation I don't despise, since it avoids turning the game into a LoTRO-style strip mall), it may not be working as well as the Hi-Rez devs would've liked (otherwise what's with all the tweaking and the resultant Free Agent revamp)?
It's hard to speculate as to how a similar application would work on AoC, both because the audience for the two games is vastly different and because Age of Conan has far more traditional MMO content. What's not hard, though, is seeing how barren the pre-80 regions in Age of Conan are becoming. Hopefully Funcom has some business model tricks up its sleeve to remedy the situation, because -- with all due respect to the larger zones and the appealing oriental atmosphere of Khitai -- the old-world AoC content is just as good, if not better (and there's a lot more of it).
Oh, and before I forget, try some of this delicious 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.