Hi folks, and welcome back to The Anvil of Crom. First off I'd like to thank Funcom for single-handedly making my writing life absurdly easy for the foreseeable future. The tidal wave of Age of Conan announcements this past week have basically pushed all my carefully laid column plans back about two months.
Which is fantastic.
The only problem is what to talk about first. F2P? The Savage Coast? Various Craig Morrison interviews as well as an obscure quote that's more interesting (and exciting) than the rest of this stuff put together? I guess it only makes sense to get the reaction to Unrated out of the way first, so join me after the cut as I do just that.
preferred fantasy themepark is adopting a hybrid business model. This time around, the announcement wasn't nearly as jarring, and I even encouraged it on more than one occasion.
So what about the good and the bad? Well, it's too early to tell at this point, and we'll likely have this conversation again later in the summer when the service actually becomes a reality. For now, I'm pretty pleased with how it's shaping up, and unless you're one of those folks who feel that the world owes them something, you should be pleased with it too.
I guess I fall into the Funcom defender/fanboy camp on this one. I've got no love for free-to-play from a philosophical perspective, as it's an unfortunate reflection of the entitlement-driven culture we've created for ourselves. That said, I don't fault Funcom for its Unrated plan, not for its existence or for its implementation specifics.
Clearly, the top brass believes that AoC is still a premium game worthy of premium fees, and at the rate the devs are adding content, I'm hard pressed to disagree. The powers that be also see an opportunity to keep the game in the public eye and bring new blood to the pre-80 areas, both of which the title needs. As Craig Morrison explained when I interviewed him earlier this week, Unrated is simply the next step in a long line of business moves designed to maximize profit.
Unrated isn't a DDO-style Hail Mary meant to save a meh-infested game from the gallows. It's also not a love note to economically challenged gamers who can't afford 15 bucks a month. Unrated, much like the Lord of the Rings Online conversion, is a money grab (which is OK, when you get right down to it).
In my opinion, though, AoC wasn't on its last legs prior to this announcement. Despite the wishful thinking of forum trolls everywhere, Funcom actually hired new devs recently and has been pushing quite a bit of new content out the door now that the Dreamworld monkey has been thrown off its back.
So I'm glad all the F2P folks are coming, but I'm not especially glad to see the belly-aching regarding the perceived "unfairness" of Unrated's payment walls.
The majority of the criticism can basically be summed up thusly: It's not free enough for me. Put another way: It's just a free trial.
Of course it's a free trial. As I mentioned above, Funcom sees AoC as a game with its best years ahead of it. I've seen a lot of commenters fling around the phrase "free trial" like it's an affront to their sensibilities or some sort of attack on their God-given right to play AoC on Funcom's dime. A bit of a reality check is in order here: The only reason that AoC Unrated was created was to sell Funcom's services.
Obviously it's a free trial, since the company is in business to make money not to provide folks with complimentary entertainment. The sooner folks realize that, the sooner they'll realize it's actually a pretty good free trial. Good as in the vast majority of the pre-expansion content is playable for free. Good as in one of the best parts of Khitai (the Gateway 20 to 40 zone) is playable for free. Good as in four archetypal classes representing a healthy cross-section of gameplay are all available for free. Good as in all of the classes are playable for free if you've subscribed at any point in the past.
But oh, boohoo, AAs aren't included, which means Unrated newbs won't be winning any PvP fights at level 80 (assuming they even get to level 80 before jumping ship to the next F2P flavor-of-the-month). Leaving aside the fact that Funcom will probably tweak its offerings over time, possibly even to include AAs, here is another opportunity to understand the essence of F2P. F2P is not designed to facilitate your enjoyment of an MMO. F2P, particularly the western AAA variety, is designed to give you enough of a taste to entice you to spend money.
F2P is essentially a tease.
It's pretty easy for armchair game industry gurus to point to LotRO's model as a raging success (and one that Funcom should of course copy verbatim). The reality, though, is that no one outside of Turbine knows how successful it is (of course Turbine says its the greatest thing ever and that it is swimming in money as a result, but do you really think the company would be honest were that not the case?). More important is the obvious fact that Funcom isn't Turbine, and what works for one company doesn't necessarily work for another due to variables that your average forum commenter (and columnist) is quite clueless about.
Consider Funcom's MMO portolio. Anarchy Online has been profitable for over a decade and continues to soldier on. Age of Conan, despite a rocky launch and a drastic second-year gameplay revamp, has been adding devs and content at a rapid pace. The Secret World is one of the more highly anticipated titles coming along in the next few years and is having tons of money thrown at it despite the lack of a pre-existing IP or a built-in fanbase.
So Turbine and Funcom are completely different beasts with completely different assets and expectations, and the bottom line is that AoC exhibits all the behavior of a healthy game (and it's been doing so for some time now). I think that Unrated is less a sign of failure and more of a calculated move to make even more money. If that doesn't sit well with the zomg-how-dare-they-not-give-me-the-entire-game-for free crowd who expected to swoop in and pick at the imagined carcass, well, too bad.
"Customers who don't value your product enough to pay for it aren't the kind of customers you want, and no one in Hyboria is going to miss the folks who are going on about how Unrated isn't fair."
So I'm completely fine with Funcom's Unrated gambit. In fact, it's not much of a gambit at all. The coming F2P influx will be great for loners like yours truly who rely on PUGs to see dungeon content. Other than that, though, it's business as usual. AoC was here long before western devs started jumping on the F2P bandwagon, and it will likely be here long after the craze has run its course.
Now, is there room for improvement across Unrated's current services matrix? Absolutely. Said improvement should be geared toward premium players, though. While I'm on board with those who contend that Funcom should add grindable point rewards to the F2P game like Turbine has done, I'm more interested in the 5% store discount for the people who are bankrolling this entire enterprise -- you know, the subscribers who will be subsidizing all the free folk. I'd like to see a monthly point allotment for these premium members, though Funcom is in no way obligated to do it.
In summary, Funcom isn't the band of idiots that uninformed critics make it out to be, and I'll be surprised if its beancounters don't tweak the Unrated deals to sweeten the pot at some future point. What they shouldn't do, though, is give any more handouts to the people who don't value the game enough to support it. The F2P folks are already getting a great selection of classes and a year's worth of content (maybe more depending on playstyle) for no charge. And instead of saying thank you, some of them are demanding more? Really?
Jef Reahard is an 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.