It's been nearly four months since the devs rolled out the freemium Unchained patch, and that's ample time for me to have formed a few opinions (and to have revised a few others). Join me after the cut for some discussion on what works, what doesn't, and what I hope to see going forward.
Funcom issued a press release touting the fact that its playerbase had grown by some 300,000 warm bodies (and its monthly revenue had doubled). Those are impressive figures when you're one of a thousand fantasy MMOs, to be sure, but I wondered at the time how many of those 300,000 folks were spending money. More importantly from a player perspective, I also wondered how long they would stick around.
Happily, the population spike seems to be somewhat stable, if not trending upward at this point. Free-to-play is great for curiosity seekers, and there's probably an endless supply of gamers who are at least intrigued enough by Age of Conan to log in and give it a whirl. I base this entirely unscientific claim on nothing more than my personal experience. It's very easy to get groups now compared to the pre-Unchained days, and the LFG, NPH (new player help) and global chat channels are constantly in use no matter what time of the day I happen to be playing.
That said, AoC's F2P implementation remains a tough sell when I pitch it to most of my gaming friends. To be honest, a year and a half of soloing is quite enough, and I'm anxious to fall in with a consistent gaming group that's taking a serious stab at AoC's endgame. Before I go all mercenary and fire off a few random guild apps, though, I thought I'd try to convince some folks I know to throw in with me. Almost to a man, the response has been, "Yeah, fun game, but that F2P model sucks."
Now, most of these folks are hardcore gamers, and more than a couple of them try every MMO that comes out (and most have disposable income), so the issues aren't as simple as no time or no money. It's more the perception of getting a good deal that conspires against AoC, and it's here where I think Funcom has dropped the ball a little bit.
On the one hand, clearly Unchained is more of a trial than it is a freemium game. When you compare the service matrix, the store prices, and the intangibles with Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online model, for example, Middle-earth is the clear winner when it comes to value for the player. I toyed with doing an extensive comparison list here, but ultimately the numbers are tangential to my point. That point is that Funcom's model requires you to sub to see the full game, whereas Turbine has given people the option of well and truly playing for free (if you want to play long enough).
Initially I was OK with this. I mean, it's only fair, right? If you want to use someone's services, well, you should pay up. Not only that, but how successful can a company really be if a large portion of its userbase is freeloading? The problem with AoC's model is that it is quite obviously cheaper to go ahead and sub than it is pay as you go. And the more I think about that, the less sense it makes from a consumer perspective (and particularly a game-hopping consumer perspective, which the F2P model fosters).
Funcom is essentially saying that you can sub and make AoC your main MMORPG or you can dork around with its trial and forego the deeper social experiences that come from diving headlong into an MMO. The gold limits, the alternate advancement limits, and the dungeon content limits all conspire to drive gamers toward the sub, and for folks like my buddies who have no shortage of games already, it becomes ever easier to cross AoC off their lists.
Rather than segregate content in terms of subbers and F2P folk, it seems like AoC would do a lot better for itself if it were to relax the costly per-character cash shop items and the dungeon paywalls in favor of lots of fluff (priced low enough to be an impulse buy).
When you get right down to it, I think I've changed my mind on Funcom's free-to-play AoC offerings. Initially I was OK with subscription folks being premium players and the F2P crowd being essentially second-class citizens. Now, though, it seems like the game and its population would benefit if it were to monetize convenience instead of content. I'm still not a fan of F2P in general, but if you're going to do it, it's probably better to actually do it than to do it half-assed.