City of Heroes has entered the realm of free-to-play, though, and that means the expectations of what players are owed has become all kinds of skewed. There's a huge pile of content available to players who haven't paid a cent. What do free players actually deserve in this environment? What do paying players deserve? Where do you draw the line between what should be free for everyone, what should be free for subscribers, and what should just plain cost money?
The problem is that from an economic standpoint, the answer to that question is pretty narrow. All that's technically owed to free players is the ability to log in and play without paying money, hence fulfilling the strictest definition of "free-to-play." Doing so, however, wouldn't actually create an environment where anyone wants to log in or play. So we can at least establish that one point of what's "owed" to free players is the ability to log in and enjoy the game. At the least, the team must provide enough content that there's a reasonable expectation of enjoyment.
Of course, you also want to give people things to pay for. Most cash shops have two different categories of items in them, which I'm going to broadly group into convenience and upgrades. Convenience covers stuff like consumables, experience boosts, teleportation, and so forth. Upgrades, by contrast, are often one-time purchases that make permanent improvements -- in City of Heroes, stuff like First Ward access, Inventions, Archetypes, Powersets, and so on. There has to be some reason for people to drop money in the cash shop because every person who plays the game without paying is essentially just costing the company money.
It's the second category that usually gives people fits. After all, you're a player. The developers owe you something, right? Free players are what keep the game running! Any smart studio would want to give free players more!
The counter-argument, naturally, is that a free player who gets everything and buys nothing is essentially money thrown down a hole. Paid subscribers should be the ones getting things for free -- although they don't get everything for free, either. The introduction of a cash shop almost necessitates that even paying players will have something more to buy. So you wind up with the current state of CoH: Most of the big updates are limited to subscribers (or features that provide most benefit to subscribers), and there's a steady stream of new things in the cash shop for all players.
As frequently happens, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Free players definitely deserve something new to play on a regular basis even if they aren't dropping money in the store on a regular basis, but there does need to be something to convince players to subscribe instead of just coast along for free.
Let's face it: The bare minimum of content is not actually acceptable forever. Sure, someone who has never played CoH before is going to take a while to go through all of the free stuff. But once that happens, if the free side of the game isn't getting regular updates, there's essentially nothing left to draw you into the game. You're left with a game that you have, for all intents and purposes, beaten. Releasing optional buy-in additions such as First Ward doesn't help if there's no indication what a purchaser will be getting for said additions.
However, this isn't really a case in which free players are owed something. This is a case in which giving more free stuff to free players is just good business sense because it keeps players interested. You don't deserve it, given the nebulous sense in which you can deserve anything in this context, but it makes rational sense to keep you interested in the game and more likely to buy things from the store.
At the same time, subscribing players are owed something special. It's tempting to say that everything should be sold piecemeal, but the problem with that philosophy is that there's no longer much reason to subscribe. If you don't buy conveniences (and that's honestly a bit more likely; most players look at convenience items as poor investments, or at least most players who worry about this sort of thing), you can buy all of the piecemeal elements you need and then... never pay again. Spend $150 on piecemeal items and play for a year; you'll have saved $30 over a year's subscription.
Even if you get a whole bunch of stuff for free as a subscriber, you need something unique -- something cool, something you can point to as a special feature reserved for subscription. Currently, I think CoH could be offering a bit more in that department. You get a lot of things for free, but your two "special" traits require you to either be interested in the endgame march or be a subscriber since the dawn of time, which does leave out some loyal subscribers. But that's a topic for another column.
Ultimately, there's always going to be a disconnect between what we feel we're entitled to and what we actually deserve. Paragon Studios does have an obligation to free players, but it's an obligation born out of a desire for happy customers, not out of reciprocation. In the strictest sense, free players aren't owed anything other than what they're getting. Giving more is just good sense to keep everyone from getting bored.
Wild dissension and other opinions are welcome in the comments below or by email to email@example.com. Next time around, I'm going to write an unexpected sequel to last week's column, as I think there's at least one or two things in the comments that bear further examination.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.