Lost Continent: ArcheAge needs a business model, too

ArcheAge - Lost Continent map header
Massively's Eliot Lefebvre recently speculated on what WildStar's business model might look like, and even if you're not a huge fan of the upcoming sci-fantasy opus, it's worth a read. It's also a column topic worth stealing, and I'm going to do just that this week and apply it to ArcheAge.

Like WildStar, ArcheAge is largely an enigma when it comes to its western business model. Unlike Carbine, though, Trion Worlds -- AA's western publisher -- has plenty of experience with all three of the major MMO models currently in use.

ArcheAge - Burning castleA f2p sandbox?
First off, it's worth discussing ArcheAge's game mechanics here, at least in simplistic terms. XLGAMES has designed an MMO that straddles the divide between themepark and sandbox, though based on my Korean closed beta experiences and my extensive ArcheAge-related reading over the past couple of years, I'd say it's more of what western MMO players call a sandbox.

This is important in a business model discussion because there's a school of thought out there that says that certain monetization models simply will not work for sandbox games. Sandboxes, and even sandparks like ArcheAge, rely heavily on player interaction to function. These are generally not solo-friendly games even though they may feature soloable content, and so any progression-related advantages available via cash shop products have more of an affect on these group-centric emergent worlds than they do on linear solo-centric designs.

This is one reason why most of the major sandboxes tend to stick with the old-school subscription model. Your Darkfalls, your EVE Onlines, and various and sundry Kickstarter sandboxes all realize that keeping players on relatively even ground is paramount to the success of a player-driven world that isn't heavily instanced and/or scripted. I don't want to get bogged down defining pay-to-win in today's column, but it is important to realize that a) it exists, and b) it's pure poison for the growth of a sandbox MMO.

ArcheAge boat dock
Why? Because the entire point of sandboxes is to turn players loose and let them make their mark on the world. In a typical themepark MMO, where everyone is trending along at various points on the same progression curve, there's no consequence for player A getting to max level or getting XYZ gear a week ahead of player B, so "convenience" items like XP accelerants and the like aren't unbalancing.

In a sandbox, where you're usually talking about PvP -- and whether it's combat-focused or meta/market-based doesn't matter; it's still PvP -- the element of competition is one of the primary draws. Players want to shape the world, build their castle, and tear down their enemy's castle, so selling a hurry-up-and-get-stronger-faster-or-richer potion in ye olde cash shop is of course going to destroy balance and immersion to varying extents.

Let me be blunt: No one cares when or how you get to level 55 in Star Wars: The Old Republic because you can't use your level 55 character to affect the game world or other player characters in any way. In ArcheAge, building a powerful high level character quickly will give you a definite advantage in many aspects of ongoing sandbox gameplay.

But Jef, ArcheAge is going F2P in Korea next month, isn't it? And there's a 99.99 percent chance that it's going to be F2P with a cash shop in the west, right?

Well, yes. But the good news is that F2P and cash shops can work in sandboxes, provided they are built entirely on cosmetic or account services upgrades. Will Trion go that route? It's hard to say, but we can get some idea of the company's monetization strategy by examining the three examples I mentioned in the intro.

ArcheAge - fishing village stilt housesLost Continent 26
This is the simplest and, in my opinion, the most desirable business model for ArcheAge. It's also the least likely to happen because western gamers have a severe case of why-should-I-pay-for-what-I-consume-itis.

It's unfortunate on many levels, but that's the world we live in at this point. Trion held onto RIFT's sub-only model for longer than I suspected it would, and frankly the first thing I thought when the company announced RIFT's F2P conversion recently was, "Well, there goes any chance of AA being a sub game."

Lost Continent 26
B2P is the newest kid on the payment model block, even though it's been around in the MMO space since Guild Wars launched in 2005. Only recently, though, with the launch of Guild Wars 2, Trion's Defiance, and the post-launch sub-to-B2P conversion of The Secret World, have MMO players started to really see it as a viable option.

I think it's unlikely that Trion will go with B2P for ArcheAge if only because it will limit early adopters much as we saw with Defiance. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but I have dozens of gamer acquaintances who steered clear of Defiance due to its $60 launch price, even though they knew it was playable sans a sub fee after the initial buy-in.

ArcheAge has been in development since 2006, and it has incredibly high production values which don't come cheaply, so it's my feeling that Trion and XL will want to pack as many potential spenders into the game's western launch as the servers will comfortably support. This would seem to relegate the B2P model to the back burner.

ArcheAge - Armor standsLost Continent 26
Even though RIFT and ArcheAge are vastly different games, it's possible to look at the former's F2P services matrix and gain a little insight into what Trion may be thinking for the latter.

The firm's marketing-speak is necessarily thick, but once you get through the obligatory anti-pay-to-win rhetoric, it seems that RIFT has taken a page out of the "truly free" book written by TERA, Aion, and Lineage 2. All of the game's content is available at no cost, as opposed to something like EverQuest II or Lord of the Rings Online, where players have to pay for quest packs, zone packs, and expansions. That's terrific, and if AA must go F2P in the west, I'd like to see it ape this particular portion of RIFT's model.

Translating other portions of RIFT's F2P matrix directly to ArcheAge would be problematic, though. Things like bonus experience, mount speed boosts, and currency bonuses are by definition pay-to-win, if by "winning" you mean "having more gear/money/reputation than someone else," or more simply, "getting there first." Again, that doesn't really matter in a themepark where everyone is going through the exact same pre-scripted gameplay motions, but in an open PvP sandbox like ArcheAge where players are actively (re)defining how they want to play the game on a daily basis -- and affecting others' play in the process -- it's a rather huge consideration.

If you're looking for additional data, there's also XLGAMES' Korean F2P model, but given the differences between Korean MMO players and their western counterparts, and given the fact that the Korean offerings are structured around where customers play ArcheAge (public internet cafes vs. their homes), I think it's hard to use that info to speculate on what we might see in America.

Ultimately, I'd like to see Trion do some version of the "truly free" model used in other AAA Asian imports. Aside from the detestable lockboxes, I quite enjoy Aion's business model as well as TERA's, both of which are heavily based on fluff items and account services. I'd also like to see Trion pull a BioWare and make all cash shop items tradeable. SWTOR's cartel packs have their own secondary market on the galactic auction house, and you can buy absolutely everything from cosmetic armor to character rename services for in-game credits.

If we have to have a cash shop, and it's nearly a certainty nowadays, it needs to be completely divorced from gameplay progression, and it also needs to serve -- or at least refrain from actively harming -- the in-game player-driven economy. Intrusive, gameplay-altering monetization -- and yes, this does include "convenience" items -- will undermine the freeform gameplay and player interdependency that sandboxes exist to facilitate.

Jef Reahard is an ArcheAge early adopter as well as the creator of Massively's Lost Continent column. In it, he chronicles one man's journey through XLGAMES' fantasy sandpark while examining PvE, PvP, roleplay, and beyond. Suggestions welcome at jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.