The Think Tank: Founder packs, exploitation, and choices

Think Tank
Free-to-play MMOs have learned at least one key lesson from crowdfunding: Some people will shell out huge amounts of money for pixels, far more than we've traditionally paid for industry-standard preorders and collectors editions. Most recently, Landmark, ArcheAge, Trove, and Transformers Universe have come under fire for offering pricey "founder packs" that provide a range of early access benefits, some of them significant, for what are otherwise F2P games.

I polled the Massively writers for their take on this trend. Is it exploitative or just the reality of modern MMO funding?

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist
@ceruleangrey: It depends on the game, what's being offered, and most importantly for me, how the developers approach it. A lot of games seem to be rushing to get in on a weird mixture of pre-order bonuses, collector editions, and Kickstarter funding tiers, so I'm much less put off when a studio is clear about wanting to give people who have straight-up purchased their game preference for beta access. When a game is F2P, the publisher can basically put whatever price point it wants on beta access and a handful of virtual trinkets.

On Kickstarter, everyone is aware up front that companies or individuals are asking for funding and the bonuses are perks to say thanks. We should at least be expecting MMO developers and publishers to follow the same structure and explain how the extra funding is going to improve the game. If it's not going directly to the improvement of the game, then using the Kickstarter format to imply that founders are getting perks for "helping" is kind of slimy.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief
@nbrianna: I think the trend is unsettling and definitely exploitative, though I don't think studios should be barred from offering such packs or that players should be shunned for buying them. The market will sort itself out eventually. I do think many founder pack bonuses further devalue the concept of game testing, make a mockery of the term free-to-play, and effectively charge high fees for potentially unbalancing head-start perks like name and land claims. But that's sadly not unique to this trend. The whole situation is just distasteful, and for my part, I don't participate. I don't want to let my impatience to play good games impair my judgment or my budget, and I see little wisdom in paying a lot upfront for a game in a genre where new games have so little staying power.

Eliot Lefebvre, Senior Contributing Editor
@Eliot_Lefebvre: Do I think it's acceptable? Obviously, it's working; companies wouldn't keep offering these packages if they didn't sell. But it winds up evening out to being a way of getting the spoke of box sales you'd see at launch, only earlier in the development cycle. That is unsettling because while it hasn't happened yet, there will come a day when a game will sell you beta access but never actually step out of its beta.

Do I buy them? Nah. I'm frequently tempted, but as much as I'm looking forward to transforming and rolling out (and possibly wrecking and/or ruling), I'm not dropping $450 on Transformers Universe. I can buy a lot of actual games with that money instead of test access to a conceptual game.

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor
@jefreahard: If I can borrow the OP's wording, I think it's both exploitative and the reality of MMO funding now. This is a bloated industry that spends its creative energy on monetization schemes rather than gameplay and feature advancements. These founder's packs and their up-trending prices are a direct result of free-to-play, really, so congratulations everyone!

I'm guilty too, since I gave 100 bucks to SOE for an alpha that I don't play and 100 bucks to CIG for a space sim that's several years from completion. I regret the former, and while I can't say I regret the latter as of yet, I'm done spending that kind of money on pixels when there are more tangible and rewarding hobbies.

I expected ArcheAge founder packs to test my resolve given how long I've been following the game, but it ended up being pretty easy to pass.

Justin Olivetti, Senior Contributing Editor
@Sypster: Generally, it's a balance for studios to see what they can get away with charging for and what the players are willing to pay. Gamers are impatient, and charging for early access, alpha access, and beta access preys on that impatience. I don't think it's ruining anything, but it definitely feels a little seedy. I have paid for pre-orders that included earlier access, but really the only thing that matters to me is the head-start to the live game.

Larry Everett, Columnist
@Shaddoe: I can accept a paid beta from an indie company. The funds are extremely short for most of them anyway, and I don't expect the developers not to eat for the years they are building an MMO. But triple-A studios doing it makes my skin crawl. I tried out Landmark just to see what something like that would be like, but I don't expect to ever do it again.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor
@MJ_Guthrie: In the case of Landmark, I didn't mind because the idea was to be a real part of the development of the ultimate sandbox game. I have not regretted that purchase at all and feel that SOE has truly been living up to its end of the bargain; players are seriously influencing development. Additionally, I have been playing for literally months thanks to my founders pack!

However, I am not so keen on the fact of ridiculously priced founders packs on F2P games that just give you a couple gifts and a few days early access. For something like ArcheAge -- although I really would like the special goodies -- the price is just totally unreasonable. Would I buy a more reasonably priced founders pack in the same way that I'd buy a collectors edition? Yes, although I think collector's editions are getting unreasonable as well! But that's not the case. If the cost were, say, the equivalent of two months of subs and I could get in a few days early and enjoy a few virtual trinkets, I'd totally do that. With a much more hefty price, you'd better be offering massive perks like your own server, months and months of play, the chance to directly impact the game, and awesome goodies -- all without making founders the supreme gods in a pay-to-win fiasco.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.

This article was originally published on Massively.