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Captain's Log: The C-Store and the perils of going freemium

Ryan Greene

Welcome to another installment of Captain's Log, in which we explore -- and sometimes complain about -- the uncharted depths of Star Trek Online. This is your captain speaking from behind a rickety card table in a basement somewhere in the murky New Jersey Nebula. Isn't moving the worst?

Last week, we learned a little bit about Daniel Stahl, the brand new executive producer on STO. But not enough to prepare us for the crazy truth bomb with which he torpedoed the official forums. On Sunday, Stahl suggested that he could see STO going free-to-play. Seriously. I had planned to discuss the Cryptic Store this week anyway, and this fits in nicely, given micro-transactions' importance to the free-to-play model.

Would Cryptic Studios' switching STO from subscriptions to an F2P model be a godsend or a hellish nightmare? (Hint: It would wind up somewhere in the middle.)

Dstahl in the house

Sunday dawned like any other day: Sol rising in the east, players fuming in the official forums. A few STO faithful were duking it out over the latest Ask Cryptic, the company's fairly regular Q&A with developers, because someone wasn't happy with a vague answer about upcoming starship models.

The conversation veered off a bit toward the C-Store, which sells in-game items for real-world money, and its place in a subscription-based game. Long story short, Stahl, using his forum handle dstahl, said he "could easily see STO going into a hybrid model similar to what [Lord of the Rings Online] is doing."

Well, damn. See, Turbine surprised just about everyone and his sister's Tribble when it announced plans to switch LotRO to the increasingly popular free-to-play-ish, or "freemium," model. The company had seen much success doing so with Dungeons and Dragons Online, and the folks at Turbine hope to capture lightning in a bottle twice, or something.

So now it's up to us to imagine what life might be like if Cryptic makes the big switch with STO. The best-case scenario is that we all get sparkle ships and the universe makes love, not war. The worst-case scenario is that my DSiXL breaks and I can't play Dragon Quest IX involves the death of STO, and probably of all life on earth.

Surprise! A freemium STO would not be the end of the world. But I submit that it could very likely be awful, and it all comes down to the C-Store mentality.

How much is that Klingon in the window?

Since the launch of STO, the C-Store has offered a variety of in-game goodies for purchase with Cryptic Points. (Cryptic runs a similar C-Store for superhero MMO Champions Online, too.) You buy Cryptic Points in bundles of 500 up to 5,000, at a rate of $1 for 80 points. Players also receive a few points in-game -- my account, for example, has 240 Cryptic Points available.

So what can you buy? Why, a bunch of stuff! As of this writing, the C-Store offers 41 thingies for sale.

  • 9 bridge packs -- Alter the look of your starship's bridge.
  • 9 playable Federation races -- These include Klingons, Ferengi, Caitians and two types of liberated Borg.
  • 8 ship types -- Variations on existing ship models, plus the original U.S.S. Enterprise.
  • 5 costumes -- Dress your officers in specific types of uniforms, such as those in Deep Space Nine and The Original Series. The Wrath of Khan-style uniform pack is free, incidentally.
  • 4 emotes -- Yes, emotes are for sale. For 25 cents, your captain can shout KHAAAAAAN.
  • 3 services -- Extra character slots, respect tokens and the ability to rename your character.
  • 3 others -- Buy a Targ pet, a Tribble pet or the starship prefix "NX" (instead of the usual "NC").

Prices on items vary wildly. The Khan emote, for example, costs 20 points, or 25 cents, while the original Enterprise costs 800 points, or $10. A new addition, the unique Federation Dreadnought Cruiser, commands 2,000 points, or a cool $25.

The C-Store has never been the most popular facet of STO -- even since day one, when Cryptic quietly added Klingons and Ferengis for purchase. And Cryptic has done itself few favors by offering preorder exclusives through the C-Store. So why does the company sell stuff? In the same thread in which he suggested an F2P future for STO, Stahl explained that revenue from the C-Store helps the game's small development team produce more content. While the team isn't forced into micro-transactions, he said that in the long run, they're good for everybody.

Dude, where's my cash?

I have kept my mouth shut about the C-Store until now because, really, I had no strong opinion on the matter. I have had 240 Cryptic Points since launch, and until this week, I expected to have 240 Cryptic Points in 10 years. I am no fan of micro-transactions, and the only one I can recall purchasing was a post-divorce account transfer for one of my favorite World of Warcraft characters.

Beyond that, I have ignored RMT in all its forms. I have nothing against those who buy a sparkle pony, but that just ain't my cup of meat.

Alas, Stahl's hints of going freemium have forced me to think more deeply about the C-Store. And I don't like it. I don't have a problem with most of the content -- the ship variants and costume packs are cool, but most provide no advantages over the free in-game content. And the prices don't necessarily bother me. My misgivings lie in the C-Store's context.

Without spewing vitriol in the comments, let us consider the WoW model. Just as Cryptic does with STO, Blizzard runs the game mainly on subscriptions while offering a handful of purchasable perks on the side. You can buy a cute in-game pet or a soul-scarringly expensive star horse if you wish. But if you don't want to shell out the cash, WoW makes dozens of pets and dozens of mounts readily available, for free.

That is where the comparison to STO breaks down. STO currently offers nine playable Federation races, and nine more for purchase in the C-Store. Players have access to nine ship types when they reach Rear Admiral, and another eight in the C-Store. Do you see what I'm getting at? Unlike Blizzard's store, the offerings from which represent the merest fraction of equivalent content available in-game, Cryptic's store contains fully half of the Federation races, and nearly half of the game's top-tier ships! And don't even get me started on the fact that the folks at Cryptic want you to pay human moneys for emotes.

Put very simply, players have to buy an outrageous proportion of certain content -- half of the races and nearly half of the endgame ships in STO -- on top of the mandatory subscription. So what happens when you remove most subscriptions from the equation?

DDO vs.

Those two games embody the godsend and nightmare possibilities I mentioned earlier.

On the one hand, we have DDO -- the very model, if ever there were one, of how to do freemium right. The cash shop is packed with items, but it doesn't feel intrusive or too important. Maybe that's because you can play the game without it! In my experience, DDO really was free to play, because the vast majority of content was available to me, a non-subscriber, without entering the Turbine Store.

Yes, a few of the classes and races have to be bought if you want them, but only a few. The only item I ever felt pressured to buy was one of those leveling sigils -- except that even they were available as loot in-game. And the beautiful thing is that Turbine removed leveling sigils from DDO months ago, largely because they were too close to being an essential purchase.

On the other hand, we have Allods Online -- the very model of the free-to-play trap. The controversy over the cash shop for gPotato's Russian import has been well documented, so I won't go into too much detail. The game's death penalty alone made the cash shop absolutely integral to progressing through the game, destroying any illusion of being free-to-play. And on top of that, the prices were outrageously steep, so "free" quickly exploded to "expensive as hell."

My two cents ... because that's all I've got left

With all that said, I fear STO gone F2P could easily resemble Allods more than DDO. I'm a firm believer that free-to-play can mean just that if done right, but the folks at Cryptic already seem too reliant on the C-Store for my taste. I hope they would have the good sense to take the route Turbine did with DDO, but it's anyone's guess, really. Stahl's comment definitely worries me. If Cryptic jettisons the subscription model for STO, I'm not sure how freeing that would be.

Then again, it is encouraging that Stahl specifically mentioned Turbine's success with the hybrid model. At least he has his eyes on the company with what seems like a truly winning free-to-play formula. So there's hope, right? Right...?

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