Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Freemium Play

One of the advantages of free to play/microtransaction games is that they have a very low barrier to entry. You simply download them and start playing. If you like them, then you might "enhance" your play by purchasing items from a cash shop. It is because of this that many people insist that free to play with microtransactions is the future of MMORPGs.

I have to wonder if it's really the MICROTRANSACTION/Item Shop part that makes these kinds of games appealing? I really don't think so. I think the main attraction is that it's free to download and play the complete game, and IF you like it, you can choose to pay for additional features. If you play for months and then decide that the end game wasn't what you thought it would be, you aren't out any money, if you choose not to pay. That is a greatly appealing prospect.

This could be done in a subscription based game as well. A subscription game could offer the basic game for free and reserve some special features for subscribers. Aside from Anarchy Online, I'm not aware of any major MMO that does, and AO doesn't do it quite how I envision: they open up the original world only, but once you subscribe you can't fall back and become a basic, non-paying user. You also can't add on expansion packs without becoming a subscriber. So while the basic game is free, it ends up being more or less like a rather large "trial" area.

A better model would be to offer the entire game to users for free, and reserve a handful of FEATURES for subscribers. You could still have expansion packs but both free users and subscribers should be able to apply them to their accounts. And subscribers who decide to stop paying would be converted to free users when their subscriptions ended. This would make the game work much like most Internet services, such as Plaxo, and LinkedIn, etc. where the basic features of a complete, working service are all available for free and only a handful of features are reserved for subscribers.

Let's say EverQuest II adopted this business model. The freemium accounts might restrict you to one or two character slots. The characters would lose some of the perks normal characters enjoy, such as Vitality, and maybe they would gain combat XP (or convert combat XP to achievement XP) at half the normal rate. They wouldn't be able to access certain other features, like the recently announced Research Assistants. They would also be unable to /petition or use customer service, since a lot of our subscription fee goes towards funding that. And maybe there would be a limit to the amount of time the player can play the game per month using one of these accounts.

But other than that, they should be able to do and access everything in the game that normal subscribers can. They could level up to the level cap just like subscribers. They could access any zone that subscribers can (assuming they pass the same access restrictions that subscribers have). They could buy an expansion pack, just like subscribers do, and they would have the option to unlock the zones and new content without subscribing (possibly converting the unused free time into Station Cash.) That way they can still access newer content without being forced to commit to shelling out $15 a month.

You would have an influx of people who might not subscribe, and might never subscribe, but they would contribute to the life of the game, making it more enjoyable for subscribers. They would do this by creating a market for additional goods, acting as new players to group with, and breathing new life into the chat channels, cities, and public spaces. Because they would level up slower, they would reintroduce a level of relevance to the low level content that has been lost over time.

The main drawback to this idea would be with gold famers, since they would flock to a free account en masse. But here's an idea that might work: make it so free accounts can't access (note: the key word is access, not earn) more than 1 platinum a day (or some other arbitrary amount). While adventuring, at most 1 platinum (or a variable amount based on character level) goes into their inventory. Any amount that they earn from combat, quests, the broker, or through trade in excess of 1 platinum goes into an escrow account. Every day, at most 1 platinum in that escrow account will be transferred to that character's bank slot.

This means the free accounts can still do anything subscribers can but their ability to amass in game wealth is simply slowed down. This shouldn't negatively impact game play, because these accounts would mostly be used by casual players.

If the free accounts are time limited as well, that would be a further obstacle that would make them unattractive to gold farmers.

While a bunch of farmers can get free accounts and go out and earn 100 platinum, they would only end up with 1 platinum in each of their inventories. It would take 99 days for the rest of that money to trickle into their characters' bank account. That would severely slow down the potential of earning business on those accounts.

Another feature of freemium play that is important: users (players) need to be able to go back and forth between free and subsription accounts at will. Anarchy Online only lets you upconvert but once you start subscribing, you can't stop and still keep playing. You also can't upgrade your account to access any of the expansion packs without subscribing.

It would be better if you just convert accounts (in good standing) that stop paying to a free account; they would lose access to all but the one or two characters that the freemium accounts allow, and so on, but they could still log on and play. The reasoning here is that much of the value of a multiplayer game is the community. If someone no longer has the time to keep playing enough to warrant the subscription fee, having their account converted to a free account means they can still at least pop in once in a while and say "hi" to their guildmates, help out on a raid, and contribute to the life of the game, which makes the game more valuable to those of us who are still paying to play.

Let's take what works about the free to play/microtransaction games: the ability to drop in anytime without commitment, the ability to try the game without the hassle of finding a box on the shelf at Gamestop or pulling out a credit card, the ability to pop in and keep in touch with the friends you've made online even after you've "moved on" to greener MMO pastures. Take that, but apply it to the traditional subscription based business model, without forcing us to deal with all the game impacting microtransactions that almost all Free to Play games (like the current darling of the blogosphere, Runes of Magic) have.

I don't want to pay extra for bag slots (meaning the developers have an incentive to dump all kinds of junk in my bags). I don't want to pay real money to respec my character because the developers don't give me an in game option. I don't want to pay real life money to rent a stupid horse or use my recall spells.

I just want my traditional EverQuest/EQ2 style gameplay, but with an option for a limited (but not a trial) account that could help bring in new players AND bring back old players to breathe some life back into their aging games -- and make the subscription fees that the rest of us are paying more valuable.

Friday, March 13, 2009

RMT in Vanguard

I don't think this will go over well. Sony is introducing RMT on ALL Vanguard servers. It won't be segregated like it is in EverQuest II.

I guess Vanguard is a dying game, so they are trying to eke out a new revenue stream, but I can't imagine how this would help the game grow. Any additional revenue they reap from LiveGamer services would probably be offset by lost subscriptions in a game that is already virtually deserted.

Still, what do I know. The game companies aren't paying ME the big bucks... :)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Expanding Heirlooms

I've been doing some old Heritage quests, mostly for AA, and it kind of bothered me that all these wonderful quests were no longer really useful. People level so fast now that most people aren't going to bother doing them with level appropriate characters. Hell, some of the heritage quests are so long that even if you did do them at the appropriate level, by the time you finish them, the item will be gray. That wasn't the case when the game launched, but is sadly the case now.

This isn't an indictment of increasing the leveling speed. I think that was unavoidable. The alternative was to keep it lengthy, but that makes it harder to attract newer players (who see a vast but entirely empty world since everyone is wherever the newest zone is). It also makes it harder to keep older players since if they tire of their main, they are unlikely to want to level an alt if they know it will be months or years to get back to the level cap where their friends are.

But because of all that, the low level heritage quests rewards go unused. Few people even try the quests until they are trivialized by leveling up, since it's almost impossible to get a full group of people to do them at the appropriate level.

So that's why I wish that the heritage quest rewards would be changed to HEIRLOOM. (For those who don't play EQ2, that is our game's equivalent of Bind-on-Account. It means you can trade the item to another character you own [on the same account] but not to anyone else.) At least, this way, I could trade them to my alts. That's twinking, but I think twinking is fine as long as things don't get too grossly overpowering. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's a part of the progression in a game. You level up, you earn your top gear, and you should have the ability to pass some of that on as an *ahem* heirloom to another character you own to help them level up as well.

Sure, that means people might gray out, and therefore trivialize, zones to twink their alts, but so be it. At least the quest lines would be useful to people as something other than an AA grind and the quest rewards will see the light of day.

Monday, March 2, 2009

WTB: Dad Friendly MMORPG

As a Dad who has little time to game anymore, I have been finding myself spending less time in my favorite hobby. Granted, family life is far more important than all the virtual accomplishments in every imaginary world put together, but I'd like the think it's possible to design a game that's Dad (and Mom) friendly that would still be attractive to younger players who still have all the time in the world.

These are a few of the features I'd like to see in a future MMORPG.

1) Henchmen -- It is good for a game to encourage grouping, but it's even better to give us alternatives. I want a game that allows casual players to play without grouping when they desire. These don't need to be mutually exclusive goals. Guild Wars style henchmen are great because they allow solo players to tackle almost all of the missions in game, but they are nowhere near as effective as fellow human players. Therefore, we have an incentive to group when we have time, and a way to play the game when we don't.

Henchmen are a superior alternative to soloable mobs because solo mobs are generally too easy. Since the mob has to be designed so weak that a priest with little damage output can kill it, with damage output that a wizard can handle, and because when fighting a single player, positionals and tanking aren't utilized, solo players don't learn their class roles, and don't take on a challenge. What I would prefer to see is for solo (and small group) players to take on the SAME content that groups do, using NPCs to flesh out the needed class roles. That way, even if we are playing alone, we are still playing our class role, and the encounters can be designed so that you have to use certain skills to defeat them; if that skill (such as a charm, snare, etc.) isn't available to the player, they can hire henchmen who have it.

2) Open Grouping -- This is probably the best feature in Warhammer Online. Allow people to group with other players, and take advantage of the multiplayer nature of the gameplay, WITHOUT forcing us to sit around all day screaming LFM for specific roles and levels and gear checks.

3) Pause Button For Solo Instances -- YES! I want to pause the freaking world. Not the main world where everyone else is, obviously that wouldn't work, but if I'm in an instance all by myself, why NOT have the ability to temporarily pause the action? Of course, chat channels, and all the other multiplayer activity would still go on, but I should be able to stop those pathing mobs from wandering for a moment while I take care of the baby, or take a bio break, or answer the phone.

While you couldn't pause any shared world zone where you play with other players, the ability to do so in solo instances (which is where most time constrained players would be) would add greatly to the game's accessibility without making it any less immersive or ruining the gameplay for other players (other accessibility options like the ability to become temporarily immune or logging off quickly without a countdown timer, could be abused to trivialize the game, or to grief players on PVP servers.)

4) Persistent Instances -- I love how you can log off for the night in many EverQuest II zones and come back the next day to finish the instance. All the dead mobs stay dead, all the triggers stay triggered. Let's make that more commonplace in the genre!

5) Real Time Advancement -- Eve Online does this, and while of course the most hardcore players will still dominate, the real time advancement can help keep the gap somewhat narrower so casual/time-constrained players can still make decent contributions in the game.

6) Turn-Based Mini-Games -- Instead of crafting like in EverQuest II where you actively have to spam buttons to ensure a good result, have turn based mini-games that are more like card games. I want gameplay that is challenging but still possible to complete when I'm summoned away by a crying baby.