Syncaine Challenge

Why not, I’m game. Let’s argue what a successful F2P MMO brings to gamers that a subscription will not. 

Honestly, there’s just one answer. The actual game being available.  I think this echo’s Brian’s position.  Let’s break it down though, into chunks that are debateable.

One. There is a finite amount of players willing to spend $15 (or whatever amount) dollars a month on a game.  There are many more who will pay less and a few that will pay more. 

Two. That same finite group will, on average, stick to one sub game at a time. There are exceptions. 

Three. A game needs funding for production, marketing, launch and steady state. This is either through venture capital, crowdfunding, cash stops or subscriptions. The wall of finance to get a game out today is higher than 10 years ago.  Chris Roberts is an outlier.  There are dozens of MMOs on kickstarter that haven’t reached their goal.

Four. The compete with status quo, you have to be as good or better. To beat Wow you need the content and the systems and the social. The first and last are not likely possible with any existing budgets.  The middle one, system design, takes a level of talent that is rare, regardless of funding model.

Five. You need ways for players who want to pay more, to give more. Sub games have incentives/cash stops. F2P games are built on this model.

Six. Market share is never equal. There are 1-3 big guys that have 75% of the pie and everyone else gets a small piece. You cannot gain massive market share at launch, this takes time and word of mouth. 

Seven. You need in-game metrics to target your development to your baseline and revenue streams. If you sold your game as a PvP game and your stats say everyone plays PvE, then you have some serious design problems.  F2P metrics are much more obvious.

Eight. Players have a vested interest in their money. If they have spent $60 in a game and put in dozens of hours and have a social structure, they are extremely unlikely to leave that behind. The “grass is greener” until you’re on that lawn. 

Nine.  Players in all games cannot be entertained forever.  They will wander.  They will wander even more when there’s not price at the door.  If they like what they see, then maybe they’ll stick around. 

Ten. Commitment.  MMO gamers from 10 years ago grew up.  They have jobs and family and other commitments.  20 year olds today do not have the same mentality to gaming we had, since they have way more selection.  It isn’t that $15 is a lot, it’s that you’re vouching that you’re going to get bang for your buck.  F2P let’s you dictate when you’re going to pay and play.


I could probably list another 20 that are related but those cover the basics. The main point is that there are very few MMO players willing to give up what they have for new grounds, at a cost.  This means that the possible playerbase for any new game is significantly smaller than launch projections would suggest. So either you support a launch of 2 million people and know you can only keep 200K, or you find an alternative.  Plus, you need to manage the ghost town after launch – regardless of the business model.

For straight out benefits between F2P and subs, it’s all in the implementation. F2P gives me choice and makes me an empowered consumer. My wallet dictates game development. Are there crappy F2P models?  Heck yes.  Just like there are crappy subscriptions.  I didn’t want pet battles in WoW. I would have preferred something a lot different. But it’s not like they can test that idea. No one in EvE wanted monocles. Few wanted a lot of features from multiple patches. UO has had a long list of “what were they thinking?” moments.

A successful MMO keeps an active community engaged over long periods of time. It provides social economies. It provides content that the playerbase has a voice in. F2P gives MMOs a chance to make money and serve a non-niche target.  It provides a cash-positive experience on a wide range of games that would no longer be around today.  It allows developers to test ideas, sell them at low risk and see what works.


Time is short and work is crazy busy making for nights that end quickly.  A few more detailed posts are being worked on but in the meantime I wanted to add a bit to the previous posts.

First though, I wanted to dwell a bit on D3 itemization.  That horse isn’t dead yet!

Diablo ItemizationThe above shows a fairly good roll against a fairly bad roll.  Look at the estimated DPS loss (character runs at 102K DPS) from a weapon.  That’s a 96% difference in damage from one item.  Take that horse!


Second item is the defense of subscription.  Gaffney posted some stuff defending WildStar’s decision while Jack Emmert will talk about the opposite in a few weeks.  These are both people with significant experience in the field.  Both have seen F2P on their games (Gaffney was with Turbine and NCSoft) and have seen subscriptions as well.

Perhaps we’re at a point in the hype cycle that subscriptions can become niche again and that the MMO tourist avoids it due to the massive F2P options out there but WildStar doesn’t seem to be aiming for niche.  TESO certainly isn’t.

In regards to the PLEX variant WildStar is aiming for, that only works in a closed and extremely well developed economic system.  It works in EvE because everything is player created, everything required sweat equity and everything is relevant, even at max level.  Taking a cue from any themepark, even the recent GW2, economies from start to max level-1 are completely irrelevant 1 month after launch.  I “beat” WoW’s auction house, making a few million along the way – PLEX would have failed hard in that market. This isn’t apples and oranges.  This is apples and nuclear missiles.


In Defense of Subscriptions

I like Gamasutra, there are some solid articles about the business side of the industry. Ramin and Isaac are on my reading list not so much because I agree with them but because they expose a side that we rarely see.

Ramin is more of an internal systems designer with strength in economic systems – auction house, crafting and so on. I am guessing he’s working on one of the two Big MMOS coming around the bend.  Isaac is a service guy, looking more to the economic systems outside the game – support models, client interactions and whatnot.  Both of their fields intertwine but I consider the above their specialties.

Isaac’s latest post attempts to support the subscription model along 3 main issues. First, subscriptions push people to get value for money by rushing content. Second, development of said content needs to follow and be of quality. Third, companies cannot price discriminate as everyone has the same fee.

While conceptually I think he has some strong arguments I think there are some flaws and realities that are unaccounted. Let’s say his baseline is accurate for playerbase – 30 to 40, kids, working, no huge time available. Yes they sink less time but they are hyper-aware of dollar per smile economics. Subscriptions drop when similar services are available for less cost, that’s why F2P works.  The math is simple enough.  I have X dollars to spend per month, where can I get value for that money?

Two, content delivery must meet player expectations in terms of volume and quality. Iceberg Blizzard has paid massively for their schedule. SWTOR’s 4th pillar destroyed their ability to quickly iterate and expand (voice acting).  This bleeds a bit into the first topic.  2 months after launch, the content that was there was consumed at a rate far exceeding expectations and what was left lacked value for money.

Three, price discrimination is a red herring. All games have internal metrics to see what is consumed and for how long. WoW saw that their moneysink – raids – were only hitting 1% of the userbase in Cataclysm. That brought us LFR, and now Flex Raids. DDO only offers what sells, same with NeverWinter. Companies know exactly how to nickle and dime. There is no other reason for lockboxes.

Are subscriptions bad? No, they provide a baseline income that investors can see and development can project. They are however, an easily accounted for expense for players to compare to other games. The argument simply becomes “can I spend 15$ or less in another game for the same or more fun?”. The answer, today, is a yes and that bodes extremely poorly for Wildstar and TESO.  They must “out content” all other MMOs (not really seeing this as possible), provide an iterative schedule faster than what is offered by competition (everyone is better than WoW, few are better than Rift) and somehow target their material/pricing to bring in the most dollars/effort possible – without existing metrics.  One heck of a tough road.

MMO Sub Fees Are Like the Dodo

IGN has an op-ed piece on subscription fees for MMOs up for debate.

World of Warcraft is casting a long shadow with eight years of iteration and fresh content under its belt, asking anyone to pay the same for a new release seems ludicrous.

Above all, this is the most important quote to keep in mind for the argument and it applies to more than WoW – it applies to EvE just as much.

When SWTOR came out and people got to max level in a month or so, they looked at the game and then said “what now”?  The problem wasn’t that SWTOR didn’t have much to do (ehhh) but that compared to it’s competitor, it had a fraction of the things to do.  RIFT suffers from this as well and to its credit, it contains more in the recent expansion pack than WoW currently offers (minus pet battles) but even at that, it struggles to maintain market share.

It is extremely hard to argue that any new game coming to market can succeed with a subscription model unless it can maintain a core set of users and not require more than say, 200K players at any given time.  Other than WoW and EvE, the next game with the highest subscription is RIFT or LOTRO with about 250,000 subs.  200K, to me, would be a massive success.

This brings us to the The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar.  The former has been blunt to state that it’s going subscription while the latter has been mum on the subject.  TESO is directly competing, in every shape and form, with the existing fantasy themepark tropes and I see no reason for it to be able to break the 200K mark.  If the Star Wars IP can’t maintain the numbers (remember, it dropped subs by 90% from 3 million), how can this one?

Wildstar is a wild-card though.  While it does take the fantasy setting it is less themepark and more sandbox/themepark hybrid and doesn’t seem that it will require the same break-even point as TESO.

Are subs dead?  I wouldn’t say so exactly, more that subs are going to be smaller in scope and that any dev expecting to get a subscription game to market AND pull more than 100K players is taking a massive risk.

Oh, It's a Wave Alright

Massively has a post on a recent meeting of the minds in regards to F2P.  Cryptic (Champions Online, Star Trek), Riot (League of Legends) and EA (SWTOR) all have a bit to say, though the focus is on the first and last in that list.

I learned that Craig Zinkievich is now the COO of Cryptic.  I remember him from the STO days of beta and launch.  He quit when they went F2P then came back a few months later.  Any comments that Craig puts out, I tend to take with a grain of salt.  He’s a solid dev, smart head on his shoulders but sometimes it seems like he lacks an understanding of the genre.  A forest for the trees type of guy.  Anyways.

Craig’s point that SWTOR was the last great hope for subscription games rings hollow.  I’ve said it about 100 times now but SWTOR failed because of lack of incentive to pay 15$ a month to play.  Once you reached level 50, there was simply nothing to do of value past the first week.  I don’t get why Craig can’t see this as it’s the exact same reason STO went F2P.  If you provide people value for their money, they will pay.  WoW, Rift and EvE are only 3 of the examples needed to push this point across.

EA has a good line that basically says F2P competition is good for gamers as it increases the quality of games within the pool.  While I agree with the comment in spirit, this is so massively not true it’s hard to contain my morning coffee.  If this were true, then there wouldn’t be any Prada purse knockoffs and Wal-Mart wouldn’t be around.  Competition doesn’t increase overall quality, it decreases it to absurd levels.  You might have an outlier with a great product but the mass is still garbage.  The only time this comment is true is when competition breaks a monopoly.  The iPhone smart phone monopoly and the web browser monopoly are great examples.  F2P is currently a massive sea of garbage.  Finding anything of quality is more of a measure of luck than content.  Hello Zynga?

F2P is not the wave of the future; it is simply a “new” monetization platform.  Are the design decisions for SWTOR going to be different now than they were before?  No, it’s still a MMORPG themepark-a-palooza.  There are still raids, PvP, dailies and all that junk.  Instead, they will nickel and dime you through that content.  It’s simple math.  They need money to operate.  How they get that money is up to them.

The difference between a F2P model and a subscription model is in the return on investment. (ROI)  A sub model has to wait many years to get all the cash back.  SWTOR could have waited 3 years and started printing money but the ROI requirement from investors was to get the cash faster.  F2P can make all their money back in the first 2 months (many Asian models are based on this as is Zynga) by gouging players who will pay MORE than 15$ per month.  Of course, that initial blip of cash disappears after your game hits month 3.  Guild Wars 2 will be showing that off pretty quickly I bet.

Payment Models

There’s a lot of talk about payment models lately.  Syncaine clearly has a disdain for the model.  Tobold is taking a development perspective. Rohan sees a systematic divide.  Syp just wants to play without paying.

At the fundamental level, it takes money to run a service.  The actual cost of that is dependent on the technology, people and process and therefore varies greatly from game to game.  We can assume that it costs less to run Rift than it does EvE – for various reasons.  When a game company offers a “free” service, they still have to charge people for something.

Rohan’s breakdown of payment methods strikes a cord with me.  Not all F2P (or sub games) are set up the same way.  Each has a different gating model and revenue generating possibilities.  While WoW is a sub model, the sparkle-pony sale generated somewhere in the region of 30 million dollars.  In such a fashion, you can break down the service offerings for each game.

The debate is less about the payment models and more about the perceived cost/benefit of spending money.  Is 15$ spent on WoW worth more than 15$ spent on Rift?  What would 15$ get me in F2P-TOR?  As I’ve mentioned a few times now, TOR is offering KOTOR3 for free.  Anything to do with the MMO portion is set up behind a pay wall.  This makes sense as the economy is at risk if all of a sudden the barrier to entry is nil.  Someone mentioned that Slicing is a net positive in cash flow.  Imagine setting up 100 accounts to bot slicing.  It would cost you the PC power (minimal) and you’d have a cash generating machine with nothing to stop it.  D3 has this problem, in another sort, but the devs actually take a cut of the cash sales, so they secretly endorse it.

Let’s add a bit of contrast here.  I spend 15$ after a hockey game with the guys having a beer.  I play hockey 2-3 times a week.  I get a cup of coffee every day, well over 15$ a month.  There are plenty of activities that I do that cost way more than 15$ per month and in actual fact, other than my internet access fee, I don’t have a better deal available to me.

From a business perspective, piecing out content makes sense.  You can easily point out where the best bang for the buck is.  People buy a lot of monocles?  Build more.  No one is buying dungeons?  Build less.  What should be free and what should cost money?

From a dev perspective, this segregation of systems adds overall complexity.  You can longer integrate systems as you can’t assume that the player has access.  The XBOX360 launched with an optional hard drive, meaning devs couldn’t assume players could save content.  You need to have a solid understanding of your foundation material.  Anything built on that cannot be dependent on another built component.

From a player perspective, we’re in an age of options.  Being able to pay for the options you want and not for the others is simply the way things will work from now on.  This adds complexities, depending on the division.  What if your friends don’t have the same content you do?  What if the content is packaged in such a way that it isn’t attractive (pay per use model, gambling model)?

This is far from a simple issue, as most bloggers can attest to.  As long as the dev is making money to sustain operations and make some profit for improvements and the players are content, then you can have success.  In the end though, it’s the player’s money and they get to decide where to put it.