If you can’t beat ’em… go F2P?

I think Jack Emmert is a bit of a dolt at times and his games often reflect what he says.  His most recent comments are up on Eurogamer and this time he’s talking about subscription games and how they relate to, I guess, why CO is changing tracks to be F2P.  Interesting enough, Jack is very right about something: Quality matters.  That’s right, if your game isn’t as good as World of Warcraft then why would you expect people to play it?  DUH!  That’s if you’re trying to make a game that competes directly with WoW.  That’s where much of what he says unravels.  The WoW-type of MMO isn’t the only one out there and people are often looking for niche games to fill a different need (look at EVE).  That’s one aspect of this, but there’s a bigger issue here.

Jack sounds a bit defeated.

“You’re skating up hill if you don’t offer a free-to-play option,” Cryptic Studios head Jack Emmert told Eurogamer. “You’re skating up against World of Warcraft and theoretically SWTOR. That’s your competition. And unless you think your games are as good or better than those – because you also have to overcome their reputation – it’s going to be highly unlikely a large number of people, meaning 200,000-plus, are going to be willing to subscribe to your game.”

In other words, if you’re going to make an inferior game then expect to fail.  I guess that explains Champions Online?  That also supports just about everything I’ve been saying about about F2P being the “Plan B” or second class quality option.  If you’re going to make a WoW clone and you don’t offer something competitive then you’re going to be second rate and if you’re going to be second rate you’re not going to make money.  If you’re not going to make money then go free to play because that’s the quantitative route to success. If you’re not willing to fight that uphill battle then you might as well surrender now or never even show up to the fight — that sounds like loser logic to me.

He even makes mention of Dark Age of Camelot and why it hit the 200k+ mark as well as his own City of Heroes being close behind: They weren’t EverQuest.  That’s exactly right Jack! You see, he’s contradicted himself.  On one hand he’s saying it’s not even worth trying to compete, just go Free to Play.  On the other he’s actually being insightful and pointing out that DAOC and CoH were different enough to appeal to a different audience and fulfill a niche, thus being a success (DAOC being the bigger success because it offered even greater alternative).  The latter is, in my opinion, the right way for the industry to go.

He’s right though, as dismal as the loser logic sounds.  If you can’t do it right then do it F2P.  It’s better that way.   Those who want to just jump into something like that can do it for free and those who want quality can play the subscription games.  The only problem here is that eventually we’re going to need other options in the subscription market.  WoW won’t last forever.  SWTOR at this point is still up in the air and subject to the same “If it’s not as good as WoW” criteria.

Curt Schilling said something I like in an interview with UGO:

We’re not making a game for everybody either because when you make a game for everybody, you end up making it for no one. I know what we love, I know what we want, and the game that I’m playing is growing into being what we set out to make.”  […] “We won’t launch free-to-play. That makes no sense.” […] “Given the feedback that we’ve gotten and in a lot of focus testing that we’ve done, people will pay a subscription if they believe that they’re getting their money’s worth“.

That’s the right direction and the surest way to see success. That’s also the way to create a successful game in this “oxygen deprived because of WoW” industry.  Offer something that is different — something you’re making because it’s the game you want to make and not a WoW clone — and make it for a specific group of players and not a game for everybody.  Then avoid the F2P model.

I’ve given F2P a chance several times now and I keep noticing the same thing: a self defeating attitude.  Jack Emmert illustrates it perfectly.  That’s precisely why those games will never measure up in terms of quality. As for the games that start as Subscription games and go F2P, it’s the path of least resistance.  Personally, I find the path of least resistance is often not worth traveling.  I don’t want to play games knowing that they were designed with the mindset that they’re already inferior.  I want to play games from developers who fight the uphill battle to deliver something they feel players will find worth the money.

  • Even though i agree with most of what you said here about making different games in order not to compete with WOW, it seems that you suggest the route of hardship has failed too many times already. Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, APB, Spellbourne, etc. all of them are gone, while most of WoW clones are still around and kicking. They all tried to be different and paid the price. Maybe, just maybe, different is good for consumer, but very bad for business. So as a gamer i agree with your train of thought about having more choices and variety in games we play, while from the game developer point of view this kind of idea is flawed and prone to failure.

  • BTW, the games you are using as examples of subscription games that survived without going F2P, are all from pre WoW era, so the argument is moot since they did not have as much competition back then.

  • It’s not an all or nothing thing though. Those games were bad games regardless. Different, as shown by Jack’s reference and my own constant reference to examples like DAOC, can be the key to success. Again, it still has to be a good game.

    I used those examples because Jack used them. We can’t use successes after WoW because few exist. I did mention EVE, but that’s still pre-WoW anyway. The point is not moot either since it still applies to the fact that when you have only one type of game there will be people wanting to play something else. That’s why Darkfall still has subscribers. Niches need to be filled. Fill the large ones and you’ll see the 200k+ numbers.

  • This reminds me: what became of Allods online? That was launched as an Free game with scandalous micro transactions….

  • I was just recently told it has become almost unplayable (as if it weren’t already?) with EXP reduced by 90% among other changes to make the cash shop even more important.

  • I agree with Heartless…

    You are kidding yourself if you think the same sandbox kind of game will continue to survive as a pay to play going forward, especially with WoW dominating the market like it does.

    Also, if you think Lotro is a “fail game”, then you honestly have not played the game, because it has more exploration, scenery, options to do besides raiding, raiding, small scale instances, superior than Wow crafting, unique classes and a far better back-story than WoW had with all of it’s RTS games.

    Swotor has a chance only because it is based on the IP that most,if not all, of us grew up with and had hoped SWG was going to fill but it didn’t. I am still on the fence about playing the game as not much I have seen, besides the cinematic, have truly interested me.

    As for ALL F2P being fail, you haven’t looked at Jumpgate Evolution or Black Prophecy then as the graphics on those look amazing for space games and really make me want to watch the Firefly season shows and Serenity in preparation of those going live. Hopefully the combat and other stuff match the look so far.

  • @heartlessgamer: We’ll see bud. When SWTOR and 38 Studios’ game rock the subscription model we’ll talk.

    @Poxis: Didn’t say LotRO was a fail game. I played it and beat all of the content. It was a fun game. It has, however, gone to a path of least resistance in order to make money easier.

    Jumpgate isn’t anywhere near release. Black Prophecy hasn’t released. You’re just plain guessing and talking about… graphics? As if that had anything to do with it.

  • “Offer something that is different — something you’re making because it’s the game you want to make and not a WoW clone — and make it for a specific group of players and not a game for everybody.”

    Didn’t turnout so good for Shadowbane. And Darkfall. And Auto Assault. And APB. Offering something different is a total crapshoot.

  • Sure, if your game is garbage then nothing can help you.

    Just because you bake what you thought was a cake doesn’t mean it’s a cake if you left out a key ingredient thinking you would be different. You may think its a cake. You may even sell the cake to people telling them its a cake. When they taste it and don’t want another bite, how well did you do being different?

    Being different isn’t enough. You have to have a solid game in there somewhere. So it’s a middle road issue. You can’t be an extreme WoW clone and beat WoW if you’re not better than WoW. You can’t just be different and not be WoW to beat WoW either.

  • @Informis

    Darkfall is a success within its niche. They’re putting out expansions, growing and making money.

    The others you mentioned failed because of poor designs decisions within the core of the game. It had little to do with the payment options.

  • One thing i never understand about the MMORPG industry is their pricing philosophy. It’s either all or nothing. 15.99 or free. Why not price by market demand for your game and its quality. Meaning if Wow is the Mercedes, Eve is the Ford and CO is a Hyundai. Put CO at $4.99-$7.99 a month and see how that does. Ppl will play a game they feel has value to them without that awful feeling of the rip off never ending cash shop.

    With some clever marketing and a few patches at $5-7 you may get a whole new slew of gamers who felt 15.99 was just not worth it to game or whatever. Plus ppl who feel like at that price its worth playing simply to make alts:P

    you get my points

  • “If you’re going to make a WoW clone and you don’t offer something competitive then you’re going to be second rate and if you’re going to be second rate you’re not going to make money. ”

    Please. Let’s look at some other facts here. For most people, including “your’s truly”, WoW is their first MMO. They have a friend, lover, family member, etc they get into it with. They have absolutely no experience outside of this game, think it is the first MMORPG and all that crud. Also, the person that got me into WoW (my husband) also showed me LotRO and AoC. Just as I wouldn’t have known about WoW, I wouldn’t have known about any other MMO’s without him. Not everyone has this experience or a friend who will show them anything other than WoW.

    I guess my point is that Free2play is probably one of the few ways you can get WoW fans to even bother TRYING another game. Do they try it with an open mind? Some will and will stick around, but most do not! Check out the LotRO forums. The thing you see most often are complaints about classes (“why can’t this bear tank”, “why can’t my champ dual-wield 2h’ers”, “why can’t we have a flying mount”). They are completely uninterested in doing anything different regardless of whether it is free or not! I don’t think this makes the games themselves crappy WoW clones. I think it says more about the players.

    Now, if there are millions of people trying these games, but not liking them, that is one thing… but we know that is NOT what is happening here!

  • I don’t think it’s safe to make a blanket statement that F2P is the “plan B” for all mmo’s just in case the product they have brought to market doesn’t stack up against WoW, and really when will companies stop trying to out WoW, WoW it can’t be done.

    I’ll concede that F2P does end up being the last ditch effort to save a game in many cases (DDO, and CO spring to mind), but it’s not safe to say that it is “plan B” for every mmo that doesn’t have WoW’s numbers. LoTRO is the perfect example, they’ve had moderate success since launch and we’re by no means in the kind of trouble that would require a F2P restructuring. Turbine simply capitalized off of their experience with DDO and decided to take a gamble and see if their flagship game could achieve the same success as the much improved DDO did. So far it appears their gamble is paying off.

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that LoTRO will get even better now that it’s gone F2P. If DDO is any indication of how Turbine will handle LoTRO then we can look forward to a much quicker update cycle, bug fixes, changes based on player feedback, as well as a larger player base. It’s only been a couple months since they went F2P and they are already rolling out a HUGE update this month, if this becomes the norm then I’d say that LoTRO is going to do well with their hybrid payment model.

  • @Barrista

    “Now, if there are millions of people trying these games, but not liking them, that is one thing… but we know that is NOT what is happening here!”

    You are right, to a degree. Games like ABP or Darkfall have never been in the “mainstream” (no advertising, no big community). However, some cases contradict your statement.

    Warhammer Online got well over a million box sales very fast, but soon after that their player count dropped drastically (80-90%) and now it’s much less than 100 000 still. Same happened with Age of Conan, but the player count dropped even more rapidly and drastically. How is that not “people trying these games but not liking them”? Seems greatly like that to me. A million plus people try those games out, the game feels like a failure, so almost all of them move on. The subscription model didn’t certainly stop all those people from trying (perhaps like 20-30% of WoW’s western population), but most of them came back to WoW after a few weeks.

    You have a good point on people starting out with WoW and getting used to its features, though. Many of my friends have never played any other subscription game than WoW (at one point most of my friends tried out Allods Online, but it was a huge fail -> back to WoW). So, WoW’s “snowball effect” of its popularity making it even more popular is a huge advantage compared to other MMO-makers. Even so, games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan have hit the mainstream so far (and failed in their quality), and SWTOR could well become the first MMO to maintain 500 000+ players (in addition to WoW).

    I can understand game developers going for “F2P”, if/when they expect their games to become a failure (mediocre or even bad quality). I wouldn’t plan on playing such a game for over a month, though, because they are self-defeatingly made, like Keen said. One exception I can think of is League of Legends (although it’s not MMO). I personally dislike its idea of “buying your way to victory” – more specifically “buying your way out of grinding and timesinks to focus on playing the game” – but at least it is POSSIBLE to play League of Legends without spending all your money in the cash shop (unlike in most “F2P” games). This mentality creates a variety of problems for the “feel” of the game, but at least you aren’t absolutely forced to buy any stuff. Oh, and it’s quite a good game despite being “F2P” (perhaps the best “F2P” game?), although not on the level of highest quality P2P games. I would like to see MMOs adopt the LoL attitude rather than the Allods Online attitude, although the best thing would be to see new AAA+ P2P games (after all… why play mediocre games for “free”, when you could be playing great games for a small one-time / stable payment?).

  • “How is that not ‘people trying these games but not liking them’? Seems greatly like that to me. A million plus people try those games out, the game feels like a failure, so almost all of them move on.”

    I said, specifically, millions of WoW fans. And it just proves my point, that if millions of WoW fans do go to these games and “feel they are failures”, it very well may say little to nothing about the game. It may say something about the people themselves. What are their expectations? People SAY they want something different from WoW, but in my experience they all whine when they get it.

  • I don’t get it.

    2005 : WoW Release .

    Name the successful SUBSCRIPTION games that released SINCE with the following criteria:

    [a] GROWING
    [b] Considered a GOOD GAME

    Now do the same with F2P games. Actually i’ll make it easy, show me the MMOs that are GROWING or at least SUSTAINING their populations. How many of those are

    [a] Subscription based
    [b] Released after WoW

    If i was an investor, it wouldn’t take me long to get to the same conclusion as Jack Emmert. You either release a game that is JUST AS GOOD as WoW [which is quite a crazy expectation, not even WoW released with such pressure*]

    *And no you can’t put EQ1 in this equation, since EQ2 effectively “helped” WoW . If there were to come out a new Blizzard MMO -and- SWTOR , then the same might happen [WoW killing itself] .

  • @ St. Pierre

    Dofus is F2P with a dirt cheap subscription option [like 5 euro a month]. I don’t think it qualifies 😉

    Dofus’ model is identical to Turbines model [which everyone is moaning about for some reason]. I assume everyone is aware DDO and LOTRO -still- have a subscription option, right? [and anyone that actually played DDO will know it’s cheaper to subscribe to DDO in the short term than buying everything in the shop]

  • I think Jack’s point was that there is a finite amount of MMO players on the market and that if you go the Sub model, you need to be as good or better than WoW to get people to stop playing it and go to your game. People willing to pay 2+ subs per month, when they are obviously happy with their gaming in WoW are a minority. F2P gives players the option to try something casually, while still maintaining their addiction to WoW.

    It’s sort of like knocking on someone’s door and saying “want to move into my house for the same cost as yours? The new house isn’t as nice as yours, and none of your friends can visit unless they move next to you, and you need to paint the walls.”

    After 5 (heck 1) years of investment in something – social or personal – it takes a lot to get someone to give that up for something that they have to start over with. The game has to be amazing and address the shortcomings of the previous game.

    People left UO for EQ due to the massive PKing and anti-social behavior. People left EQ for WoW due to the group-centric/camping focus. WoW’s current “weakness” is that it’s casual-focused and moves away from the community building of past games. You can get something done in 10 minutes. Then again, that’s exactly why casual players are paying to pay. I am curious as to how SWTOR will address this weakness and provide something better than WoW in order to succeed.

  • Out of interest where did you get that info about Allods? Because I believe they just made it slightly less CS dependant.

  • “…people will pay a subscription if they believe that they’re getting their money’s worth.”

    Gee, what a profound statement. Next we’ll hear a developer say that water is wet, and fire burns.

    This sounds like a quote from “AnyDev” from [insert random name] Developer’s Conference. I still shake my head when I read so much stupidity in the video games industry from supposed geniuses.

  • @Dril: I believe it was from one of my regular commenters in a recent post. That or one of my friends on our forums.

    @Asmiroth: I think the point is actually there there aren’t a finite amount of MMO players. There are millions and millions and MILLIONS more than there were 6 years ago. The issue here is that they’re (mostly) playing the same game (WoW) in the subscription model.

    The point that’s being made here is that it’s not an issue of F2P being a more popular trend because it is better. It’s because developers are struggling to make something better than WoW. Why? They would rather coast than put in the effort — or they lack the talent, funds, etc. It’s easier to go to the store and buy your fish, but it tastes better when you catch them yourself.

  • I was fishing a lot as a kid, it was fun and dirty business, for this reason i hate the taste of fish now as adult.

    Too much fish, that’s the problem.
    Too many games have spoiled us and now we cannot stand how fishy the game companies are because we had too much of WoW.

    Umm, maybe this comment makes little sense, but i think it is related to what Keen said about fish.

  • A) There aren’t a finite amount of MMO gamers. Blizzard announced the amount of turn over they have in customers and it’s actually very high. What was even more shocking is that thousands of new people try WoW every day… but less than 10% stay. That is the reason Blizzard has been focusing on redesigning the begining of the game.

    B) I just finished playing FF14 for about 1 1/2 months and I just recently went back to WoW. The one thing I took away from it was that graphics plain don’t matter. WoW’s graphics are hideous compared to FF14, but the game runs simply amazing. WoW is the first game that is truly a shining example of content over graphics.

    C) Success in the MMO market is sort of a vague thing. While Darkfall doesn’t have hunderds of thousands of players, it has more than enough to recover it’s cost and pay for new content. The game is also growing in playerbase. I would call that a success. Lets look at AoC and WAR. AoC had aprox. 750k preorders and WAR claimed to have over 1 million. MMO gamers ARE trying other games. They aren’t staying because the game’s aren’t polished. Today’s gamer is spoiled in many ways, and the biggest would be that they will not accept a game that does not run perfectly.

  • You’re comparing Clerks to Titanic. Sure, Titanic had a larger budget and got the popular vote for the Academy awards, but Clerks was a far better movie. WoW is the mass market MMOG. But then again, that’s what sells, so I suppose congratulations are in order for Blizzard on leveraging simple sales, marketing, and human psychology.

    On another note, I enjoyed WC3, but I think WoW is excruciatingly boring as MMOGs go. Also, I’ve become a bit more frugal in my old age, but even though LotRO went F2P, I still maintain a subscription for the VIP perks. I think Turbine sees a lucrative model there and others would be smart to follow suit right out of the gates.

  • I personally think free to play with an in game mall of some sort is a better way to go. Even if they still want to get there $60 for the box, fine sell the game for $60 and then once people own the game they have the OPTION of spending more money. I really think its bull— that you have to buy the game to turn around and put $15 down everymonth in order to play it. Ive been verry excited for the release of swtor, My wife and I love to play games together but I cannot afford $120.00 up front and then $30 a month. Currently we play the fps combat arms which has a f2p model which does verry well, people dont pay for anything unless they want to. Its nice to be able to pick up some sort of perk out of there cash shop when we can afford it and to be able to play without having to spend a dime when we cant. I agree that in the long run you may end up spending more money. I have easily spent $300+ on my CA account itself over the last 3 years ive played but that sure as hell beats $500+ that would of been REQUIRED if I wanted to play with a $15 subscription. In times were people have less money they try to rape what little is left from us as a requirement to play a game that will draw in a LARGE cult following. I will not conform to their GREED I LOVE Star wars and the KOTOR games but they would make plenty of money with a f2p market, and if they go with a p2p game ….. well im sure theyll do just fine -BUT- they wont be getting any of my money.