Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Free to pay

One of the perennial debates in the world of MMOs is about the relative merits of the free-to-play (F2P) and monthly subscription (MS) models of payment.

In theory, these two models are very different. F2P games give you basic content for free, but rely on you buying "extras" (such as in game items that make you more powerful or faster levelling) to bring in income. MS games have a clear source of income so can optimise the gameplay around fun, rather than suffering from the need to build in obstacles that the F2P games want you to buy your way around.

Until a year or so ago, my preference was clearly for the MS model. I've enjoyed games built around that, but not the F2P rivals. Now things are starting to get blurred, though. With Blizzard seemingly moving towards a hybrid subscription + extras model in WOW, I started wondering if there was a better way to do this.
What I'd like to suggest is what I'd call a game-time as currency (GTAC) approach. To explain what I mean, I'll use the familiar example of WOW, converted to the GTAC model.

Let's assume that, rather than paying $15 per month to play the game, players pay $15 for 150 days of play (HOP), or 10c per HOP. Now imagine that auction house (AH) goods can be priced in HOP or gold and that HOP can be transferred between players as gold can. No change to the rules for which items are BOE or BOP would take place.

This will provide players with a big choice when they get an epic drop. Rather than disenchant it or sell it for more (largely useless) gold, is it worth selling it for HOP, which have real monetary value? This would have two effects: hardcore players would have a means of funding their playstyle and casuals who are short of time could still gear up for the latest raid tier. In Gevlon's terms, the goblins could play for free, subsidised by the M&S.

It would also be revenue-neutral for the game manufacturer, which would remove the perverse incentives that can mar F2P games, where the temptation is to make paid items essential for progression.

There's a big difference between HOP and gold, though. HOP are a "hard" currency, whose value is baselined against real-world money. Gold, by contrast, is a soft, fiat currency, which means that Blizzard can print more on demand by increasing drop rates and gold farmers can increase the supply by playing 24/7. This is what leads to the mudflation that plagues so many MMOs. Money can be created from nowhere, increasing the supply of it compared to the quantity of goods, leading to an increase in prices over time. This is particularly noticeable in the price of low-level "twink" items, that are out of reach for newcomers to the game, as the price is driven by the money-generating capacity of higher levels alts.

Of course the first thing you should do when proposing a change like GTAC is to ask the question "what could possibly go wrong?". It seems to me that there are three main potential obstacles: gold farmers, beggars and player-rejection.

One possible consequence of GTAC is that gold-farmers would be able to subsidise the cost of their activities by selling rare drops for HOP. In the short term, this may be an issue, but longer term I suspect not. This is because HOP are likely to displace gold as the primary currency for buying high value items and, unlike gold, "HOP don't drop". HOP farming itself may remain, simply because a third-world labour force may be prepared to charge it's time out for less than their rich western customers. However, this is no different to the current issues with gold farming. The real potential problem comes from the increases value that could come from hacked accounts, which would be worth HOP, not just gold. To get around this, I suspect that HOP trading would need to be limited to accounts with authenticators.

As with farmers, HOP beggars are likely to remain an issue. The advantage of GTAC is that if they are ignored for long enough, HOP beggars will vanish of their own accord, as they run out of play time.

Player rejection is a far trickier issue. Being able to "buy success" is an emotive topic in games. My answer to this would be that buying from other players is fundamentally different from buying from the game company. The people who are selling that success are your fellow players, who gain reciprocally by having reduced playing cost. MMOs are complex games and not every part of the game will appeal equally to everyone; allowing this kind of trading lets you focus on the parts of the game you enjoy and allows others to do the bits you don't for you, with appropriate recompense.

This leaves us with one final question: why bother with HOP at all? Why not simply allow real money trading in game? My reasoning for using this slightly indirect trading method is to avoid MMOs being classified as (and perhaps even becoming) gambling games: essentially a fruit machine with a fancy UI, where you keep playing in the hope of that one epic drop that will make you rich. With HOP, the most you can ever hope to acquire is a lifetime's free play, which isn't going to make anyone's fortune.

I'm sure there are plenty of other issues associated with GTAC that I haven't thought of, so all comments are welcome.


Vok of Unreal Realities rightly points out in the comments below that EVE uses a very similar system to this, called Plex.


  1. I strongly suggest you check out the Eve-Online Plex/ISK system, it's very similar (and extremely popular).

    Essentially "Game cards" (Plex) can become an in-game item, to be bought/sold/traded in game as players please. Top end corps (guilds) make enough cash that the majority of their players can play for free, all with in game cash.

    Due to the brutal nature of Eve, though, it means that if you're flying around with Plex in your ship, you can be attacked, killed and the Plex can be stolen or destroyed. Still, very similar to what you suggest and, as above, very popular in Eve.

  2. Thanks for that information, Vok. I must say my contact with EVE was so fleeting that I never got on to the fancy stuff like Plex. I'll go check it out.