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Lack Of Subscribers Forces  Lego Universe  Offline
Lack Of Subscribers Forces Lego Universe Offline
November 4, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi

November 4, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi
More: Social/Online, Production, Business/Marketing

A failure to convert its free players into premium subscribers will force Lego Universe offline next year.

Representatives from The Lego Group confirmed the news Friday, saying that the MMO would be closed as of January 31, 2012, after just 15 months in operation.

"In spite of very positive player feedback and a large number of players in the free play zone, it has not been possible to convert a satisfactory number of players to paying subscribers," a statement reads.

The move will force the closure of both developer Play Well Studios in Louisville, Colorado and a marketing division in Denmark, affecting 115 employees.

According to The Lego Group, the company will still pursue further video game opportunities, such as continuing its partnership with TT Games and Warner Bros. for its line of character-licensed Lego titles.

The Lego Group took over development of the troubled title in February, after purchasing original developer NetDevil and terminating some of its staff.

In recent months the company introduced a free-to-play option and a leveling system in an attempt to stir interest in the game.

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Simon Ludgate
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I think this helps bolster the case that unlimited free trials with the goal of converting subscribers is not a viable model. Warhammer Online also faced this problem when they allowed players to play up to level 10 for free, only to find that players happily stayed at level 10 playing for free forever. No one wanted to pay a subscription fee and level past 10, because then they'd have no one to play with. Using a subscription as a gate to segregate players is a fantastic way to discourage subscribers.

Jeremiah Slaczka
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WoW allows you to play free forever until level 20 and it still generates plenty of revenue. However, WoW has a large player base where as Warhammer did not.

Marc Kirkland
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As a parent I was disappointed and surprised when Lego Universe _didn't_ launch with a Free to Play section. Club Penguin is a kid targeted MMO that seems to have successfully pulled off this model. My kids are fairly fickle - getting really interested in something for a while then falling out of it for a while, then going back to it again. Having a free to play option ensures that even after their 1 month membership card expires that they can still go back to it and get into all over again and start back up. I fully expected Lego to be in this for the long haul and was surprised and sorry to see that they are shutting it down. Good luck to everyone at Play Well.

Simon Ludgate
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@Jeremiah, I'd point out that concurrent with WoW introducing the 20 level free to play option, they also lost close to a million subscribers. My sense is that the 20 level free trial was introduced to try to bring in new players to replace those leaving Cataclysm. No official word on how successful this marketing effort is; I doubt Activision-Blizzard would ever release official figures on conversion rates for this promotion.

However, my sense is that this will not be successful because it does not introduce new players to existing players in any meaningful manner. This is to say that new players won't meet existing players during their trial, form friendships, and be motivated to convert to a subscriber to continue to grow that friendship. Mainly because level 20s and level 85s cannot do anything together. Contrast this with a hypothetical similar model in EVE Online, where free trial players capped at low skill levels would still be of value to higher level subscribers, where existing subscribers would have great incentive to engage with free trial players, and through that engagement trial players might be encouraged to convert to subscribers.

Responding to what Josh said below, I think the drive towards feeding players more content is not the right way to maintain high subscription numbers for MMOs. I think it's the social interactions that keep people bound to a single persistent virtual world. Any kind of free trial that inherently denies the growth of social bonds between trial members and subscribers is inherently doomed to failure.

Leo Gura
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"'s the social interactions that keep people bound to a single persistent virtual world."

Except that most MMO's, especially WoW, are NOT virtual worlds and have very few mechanics that encourage robust social interaction. EVE is one of the few big ones out there, and that's why it's lasted so long.

Josh Bycer
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I've been feeling for awhile that subscription based models are falling by the wayside. I just don't see how designers can put out enough content per month to justify a cost, when you have other games without a subscription. What's really going to be interesting is when Final Fantasy 14 relaunches with the subscription turned back on.

I just started playing DC Universe Online now that it is free to play and it really seems like the legendary status (aka subscription) isn't worth it when I can pick and choose what aspects I want to upgrade.

M Pro
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Oddly, since we're discussing subscription models, I find Wizards101 to be the game I "return to" most often.

I have been an avid MMO player since before Everquest, trying out almost every major title as well as quite a few of the smaller offerings, and for many years always had at least one paid MMO as a regular part of my gaming experience. About two years ago, that changed. I no longer had the time necessary to "keep up" in games like WoW, and needed to find an MMO that I could play with friends & family where I wasn't penalized monetarily, socially or though game progression (zone and gear access).

What we settled on was Wizards101. Partially because we could buy access to content once and have it remain available for years without monthly expense, and partially because the casual structure of the game means we can progress through the entire game at our own slow pace.

While the content might appear expensive when viewed in contrast to what is available with some paid MMOs, the combination of no monthly bill and the content I have paid for being always available feels like a favorable trade-off to me. And when I balance the cost of full content access for most MMOs (game + expansions + monthly fees) the actual costs are probably comparable.

I honestly think that if either WoW or Warhammer Online (which can be a really fun mass PvP game) had this kind of subscription model available, I would probably still be playing one of those games. I played Warhammer thorough about level 35. The problem was after level 20, there were no longer enough players to keep the PvP zones feeling relevant and the single player game wasn't strong enough alone to keep me paying the monthly fees.

I also find the pay once, play whenever model has really disrupted my interest in participating other MMO titles. I'd like to go back and experiment a bit more with Eve Online, dabble a bit more with Rifts, or possibly try out Old Republic when it finally releases. But realistically, I'll probably not bother with any of them. I am no longer interested in the up-font game cost plus ongoing fees when looking to try out new games.

Another tidbit I find interesting is that I now know almost as many people who have spent money on Wizards101 as I do who have spent money on WoW. And while in the past they probably have spent more money on WoW (now mostly canceled subscriptions), for the future they are far more interested in games with pay models similar to Wizards101 than more conventional MMOs like WoW.

Simon Ludgate
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The problem with content unlocks like you describe is that it, again, segregates players between those who have paid to unlock and those who haven't. Consider Warhammer Online and PvP skirmish zones. Lets say there are 10 of them, 2 of which are free and 8 of which are paid to unlock. Presumably, there will be a large number of players in the two free ones, and a small number of players who have paid to unlock some or all of the other 8. As a new player, what motivation do you have to unlock one of those other zones, when you can be relatively certain that the short queue timers for the 2 free ones would become considerably longer for the 8 paid ones?

Or imagine if EVE Online added a free trial where players could play in high security space for free but had to pay to unlock packs of low-sec or null-sec space. That game, which relies heavily on random exploration, ganking, and roaming battles in those areas, would collapse because a tremendous amount of the "gank fodder" would be barred from entering the game's primary playfields. Those who did pay to unlock would have no one to kill and would quickly become dissatisfied with their purchases.

Or imagine if League of Legends had a new battle field that you had to pay to unlock. It would never see any action.

Content unlocks are fine for single player games. Arguably, many MMOs are "massively singleplayer online games" which are largely based on single-player content consumption within a multiplayer framework. But PVP-based MMOs in particular depend on placing players into each other's way, which means herding them into the same content areas. Thus I argue that content unlocks are not viable in multiplayer games, since multiplayer games are based on congregating players together and content unlocks inherently segregate players apart.

Daniel Boy
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Why are expansions (be it MMO expansions or CoD map packs) working? Are these "unlocks" massive enough? Do you need a massive number of players? Can you learn from that something for smaller unlocks?

Simon Ludgate
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An expansion, map pack, or any other segregated content works so long as a critical mass buy in. For example, in World of Warcraft, when an expansion came out, basically every subscribing player would buy it. I don't have any official figures, but I would estimate a very small fraction of accounts remain active subscribers without the latest expansion. In this case, buying the expansion is simply something you have to do, just like paying the subscription.

Note that it's very hard to compare an expansion for a subscription MMO (where every player has already demonstrated their willingness to pay, both through initial box purchase and monthly fees) to a free to play model with microtransactions where the ultimate question is whether or not your model can convert those non-paying players into paying players.

There have actually been good examples of expansions or map packs NOT working, too. The Core Combat expansion for Planetside, for example, never reached critical mass and the presence of players in the Cores never met expectations.

The game design itself can also significantly alter the size of the critical mass. In a shooter like CoD, a much smaller fraction of total players with a map pack can still make that map pack viable, but it's also important to note that map packs do not segregate users the way a "cap at level 20" free trial in WoW segregates users. A level 20 WoW player and a level 85 WoW player NEVER have reason to group up to play the game together. But a CoD player with a map pack has plenty of reason to play on the standard maps with players who don't have that map pack.

In summary: MMO expansion work (when they work) because everyone gets it; Map packs work because they don't discourage players who do buy them from playing with players who don't.

The best lesson would be learned from Dungeons and Dragons Online, where the game is carved up into tons of little bits of content. But people who buy content can ALSO buy "guest passes" to bring friends along for one trip through the content. Also note that DDO doesn't segregate via mechanics; that is to say that free players and paying players all reach the same level and always have good reason to team up together. DDO's "hub-and-dungeon" system continually brings content-owners out of that content and back into the free area to re-congregate with free players, giving them more opportunities to group up, hand out a guest pass, and go adventuring again.

I guess there's an axiom I like to use as guidance in the new microtransaction market: "Non-paying players keep paying players playing (and paying!)" So when it comes to content locks, I'd ask myself: are these content locks designed in such a way that non-paying players will encourage paying players to keep unlocking content? In DDO, the answer is yes, because of the guest passes. In most other cases, however, the answer would be no.

Daniel Boy
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I think you are mostly right. So you need a fine tuned content unlock system (like in DDO) and/or a critical mass of migrating players. The WoW players that hit level 20 will only start subscribing if they don't lose friends (social factors) or the content above 20 is very interesting (content factors).

I'm really interested in the conversion numbers for the WoW starter edition: If this tactic doesn't work for WoW, it is broken. I'm surprised that not more companies use free-to-play like Turbine tries, especially kid friendly stuff like Lego. They must fear the freeloading customers and undervalue their influence on the engagement rates of paying ones. Or they don't want to commit for the effort of redesigning their game that much.

M Pro
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I understand what you are saying, however I think you completely side-stepped (or missed) the core of my observation.

You mention Warhammer, which I referenced above. Free to play through level 10 and monthly subscription based afterwards. The best gameplay I experienced for PvP actually seemed to happen in the level 11 to 20 zone. Enough players enjoyed the free game and converted to subscriptions to make those levels very interesting. Where the problems seemed to set in, was that fewer players stayed from 20 to 30 and beyond. I'm not familiar with the end game experience or content.

If Warhammer had used a zone based unlock system, then I would still probably be playing it, along with others who wanted to advance through the game, but didn't want to be paying for mediocre PvE content every month. In Warhammer, both PvE and PvP are optional, but completing PvE content makes contributing to PvP content for a level block more viable. Since the PvE game was weak, I could have unlocked it as needed, and focused more on the PvP game. I also would not have had to keep paying to access already purchased content when I felt like it.

True, you will loose some percentage of players at every unlock step (or chapter), but players who are willing to buy at least one unlock are very likely to buy more. They already like the game enough to spend money on it, but just not enough to subscribe for a monthly hit.

Your Eve argument is essentially the same. It would be easy to fix by simply allowing new players to complete a few PvP quests as part of the early game process. They would get a taste of PvP along with the risks involved, before heading into null-sec space. I'm sure Eve does loose players after they a loose a ship (or several) as they try to move from high-sec space into the wider game universe. Death in Eve can be pretty brutal for a newb without sufficient bank or friends.

I also think your idea of a game being predicated towards using new players as "gank fodder" speaks of a design problem that would inherently discourage new players from sticking around to become veterans. I suspect that would make for a very stale "core elite" and slow (or flat) long term growth after the game's golden age. I also suspect that like the original EverQuest, it would be ripe for a market takeover by a better competitor.

Some off-topic:

KingsIsle Entertainment (the makers of Wizard101) currently report over 20,000,000 subscribed players. That's well over WoW's cap. Even if only a small percentage of those players are spending money, it would floor me if they are not fantastically profitable, both in general and on a per employee basis, since they only have about 120 employees. With 20 million players they must be doing something right.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think being now owned/run by the company that actually makes and produces Legos, they were in something of a bind.

Sure, they could turn to a F2P model like other games and absolutely gouge their base for lots of money a month, but that would likely be taking money out of their own pockets. Parents who buy their kids $100 worth of virtual legos a month likely won't be buying any real legos that month (and might be turned off by the money grubbiness nature of the standard F2P model).

Contrast that to say, Capcom's Smurf Village. While I think Smurfs started as little figurines, mostly they are a audio/visual IP these days. They can also work in the character development to guilt players into buying virtual items - "Won't you please buy smurfberries to help Papa Smurf, Brainy, Smurfette, blah blah blah." All lego has is generic legomen basically.

tony oakden
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Moshi Monsters seems to be doing really well out of a "free to play" then a fee to pay the premium game. Both my kids played the free version for a long time but have still spent birthday money on subscriptions. I think it's as much to do with how active the community is and how good the game is as anything else. Maybe Lego Universe relied too heavily on the IP and didn't deliver in the game department?

Nooh Ha
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Not even remotely surprised at this. As soon as I saw its original model (subscription only, retail boxed product only) I knew it would struggle. Absolutely zero lessons learnt from Club Penguin, RuneScape, AQW and Moshi Monsters' success nor from Toon Town's comparative failure with exactly the same model (as LU). If you approach the kids' virtual world market in the same way you would approach a console game or even an adult MMORPG you will fail.

Maria Jayne
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I think the game failed to attract an audience because it was too combat focused, most of the in game building appeared to be hold down shift and automate it....thats crazy for an IP based on creative building.

The "Free" verion was pretty lacking too followed by a Pay wall just as the game started to branch out, most free players probably didn't get invested in the game or their characters to care about spending money so soon and there wasn't much to reroll for.

The developer didn't capitalise on the IP, it didn't appeal to the younger audience and it didn't sell to parents because of its high combat focus. It tried to do what other mmos do only many of the others do that much better.

A proper free business model with microtransactions might have sustained it but after the developer was bought and disbanded I get the impression the games owner didn't really want to bother with it after that.

Mike Griffin
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While anomalies like Trion's Rift continue to remain profitable with a fairly robust subscribed user base. Compared to many pay-for-service MMOs released since about 2005, with outright failures like Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa, pseudo failures like FFXIV, and recent free-to-play conversions like LotR and Age of Conan, it seems like Rift has somehow locked-in a profitable user base.

Granted, a lot of core fans hopped into Rift coming from Warhammer, EQ2 and WoW -- often citing key Trion devs (who came from those games) as reasons to migrate over.

In any case, 9 months into existence it's much healthier than most of the "premium" MMOs released over the last 6-7 years. We'll see if this is fluke territory soon, as The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 will absolutely take massive user slices away from both Rift and WoW.