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The F-Words Of MMOs: Free-To-Play
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The F-Words Of MMOs: Free-To-Play

August 16, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

The energy model operates on the premise that players can play for free for a little bit, then have to pay a little bit to play a little bit more. The more you want to play, the more you have to pay. Games that use the energy model usually tie some core activity in the game, such as fighting monsters or going to a dungeon, to an energy bar which slowly refills each day or week. If players want to play after the energy bar has depleted, they can do so by buying more energy from the item shop.

There are two big problems with the energy model. For the players with lots of time and not much money, they quickly run out of energy and can't afford to buy more; this leads to a great deal of frustration because they have all this time they want to spend playing games and the game says "too bad."

However, there's also a big problem on the other side of the graph: lost revenue from the wealthier players. These people don't have much time to play anyways, so they don't run out of energy and don't feel the need to buy more. All that money they're willing to spend goes unspent.

There's a third problem that affects both subscription and energy-based games. That's because of a funny thing about time. Unlike money -- which you spend because you have to, but you're just as happy not spending it if you don't -- time is something that you actually want to spend. Thus the frustration in the energy model: unspent money isn't frustrating, but unspent time is.

However, there's a flip side to this: some games have minimum time requirements, just like minimum money requirements.

When Rift was released recently, I was all excited to play it with my friends. Most of them didn't play WoW with me because they didn't have the money to spend on the subscription fee. But now they're all working and money's not a problem, so I asked them if they were going to get Rift. They all said no. Again! Why? Now they said they didn't have the time to play it. Games like WoW and Rift, they said, were too time-consuming. The idea of "time cost" introduces another big problem in MMO design:

Just like the money requirement kept users out of the subscription model, the time requirement of these kinds of games often does the same to the opposite end of the spectrum. And, arguably, games like WoW with their "four raids a week, four hours a raid" requirements hit much harder than the measly 15 dollars a month.

This is something that the energy model, which needs players to keep on playing in order to make money, misses out on: it's conflicting goals of getting people to pay to play, and forcing people to play enough to make playing worthwhile, which trims off the edge users just as much as subscriptions do... or possibly even more so.

The current thrust in the F2P "revolution" aims to remedy both these inefficiencies. It's what I call the "Convenience" model. This model is based on the very model I've been describing here, that money and time are scarce resources, and people tend to have one or the other. In the convenience model, you can play to progress, pay to progress, or any mix in between.

From a purely marketing standpoint, it's genius. People can spend all the time they want, and all the money they want. There's no missed opportunity to monetize people here. However, from a game design perspective, it's a catastrophe.

In order to make the convenience model work, games have to be designed with a very high barrier to get that "worthwhile" experience from the game. The requirement in time/money has to be very high in order to get the most money out of everyone. If that bar slips too low, people stop paying what you expected to get. If that bar slips too high, people stop playing, period, because they don't have any fun even after spending all the time and money they have available.

The convenience model tells game designers: design a game that is as inconvenient as possible so that we can sell convenience to players. Actually, make a game that is horrendously addictive so people have to play it, but make it as unpleasant as possible so people are willing to pay money to avoid having to actually play the game. Most game designers I know didn't get into this industry to make games that people loathe so much they pay real money to not have to play it.

Plus, gamers are on to it. They're getting savvy. They're starting to realize they're just being taken advantage of and abused by these sorts of addictive games. Gamers don't want to be a blue/green bar on some economist's spreadsheet. They want to be playing games. They want to be having fun.

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