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Born Free • Page 2

Age of Conan joins a growing list of freemium MMOs - a wise move, or a desperate one?

What that means is that a freemium game can survive, and even prosper, even in a market where there's already a huge, subscription-based game effectively monopolising the lion's share of the player base. It's no coincidence that that's exactly what the MMO market looks like right now. Subscription based games are essentially trying to wrestle players away from World of Warcraft (or other subscription rivals, but primarily WoW), or asking them to pay a second monthly subscription - which is pretty unlikely. Freemium games can coexist side by side even with an 800 pound gorilla like WoW, letting players engage casually at first and later invest as much, or as little, time and money as they'd like.

That leads on to the less obvious but perhaps even more powerful aspect of the freemium offering - the fact that it lets players decide how much they want to pay for the game based on how engaged they are with it. In a subscription game, players essentially pay the same amount of money regardless of whether they raid six nights a week with their guild and spend hours each day crafting or completing daily quests - or just log on for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon to meander through story quests on a months-long road to the top level.

WoW's very success should be driving other developers to recognise freemium as a sensible option for their games from the word go

Freemium games change this model to one where casual players generally don't pay anything, or make only small, occasional payments - but those who are deeply involved with the game pay for new content as it appears, and probably keep themselves topped up on premium items as well. It's tough to strike a balance, of course - you don't want a situation where people can basically pay their way to having a character that's better than everyone else - but the ability to cultivate "whales" among your audience, high-paying consumers who make up a decent percentage of your revenue base, is a major benefit.

Failures of that balancing act lead to the most common criticisms of freemium. It's tempting, from a business perspective, to make the premium items as powerful as possible so that more and more people will buy them - but if they actually make a huge impact on the game balance, casual players will be discouraged by the obvious imbalance, and more dedicated players will come to see such items as a resented tax rather than a welcome option.

Such balance problems are most likely to emerge, of course, if you're retrofitting the freemium business model onto a game that was never designed for it. That's arguably one of the things which many western MMO developers have failed to understand - that the business model and the game design aren't separate things, or at least, that they shouldn't be. They're tightly related to one another, and should be developed side by side. How a player pays for the game is a core part of his interaction with that game, and forms a major element of his thinking with regard to the game - an element that needs to be understood and respected in the game design from day one.

It's entirely possible to carry out a successful retrofit - LOTRO and Anarchy Online stand as good examples of cases where this has been carried out. Yet they both beg an essential question; if this is, as seems likely, the ultimate destiny of a great many MMOs, why don't developers grasp the nettle and build their games to a freemium business model from the outset? Why the reluctance to embrace this model, the determination to stick with the boxed game and monthly subscription business model which has worked wonderfully for World of Warcraft but crippled most other games that have followed in its footsteps?

Indeed, it's WoW's very success that should be driving other developers to recognise freemium as a sensible option for their games from the word go - and rather than simply accepting that success, it's also an interesting mental exercise to wonder how much money Blizzard could be making if they, too, used freemium. They won't; WoW has too much to lose, and Blizzard's willingness to take creative risks with the game is unlikely to be matched by an appetite for fundamental changes to the commercial structure behind its success. But considering the number of potential "whales" in the WoW playerbase, it's highly possible that WoW could be an even more profitable game if it left behind the subscription model.

Retrofits for games such as Age of Conan, LOTRO and perhaps even APB are a good idea, and if executed well, can turn around the fortunes of a game. In future, though, it would be nice to see less retrofits and a lot more thought being given to a long-term freemium future for MMOs, right from the outset of each new project.

If you work in the games industry and want more views, and up-to-date news relevant to your business, read our sister website GamesIndustry.biz, where you can find this weekly editorial column as soon as it is posted.

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