This isn’t just aimed at The Secret World, which we’ve just been told is moving to a Buy To Pay model. And it’s not especially aimed at SWTOR, which is now settling into one of the most ham-fisted conversions to a Free To Play model in the history of F2P conversions. It’s aimed at all MMOs – past, present and future. Because a lot of bloggers and more than a few developers seem to have got so caught up in debating the relative merits of subs, F2P, B2P and every other model under the sun that they’re missing the important point – it doesn’t matter exactly how you get players to pay for playing your game, what matters is that you get players to play it and then you get those players to pay for it.
From a business perspective, having no players is the same thing as having a lot of players who aren’t paying anything. A game that is F2P depends on having players who are engaged enough with the game to want to spend some money on it. The thing is though, if you’re engaged enough with a game to spend money in the cash shop then you’re probably engaged enough that you would subscribe to the game if that was the only way to play. F2P acts as a free trial on steroids that brings in more players – but the ones who aren’t willing to spend money may as well never have been attracted in the first place. They’re using up bandwidth and bitching on the forums about how the stuff they aren’t paying for is “pay to win” and giving nothing back to the developers. A game that depends on those guys is like all the dot com companies ten years ago who went round gathering up starry-eyed investors and when asked what their business model was, always said “advertising”. Well, that worked for Google… but just about every other dot com bust survivor was selling something a bit more concrete. Likewise, any game that depends solely on attracting players is doomed unless they convert into PAYING players. If the game’s good enough then people will pay – and they’ll pay whatever your pricing model is unless the cost is exorbitant. Very few people can’t afford a $15 per month game subscription for their main form of entertainment. They won’t pay that for a mediocre game that they only dip into for an hour here or there – but they won’t drop anything in the cash shop for a mediocre game either.
That, I think, is where both TSW and SWTOR have gone wrong. TSW just didn’t stack up against the competition for a lot of players, and it still doesn’t. SWTOR ignored its strengths (story) and instead tried to compete with WoW on WoW’s strengths (raiding, battlegrounds, repeatable instances) and found that if players are going to pay $15 for raids and grinding dailies then they’ll pay that for the more polished set of raids and dailies thank you very much. It’s not that people couldn’t afford the sub for TSW but they’ll pay a box price up front and then buy some more content down the line, and it’s not that people thought that SWTOR was worse than WoW but they’ll now put up with second-rate raids in order to save a few dollars. In both cases, players found other things they’d rather do with their gaming time. My leisure time is too precious to spend it doing stuff I don’t enjoy just because it’s cheaper than doing stuff I do enjoy, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.