I’ve talked before about MMO business models, and I’ve not been shy about my opinion that free to play is probably the way of the future, as well as my personal preference.
But one thing I haven’t really addressed — and that I haven’t seen many people address — is how these two models affect the actual gameplay. As much as their proponents would like to ignore it, both models will affect the design of a game. Developers are businesses, and they’ll try to get you to spend as much money on their game as you can — whether by encouraging micro-transactions or trying to get you to subscribe for as long as possible.
This post isn’t about which model will cost you less money. It’s about what’s more fun.
A few caveats to get to first. Firstly, while I may talk broadly about the business models, I’ll admit that I’m mainly talking about World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. Those are the games I’m most familiar with. It is possible — though unlikely, I think — that one or both of these games are outliers and not representative of other games with their business models.
And of course, this is all just my personal opinion, etcetera, etcetera.
On with the show!
You don’t have to use the cash shop… but we’d like it if you did:
Part of what inspired this post is a minor uproar among certain Guild Wars 2 fans regarding the in-game Halloween event, Shadow of the Mad King.
To make a long story short, many of the rewards for this holiday take the form of cosmetic weapon skins, and these can only be obtained as a random drop from Black Lion Chests. The Chests drop freely in the game, but the keys to open them are largely only available from the real money gem store.
You can still get the skins with gold by either converting gold to gems and buying keys or buying the skins directly from those lucky enough to get them to drop, but this is pricy in a game where gold is still relatively hard to come by.
People are upset by this, but I can’t see they’re surprised. ArenaNet always said the cash shop would provide cosmetic rewards.
It does raise the issue of whether or not the gem store is something onerous, though. I’m not at all bothered by the issue with the holiday skins, but I’ll admit there are times I feel the pressure of the cash shop.
For me, it’s transmutation stones. I’ve been spoiled by WoW. In WoW, I can, at any time, customize my gear’s appearance by going to a transmogrifier and swapping out skins. It costs little and is convenient.
To do the same in Guild Wars, I need to either pay real money or grind map completion achievements and/or gold to get transmutation stones, each of which is good for only one skin change to one piece of gear.
I still have enough stones to maintain a decent level of style most of the time, but the unreliability is somewhat frustrating.
Then again, I don’t need these stones. I can still access 100% of the game’s content without spending a dime. If I occasionally do so without a perfect outfit, well, I’m usually too busy enjoying the epic combat to even notice.
You wanna stay? You stay here forever!
One expects a free to play game to steer people toward the cash shop. The general perception of the business model is that these games will nickel-and-dime you to death with their micro-transactions.
But pay to play games free you from such miserly game design, right? For the price of constant payments, you’re free to play the game as you desire.
Mists of Pandaria has a controversial endgame. Whereas once valor and justice points were an excellent way to get geared, they’re now harder to get, purchase less valuable gear relatively speaking, and require reputation to even spend.
On top of that, reputation is now much harder to get than it has been in years — perhaps even in the history of the game. Tabards are gone, leaving daily quests essentially the only option to earn reputation, and those daily quests award less than half the reputation dailies traditionally have.
The end result is a fairly massive grind just to reach the point you would be at simply by hitting max level in a previous expansion.
Many people say this grind is optional, and they are in the sense everything in the game is, but even Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street himself has said he doesn’t want them to be “too optional.” Blizzard wants you to do these dailies, and they’ve done everything they can to goad you into them.
Blizzard says they want more people in the world, but I find it impossible to see this as anything but an attempt to stretch out content so people will, theoretically, stay subscribed longer. Slower progression means longer subs and more money.
Naturally, many people aren’t too happy about this. I count myself one of them, though I’ll admit gearing up is not quite the nightmare I expected. I’ve been able to do Mogu’shan Vaults via the Raid Finder despite skipping many of the dailies because they’re horrible.
Still, it’s an annoyance, much like the transmutation stones in Guild Wars 2. The main difference is Guild Wars 2’s annoyances are cosmetic, whereas WoW’s annoyances have the potential to leave me out of content by hobbling my progression.
Not to mention the issue of falling behind the gear curve if you stop playing for a while — though to be fair, Blizzard does work fairly hard to make this less damaging than it could be.
These are cosmetic, true, but then there are server and faction transfers. Those can have major impacts on your gameplay — my enjoyment of my Horde characters increased immensely after moving to Wyrmrest Accord. And these transfers are not cheap, especially layered on top of subscription fees.
Getting down to it:
What it comes down to is this: both free to play and pay to play affect gameplay negatively. In both cases, the need to wring more money from players will compromise fun sooner or later. In neither case is it game-breaking, but nor is it as painless as developers would like you to believe.
For me personally, though, I feel more like I’m being nickle-and-dimed when I’m playing a subscription game. GW2 only asks for my money, whereas WoW asks for both my time and my money. To Blizzard, they’re one and the same. “Time is money, friend.”
Whereas GW2 gives me a choice about how much to spend, WoW sets a minimum and only goes up from there. Whereas GW2 only penalizes convenience and appearance if I don’t play their way, WoW penalizes my character’s performance and ability to access content.
I’m not saying it’s enough to completely turn me off WoW or subscription games, but it certainly runs contrary to the public perception of MMO business models.