Many MMO gamers are starting to find the market to be a paralyzing smorgasbord of new and old free-to-play titles appearing almost out of whole cloth in an attempt to cram themselves into the niche. All the while, the real giants of MMO gaming—such as World of Warcraft—still rest inside of shining citadels of steel and subscription as the free-to-play market boils around their battlements. The free-to-play ecology has two things that it should fear: becoming overgrown with shovelware with little-to-no shelf life and the lack of interest and money from the audience when it comes to time and microtransactions.
Free-to-play market facing potential brushfire or pruning of the mediocre
This has happened with video games in general. Although still a thriving and multi-million dollar market, video games suffer from a particular level of mediocrity. The entire term “shovelware” came coined to talk about the aftermarket of games that just couldn’t sell based on marketing juggernauts or on their own merits—eventually fading away and being cast into the grim elephant graveyard of bins filled with the skeletal remains of other games.
Mark Jacobs of Camelot Unchained sees this as a potential upcoming issue in the free-to-play market as more and more businesses see it as a good source for revenue and swelling audiences with bulging wallets. You can pick up the whole story over at SiliconANGLE, but here’s some of the highlights.
“The whole free-to-play thing isn’t going away tomorrow,” Jacobs stressed in an interview with VG247, “but let’s just see what happens in three to five years–and I’m betting closer to three–where free-to-play will become just another model. Right now you’ve got everybody chasing it, going ‘Isn’t this great? Free to play, we’re going to make so much money.’”
Jacobs expresses that free-to-play is just another model within the basic market for MMOs: but it’s one that has easy audiences. After all, who doesn’t like something you can play for free.
The result has been that we’ve seen a mixed bag of MMOs arriving on the scene from numerous publishers and distributors that run the gamut between triple-A production and extremely shoddy grinders developed only to take advantage of the niche. There’s even differences in the marketing practices between truly free-to-play games such as RaiderZ, Wonderking, etc.subscription games gone free-to-play like Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online; or box-price games such as Guild Wars 2 and Defiance.
The problem of microtransactions, virtual item stores, and needed regulation
Karen Bryan on Massively suggests that cash shops and microtransactions might be the next-big-critical-mass for the MMO community—they certainly are in the mobile and casual circuit—and there’s a grain of salt that MMO players need to take from this revelation.
The U.K.’s Office of Fair Trading is preparing an investigation into the practices of mobile, web, and microtransaction casual apps wander over the line. This investigation will determine “whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in ‘free’ web and app-based games, including upgraded membership or virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit.”
“What does this mean for MMOs? Even though this press release is focused mainly on apps, you could easily see this investigation spread into MMOs,” Bryan writes. “Free-to-play is now the rule rather than the exception, and there are all sorts of ways that game studios convince players to part with their money. In fact, MMOs are probably even more susceptible to an investigation because their core design is all about those little dopamine hits (leveling up, achievements, loot, shinies, etc.) that persuade people to keep playing.”
This goes beyond the fears (or outright outrage by free-to-play gamers) of the exploitation called “pay-to-win” and wanders into the territory of law.
Many MMO games happen to subscribe to a somewhat-addictive model that provides rewards for achievements, goals, and leveling up on a visceral and social level. Many MMO games on the market are also slightly cartoony, easy to play, have elements that brand them as coming from a market that enables younger players to easily take part. Most games in this market ESRB out of suggesting too many young players…but that certainly wouldn’t stop them from playing with their friends.
The worst offenders, most likely the primary targets of this sort of investigation, would probably come from games such as Wizard 101 and their ilk that target families (and younger children) directly.
Right now the MMO market only has a few passable “kid-friendly” titles that run on the free-to-play model. Most of them restrict carefully to families and try to stay away from microtransactions except for content and often via subscriptions. No doubt, even as regular MMOs are examined and their practices are reviewed the very nature of virtual item shops will come into questions:
“How much for that multicolored-feather-vest in the window?”
Will regulatory agencies consider the significance of a more interesting costume in a game for $2 to be similar to a piece of clothing; or will it hinge on the +10% XP bonus that comes from wearing it?