Free 2 Play, In-Game Ads, or Boutique Services?

Within the past week, three players in the current MMO scene have all taken different steps to pursue their own alternatives to standard monthly subscription fees.

The standard deviation from the established model has begun to emerge as a Free-to-Play model, supported by an in-game store, or Premium service.  Global Agenda has decided to embrace a change to something that is almost this model, after only a few months of active operation.  The game’s February release made very few ripples in the landscape of the MMO market, and it’s widely assumed that the switch to a No Subscription model is a desperate plea to entice players to join a under-populated game world.  But don’t go jumping for the title just yet — this game’s version of “Free” to play still requires you to lay down the box fee.  So close, yet so far away.  I guess it worked for Guild Wars though, right?  Well, if by “worked” you mean “barely kept an innovative and interesting title alive on life support.”

But forgoing subscription fees isn’t the only choice for MMO publishers to pull in a few extra bucks in today’s market.  It was recently discovered by an investigative player, that the in-game voicechat service for APB will be driven by advertising.  The ads will show up right in your headphones or speakers, approximately once every 3 hours, as you zone into a new district.  Fans and followers of APB seem content with this model, but I’m still leery.  Though this particular implementation of the idea is fairly tame, I’m worried that it may set a poor precedence for future titles to follow – particularly those that might be led by less scrupulous publishers.  Much similar to most other subscription alternatives, this model runs the distinct risk of coming across as a player-leeching money grab.  And would be even more out of place in a game not set in a modern era.  So while on one hand I applaud Realtime World‘s efforts to think outside the box to lower the cost to consumers, I worry about other publishers taking this ball and running with it in all the wrong directions.  How long before we see billboards plastered on every street corner advertising iPhones, Kindles and Acuras?

And speaking of setting bad examples, World of Warcraft has managed to do exactly that.  Actually, I guess I can’t hold them directly responsible for this one.  Their Refer-A-Friend service is actually quite nice for people that like to play solely with one another – it’s not WoW‘s fault that the service is now being primarily used as a way to powerlevel your alternate characters.  In essence, the service allows a player to, for the price of a second account plus subscription, level up several ‘alt’ characters extremely quickly.  This loophole is now being equated to Blizzard selling level-up services, and a portion of their community is asking for the service to be directly offered instead of them having to jump through the RAF program’s hoops.  I’m hoping fervently that Blizzard sticks to their guns on this one though, as the outright selling of level-up services is a dangerous step towards creating a gaming community divided by “haves” and “have-nots,” where those players with money to burn end up having a distinct advantage over those that earn their enhancements via gameplay alone.  It is particularly unwise in a world with such an active and robust PvP community, where any imbalance is quickly exposed and/or exploited by the masses.

You wanna talk about Refer-A-Friend issues and money grabs gone wrong?  Look no further than Star Trek Online, which recently stepped into yet another pile of public relations dung.  Their original RAF offering included a reward for players that referred 5 friends to the game:  A special ship type (think: Costume) that includes a few very powerful abilities — abilities that can be used during PvP matches to drastically upset the currently established (yet precarious) factional balance.  And as if that wasn’t enough of a faux pas, Cryptic soon found out that their players were so enamored with this ship that they were willing to “refer” themselves 5 times, simply to obtain it (purchasing 5 copies of the game in the process).  With dollar signs in their eyes, they jumped on the opportunity to cater to these deep-pocketed fans, and placed the ship reward on their in-game item store, for the price of US$25.00.  Much cheaper than 5 copies of the game, but still roughly as expensive as an entire expansion pack for most MMO titles.  Somehow, by following their twisted train of logic, Cryptic has decided that a single costume with a few special abilities, is worth the equivalent dollar sum as a complete content upgrade.  But I suppose at this point, we don’t really expect the company to take every point of view into consideration.  Especially when there’s money to be made.

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