Free’s crowd: Using free-to-play to grow MMOs

Trion Worlds aims to reinvent the MMO space with each title, and is using free-to-play to attract a wider audience.

James Batchelor finds out how this model will benefit titles like the online RPG? Rift and strategy game End of Nations.

What are you doing to prepare for the launch of your first free-to-play product, MMO strategy game End of Nations?
Scott Hartsman, CCO: What we are really asking here is what does ‘launch’ mean in a free service? I would assert: nothing. For a game using the F2P model, it’s a relic. That’s actually great news for both players and developers.

Much of what makes that model so compelling is that it returns a lot of flexibility to the developer’s hands. You don’t need to make a specific street date, and therefore don’t have to make as many of the traditionally poor compromises that developers have to make in getting there in the ‘launch big, launch once’ model.

For a game like End of Nations, it’s best to think in milestones, and there’s no standard way to do it. That’s the beauty – we get to make the best decision for the product and its audience at the time of making the decision, not six, nine, or 12 months ahead of time.

Eventually NDAs come off, invites stop being required, the service is up 24/7, online sales are occurring for real money, and there comes a point when you’re satisfied with the game’s performance that you won’t have to reset progress and restore currency purchases to players.

That entire time, it’s been live, and it probably ‘launched’ by traditional standards very early in that process, but the ongoing tuning, testing, and releasing continues forever.

You’ve been testing End of Nations over the summer. What has the feedback been like about the free and premium items/packages?
Chris Lena, End of Nations’ senior producer: End of Nations uses a dual currency system that allows most items to be purchased with our currency earned by playing the game as well as real money. This is not a completely new idea and players have been reacting well.

In End of Nations, you can get items either through the Armoury – where you manage your unit collection and build your company – or the Depot, which is more like a traditional store. It’s been really interesting to see which one of these avenues people choose. We have learned a lot about what to do to help players discover the Depot.

This year, you launched a free-to-play version of your MMORPG Rift called Rift Lite. What benefits have you found over a subscription model?
Hartsman: The response has been extremely positive, and we saw a sizeable uptick in account creations after we launched in February.

Rift Lite has been especially great for players who don’t have the cash to spend on multiple games every month. They can get in, play the first 20 levels without any time restrictions, and decide if it’s the game for them at their own leisure. It goes back to our core tenet that Rift should be as accessible as possible for any kind of gamer.

How can companies balance paid and free titles in their portfolio?
Hartsman: The key here is to build the game around the model that makes the most sense. There are titles like Rift where a subscription model enables development to deliver content on an unprecedented cadence so that is the direction we choose. With End of Nations our goal is to create a massive global community with no barrier to entry to engage in the battle for territory control, and for that free-to-play makes the most sense.

Is there a danger that free-to-play is simply flavour of the month and could diminish, or is the subscription model dead?
Hartsman: Everything we do is a test of a theory. That’s part of the fun of being independent in the world of online games. We get to try things.

Models are going to continue evolving over time. We’re in this for the long haul, and we’re going to keep experimenting with different models as they apply to various games, audiences, and platforms.

What’s most appealing to a fantasy MMO player may be different than what appeals to a player who enjoys third person online shooters in their living room on an Xbox 360, which may be yet different from what works for PC players playing an amazing social shooter.

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