“I could easily see STO going into a hybrid model similar to what Lotro is doing… Turbine seems to have some interesting plans and looking at how DDO has turned around, its worth taking note.”
~ STO exec producer Daniel Stahl
By now, it’s probably old news to you that one of the folks at Cryptic publicly mused about taking STO the same route as DDO and LOTRO — moving from a subscription-based to a microtransaction-based business model. It’s hard to tell how serious they are, but I’m inclined to think that Cryptic is testing the waters here because they’re on borrowed time.
Without placing judgment on the games themselves (Champions and STO have a lot of gloss and fun but little depth), I think Cryptic is slowly drowning here. In the past year, they’ve released two high-profile MMOs, both of which got so-so reviews, so-so subscribers, and way more controversy than they should’ve — not to mention the rapid shuffling and departure of key figures at the studio. The general consensus is that Cryptic has positioned Champions and STO as AAA titles when they’re, at best, B+ games, and have hobbled them with a full $15/month sub plus the burden of beefy cash shops.
No matter how you feel about microtransactions and F2P, I think a majority of us can come together and say that studios that try to have their subscription cake and eat those microtransactions too are pushing it, and don’t garner a lot of love for doing so. And whenever Cryptic comes out and says things like, “C’mon fellas, we’re not greedy — we’re just gamers!” it seems so out-of-touch with what they’re doing that they earn a lot of resentment in turn.
One popular conspiracy theory is that Cryptic is simply redirecting whatever profits they’re milking from these two games into a third (or fourth) title that they’re hoping will be the next big hit for the studio, the one to really put them on the map. In this theory, STO and Champions are already as good as dead in the studio’s eyes, just on life support to get as much money as possible before whimpering into death.
I don’t know if I buy that, but I can’t quite see a glorious future for either game. A MMO’s first year is critical to its long-term prospects, and both games have been playing catch-up ever since launch, adding tons of features in an effort to shore up numerous weak spots in the game. Both of these titles deserved to have a solid, deep foundation to build off of, but they went the quick-and-dirty route instead.
Which brings us back to our main topic: STO (and Champions) need to go F2P to survive. These games aren’t going to get newer or more special over time, and once 2011 hits — AKA “The year of insanely incredible MMO releases” — they won’t even be the new kids on the block any more. Unless they have huge content expansions in the wings, they need to take drastic steps to avoid what’s happening right now to Vanguard (the prolonged death of a thousand cuts and server mergers).
In my mind, Cryptic has three options here:
- Get their third MMO out the gate within a year and have it be a surprise smash hit that earns them so much money that they can keep STO and Champions afloat and operating as normal — to buy them time to improve gradually, as they’re currently doing.
- Offer a Station Access-type multi-game subscription for a great deal — so you won’t pay $15/month for one of these games? How about $15 for two games’ worth of subscriptions?
- Transition STO and Champions to a free-to-play/freemium model and hope for a repeat of DDO’s success.
I don’t think #1 is feasible from what little we’ve seen (and Cryptic’s track record lately), and while #2 would be interesting, #3 makes the most sense. After all, they’ve been all but shoving microtransactions down our throat, particularly in STO, where a good chunk of the game’s options — races, ship designs, additional character slots — are locked away behind the not-so-innocuous C-Store.
There’s a lot of resentment toward the C-Store, mostly because a lot of the items they offer seem more necessity than nicety. Did I purchase a whole game, after all, or a hobbled version of it that I have to pay another $50 to fully patch? You get this backlash when you push both subscriptions and microtransactions with no other options, and I haven’t felt sorry for Cryptic because of it.
But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how Cryptic could flip a switch to make the entire game free-to-play and move more content into the C-Store without feeling bad for doing it. For STO, give players one free ship of each type (science, cruiser, escort) per tier, and then offer them the option to pay to unlock the other variants — they’re sort of doing that already with the higher tiers. Give players enough content to level fully up, but throw some of the better content into the store if they like what they’re seeing. Really, I shouldn’t even have to map it out, it’s sort of there already.
I’m not one of those who wants Cryptic to die in a fire for its digital crimes — there’s a lot of good there to be picked out of the questionable and rotten — but I do think they need to radically alter their current stance of how they’re making, running and (most importantly) selling MMOs.