Why Star Trek Online NEEDS to go free-to-play (and Champions Online too)

“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

Man In A Skirt: My favoritist TNG character ever!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


15 thoughts on “Why Star Trek Online NEEDS to go free-to-play (and Champions Online too)

  1. Scopique July 19, 2010 / 12:42 pm

    I like #3 myself as well. Both CO and STO seem like F2P BY DESIGN, and the fee seems tacked on. I originally did sub to STO after my free 30 days because I didn’t see the content there to justify it. I’m in there now to check out their Season 2.0 content, but if I have to sacrifice a subscription (and I will, knowing me), it’s going to be STO.

    But the more F2P titles out there, the more I’m willing to play — and to accept the inclusion of a c-shop. I’m not adverse to paying SOMETHING for a good game which recognizes it’s worth. I count DDO and eventually LotRO as being in this category. I do NOT consider Cryptic’s games to be “recognizing their worth” with this monthly fee, but F2P would be more equitable with how I perceive them.

  2. Jason July 19, 2010 / 2:15 pm

    I like the freemium model for one reason: quitting and coming back is so easy.

    Right now, I don’t subscribe to any monthly MMO because I am currently averse to spending money I don’t need to. I’d love to be able to jump into most games for a one-off day, see the sights, maybe throw a few dollars at it for some new content, and then be able to walk away when I don’t have time. I hate spending $15 for a month and then only playing one day out of thirty, so I cancel, and then every time I consider going back I say to myself, “But am I really going to play?” and if I can’t definitively say “Yes!” then I just don’t go back.

  3. Scott July 19, 2010 / 2:33 pm

    Oooh new theme eh? Or has it been here awhile? Guess that’s the problem with RSS feeds — I never see anyone’s actual site unless I plan on commenting.

    Anyway, I’ve spent the past few days deciding whether to buy STO or not since a few blogger/Twitter friends play but after doing the trial version, it just doesn’t seem worthy of me going through the motions of setting up and paying the monthly subscription. Especially when they already have their C-Shop anyway which is a bit more on the Allods (someone had to say it) side of things than the DDO side, at least that’s what a brief glimpse of it felt like.

    If it was free to download (or even drop the price for the digital version) and one or more options to play the full game without the subscription, I would have no problem keeping the game installed and drop some ducats directly in Cryptic’s wallet in the C-Store.

  4. Patrick Mackey July 19, 2010 / 2:55 pm

    I don’t know. I think that even going F2P is a big gamble. It’ll dramatically increase the userbase, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more cash shop sales. Also, what else are they going to offer in the cash shop that they don’t already?

    I think that 2011 is going to be a rough year for Cryptic either way.

  5. sente July 19, 2010 / 3:54 pm

    What Cryptic did here was to push out two games with a minimum feature-set and with the idea that the games would be adjusted and developed based on feedback from the live game.

    Nothing wrong with that as an approach I think. Also less risky than spending 1-2 years more and still with the risk that they still will not catch the big audience – it has happened more than a few times.
    Earlier release means less risk and less cost before some money pours in.

    The big problem here is that they combined this approach with the regular subscription-only model, plus an item shop as a business model. And on top of that selling various lifetime/long-term subscription deals.

    I definitely think a different business model would have suited these games much better.
    They are good games; just not competitive enough with a subscription-only + item shop approach.

  6. Yeebo July 19, 2010 / 4:24 pm

    I can’t think of any game that really justifies the “pay for a client” + item shop + subscription approach in my mind, much less STO and CO. That’s just not a good value when there are so many high quality competitors that are cheaper. I think FtP ala DDO would be a natural fit for both of them. Though if Cryptic has any sense, they will wait and see how things turn out in LoTRO before going that way.

  7. Mesar July 19, 2010 / 5:17 pm

    I would play Champions/ COH-V on a micro-transaction model.

    I’ve never been interested enough to purchase a box, but would love to have a Hulk toon to smash faces with from time to time.

  8. Utakata July 19, 2010 / 5:26 pm

    I am all for STO and Champions going freemium. I have encouraged to do so many times before. But I am worried…knowing their current business models of such seem to be based off the Ferengi Rules of Acquisitions, I am still not confident they will design a freemium model with the consummers’ best interests in heart and mind. I’m more expecting this F2P transition will be an Allod’s debacle pt 2, quite frankly.

  9. winter July 19, 2010 / 9:54 pm

    I tried STO for a month (well actually 2 weeks), got to the 2nd tier of ships and realised that it is exactly the same as when I first started. I actually found the ground combat more interesting as the ship based combat was such a slow grind.

    If however it went the DDO route (and I mean the DDO route, not the Allods route) I think it would be worth a play. It would certainly get on the static group roster with my friends and I.

    If it doesn’t go this route, I think it will die.

  10. Ryan July 20, 2010 / 2:16 am

    Option 1 doesn’t make sense because I’m pretty sure the studio is losing money as it is… well, at the very least, Atari’s losing tons and tons of money… and if these games were really big hits… I’ve kind of doubt Atari would be where it is.

    Option 2 and 3 don’t appear to me to be mutually exclusive. Cryptic would be smart to offer both games for the same $15 a month. I think that would honestly get a *lot* more players. They should still go “freemium,” too. Remember that DDO *increased* its number of subscribers when they went “FTP,” Cryptic probably would, too.

    The idea that Champions isn’t FTP already is almost crazy… STO may be able to survive on triage for a few years — and actually could be like the other big Space Sci-Fi on the market and increase its numbers slowly but surely over the years (EVE honestly has been the rare beast that’s had some solid growth every year)… but Champions? That game is a cinderblock attached to Cryptic’s ankle, and the tide’s rising up. (The sad thing is it’s a very pretty game, could be an awesome game, it just needs a *lot* of depth.)

  11. Adventurer Historian July 20, 2010 / 7:04 pm

    As a life time subscriber to STO, I wouldn’t mind the game going freemium. My $250 dollars is a sunk cost; if STO transitions to a system that rewards my patronage with a dribble of free Cryptic points each month, I won’t have to invest even more money to get C-Store items I want.


  12. Hudson July 21, 2010 / 1:39 pm

    As much as I have grown to forgive Champions after it has been fixed in the recent months and as much as I didnt MIND STO, I keep canceling them because I have other games I would rather pay for.

    Whether it be LOTRO, EQ2 or Fallen Earth, I always put my money elsewhere and I just dont know why. Maybe it is an immersion factor. Who knows

  13. Ge Beji November 1, 2010 / 8:09 am

    Well, what do you know, Champions is officially going F2P in early 2011, and rumors are that STO will probably follow shortly 😉

  14. Devon February 18, 2011 / 5:53 pm

    I totally agree wirh option 3. I love STO and hav even used the cryptic store but i cant afford to constantly pay to play.

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