What should WildStar do with its business model?

squirgDue to recent developer comments that they’re “watching” player discussions as to the business model and the general state of the game, it’s safe to say that the business model of WildStar has come under scrutiny not only in the community but most definitely inside Carbine/NCsoft as well.

My general feeling on business models is that there’s no one best one, but the right one for each game.  With a small-to-modest player population, we must ask, is the subscription model the right one for WildStar?  Undoubtedly, the execs at NCsoft and Carbine were hoping for a World of Warcraft-like success with a top-notch product.  And while I’ll agree that WildStar is a great game, it’s no longer 2004 and subscription-only MMOs are in the vast minority.  Players have far more options that don’t demand a monthly fee, and they are exercising those options.

So going forward, what should WildStar do with its business model?  There are three main options:

1. Stick to their sub guns and do nothing

I see sites like WildStar Core in a mild panic as of late that Carbine might indeed be changing its business model, because for some folks subscription-only offers a perceived level of quality that’s “untainted” by free-to-play options.

“Baffles me how people so down-trodden on #WildStar’s quarterly dev cycle think going F2P will give studio funds for same quality content,” they retweeted, apparently ignorant of everything else in the MMO industry.  But that right there is the key argument for keeping it sub — that any other option will result in an income decrease and that the game’s quality will suffer.

It was foolhardy for WildStar to launch with a sub as a brand-new IP in a crowded field and up against much bigger names in 2014, and I maintain that today.  If WildStar does stay sub, it’s going to become even more niche than it is today, CREDD or no.  But… if they do stick with it, at the very least they need to implement a permanent trial (say, to level 10 or 15) to allow folks non-pressure time to get to know the game before buying into it.

2. Go free-to-play/hybrid

In my opinion, WildStar actually does have a good setup for a potential free-to-play conversion.  Whether or not this was being discussed at Carbine, it’s not as if we haven’t seen sub-only MMOs make the switch from 2009 on.

I would look to games like RIFT for inspiration for this model and continue to offer a premium subscription that includes bonuses and currency.  I would give away all of the gameplay content for free with no artificial gates, but instead focus on selling some of that much-ballyhooed customization.  Costumes, mount pimping, housing items — players love these sorts of things and they have little impact on power levels or competition.  Sell those.  Sell boosts if you must.  The upside is that this would encourage more development of cool customization options, which the game needs anyway.

The biggest advantage to this path is that it would completely eliminate an initial financial barrier with no initial or ongoing fee.  The biggest disadvantage is the perceived stigma of free-to-play and the “this game is dying” PR hit that sometimes comes with the transition.

3. Go buy-to-play

I think that WildStar would greatly benefit from looking at its cousin Guild Wars 2 and taking a cue from it.  Continue to sell the boxes, but make the rest of the game free with very optional microtransactions and sales.  The whole premium currency market could be translated into WildStar thanks to its CREDD system.

Otherwise, a lot of the same free-to-play pros and cons and ideas would stay the same.  Lockboxes would be a definite drawback, as it seems that B2P and F2P games can’t resist them (although different MMOs emphasize them differently).

So if you were in charge of WildStar and wanted to ensure its financial and operational future, what business model would you pick?

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13 thoughts on “What should WildStar do with its business model?

  1. Zeppy October 10, 2014 / 9:04 am

    Why are you assuming there’s any reason for them to change anything?

  2. Rowan October 10, 2014 / 9:59 am

    @Zeppy Syp covers that in the first option. Clearly, you’re among those who think anything other than sub-only is an inferior model.

    As for me, I look at Rift or TSW as ideal models. Rift is free to play, with mostly cosmetic items in the shop. I believe the expansions (some content and new “souls”) also cost extra, but player can conceivably reach max level without spending a dime. TSW still costs money to buy, though it tends be heavily discounted. The cash shop also contains mostly cosmetic items, plus content DLC “Issues.” But again, a player can reach the original “end-game” without paying more than the box price. Both games have monthly subscription options which confer extra benefits in XP and vanity items, but not extra power at end-game.

    I think the era of crappy F2P is subsiding, and although there are F2P MMOs that are annoyingly pushy about their cash shops and/or hobbling non-subscribers, the idea that F2P is automatically poor design is an archaic line of thought. Heck, I see folks anticipating SWTOR’s impending second(?) expansion, after all sorts of people thought the game was on the ropes when it went free to play.

  3. melbrankin October 10, 2014 / 2:28 pm

    I think sub is not the problem – I pay a monthly sub for final fantasy 14 without issue. Its really about value for money when it comes to the kind of game play they are offering. I dont think a grindy, 40man raid “hardcore” content is seen with a sub these days its much more likely to come from a free to play game due to needing a massive amount of players to support that system.

    If they work on housing, small group content, flex style raiding and some solo content at end game then they will imho have a game worth a sub.

  4. wolfyseyes October 10, 2014 / 3:42 pm

    A buy-to-play arrangement seems like the best tailored fit for WildStar, in my view–you’re still getting some fiscal love for buying the box, but still allowing that referenced customization dev time to be applied…and MAN does this game have some delicious customization options going for it.

    It drives me up the wall that there isn’t some possible middle ground here–that it must be completely free-to-play to be worth anyone’s time or because having a mass of bodies is somehow a perceived good thing, or that sub-only is The One True Path because it gates the riff-raff from this nicely manicured lawn.

    Now get me my drinks, Sebastian. I feel a bit peckish.

  5. Jeromai October 10, 2014 / 4:13 pm

    What melbrankin said. It’s not so much the payment model that’s the issue, but more of their focus that needs to change.

    If their current sub model is unsustainable due to dropping player numbers, then it goes without saying that they’ll have to sell additional customisation options in a cash shop eventually, which can be done with a hybrid F2P or B2P model. That or figure out a way to make keeping multiple accounts tempting – which leads to CREDD transactions.

    Bottom line is, the current playerbase has to be asked to part with more cash for the time being while the developers work on getting more new blood in. Sound awful for those who like to pay their $15 and get everything, no strings attached? Guess they better think on just how much they like Wildstar and want it to survive. And also, work on changing their attitudes so that they don’t -chase- new blood away. Someone’s got to pay the bills. If not new blood, then it’s them that has to pay more.

    In the meantime, changing focus to producing a ton of housing-related customisation options and getting some kind of sustainable cycle of gold/real money transactions working out of that would have some impact, imo, given how attractive housing seemed to be for a vast number of casual players (pray hard they didn’t all just get sucked in by Archeage in the mean time.)

    Plus smaller solo and group content that is more flexible and lower difficulty (including logistics difficulty of herding players) will allow more Wildstar players to play and let them feel like they have something to look forward to or do, so that they’ll keep subbing. If a server’s playerbase can’t support more than one or two 40-man raids, it’s time to look away from those until there’s enough population to sustain that.

  6. flosch October 10, 2014 / 5:43 pm

    I’m not a big fan of buy-to-play, and I’m not sure a company is doing itself a big service pushing a game like that. Maybe I’m wrong, but my reasons for that opinion are:

    (1) With an MMO, you want to make sure that the barrier of entry is low. A free trial is the minimum you should consider as a company if you go that way, I think. As an example, I was never terribly interested in Wildstar, and that is unlikely to change if I have to pay all the money up front just to try it out.

    (2) Buy-to-play means box sales trump every other road to revenue (unless you hybridize your model and basically just go full F2P with an cash grab up front). That means a company will probably be reluctant to put heavy discounts on the boxes if they can avoid it. Which keeps the barrier of entry high. In the era of Steam, you can get a bunch of games for the price of an undiscounted box, enough to entertain you the three months you’d otherwise spend on Wildstar (given how every new MMO seems to have an average player retention time somewhere in that range these days). And you don’t put all your eggs in one game basket. A bad buy doesn’t get noticed as easily that way.

  7. NetherLands October 11, 2014 / 5:03 am

    The WildStar Devs aimed their game at a teeny niche of the MMORPG population that needs ‘masses’ to feel special. The moment they said they’d aim the game at ‘dedicated raiders’ was the moment a mass-income game wasn’t in the books anymore, as it was never going to attract the masses of peons needed to sustain such a model, of the ones called only few would succeed (ie the main body component of many of the target audience is hot air) so most would leave, and in general a new game like this is asking people to give up their ‘progress’ and comfort zone (whilst risking their progress in their old game).

    What they IMO should do is become B2P but make the content Raids-only, with 1-2 Raids/box (or whatever number the money actually covers, raids being horribly expensive to design for a multitude of reasons). Cut away all the other barriers of effort required, stop blowing money on desiging a world the target audience generally doesn’t give two hoots about, a basic tutorial and then off into the ‘dungeon’ (much like Wizardry Online did, but the whole semi-permadeath and Open PvP thing scared away both griefers and competitive carebears).

    Make it basicaly a sort of ‘Running Man vs Raid Bosses’ , with throngs of NPC aliens cheering people for their ‘televised’ ‘heroics’, NPC’s naming their babies after the Server Firsts etc., offering replay channels and commentary, and otherwise treat a rather silly passtime and playstyle as the heroic ‘esport’ with ‘athletes’ the target audience envison the whole business to be.

    Though ‘Congratulations! You’ve just ended World Hunger on Planet Epsilon!’ when the last boss of the Tier is downed first might be overdoing it.

  8. Lonegun October 11, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    I think it’s time for an MMO publisher to break the industry commandment of, “Thou shall charge $14.99 a month for a subscription.” I have looked over the Wildstar website many times and although it looks really good, but I just can’t justify $14.99 to play casually. But I wouldn’t mind maintaining a 7 or 8 dollar subscription to play and from what I have read from other gamers they wouldn’t mind either.

  9. Doone October 13, 2014 / 6:58 pm

    I have to agree with Lonegun. It’s not clear to me at all that when a company goes with a subscription model they arbitrarily pick $14.99. This is the pinnacle of stupidity because we already know how that will shake out, no matter how glorious your game.

    Subscriptions are dead. Only the games who started years ago can successfully pull it off …and even *they* are reconsidering. I will not be surprised when WoW goes F2P in a couple years. the writing is on the wall.

    Devs need to go back to selling content and stop trying to get unfettered access to player bank accounts (subscriptions that recurr automatically, making their books reliable and steady). If you release something, sell it to the player. MMO devs should look instead to have telecom companies sponsor their networks and just take that fee away from players altogether.

  10. Isey October 14, 2014 / 11:22 am

    I also agree with Lonegun – why is $15 the standard monthly?

    I’d probably pay for WildStar at $5 a month.

  11. Syp October 14, 2014 / 12:16 pm

    $15 didn’t use to be the standard. Back in the early 2000s, it was more like $10. But then World of Warcraft came along, adopted the $15/month sub, and everyone else couldn’t over-price that or else be run out of town. And so it goes today, even with inflation.

  12. Isey October 14, 2014 / 12:18 pm

    I was around in the EQ days (tester then player) and remember that. Its a weirs number still though – not based on anything except what WoW players are willing to pay. You would think (competitively) a company would measure what they are up against and price accordingly.

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