Late last week we told you about Champions Online going free-to-play. This week we wanted to go a bit deeper into this story and find out about the reasoning behind the move as well as this emerging new model for MMO’s to follow. Obsolete Gamer was able to talk with Shannon Posniewski, Executive Producer at Cryptic Studios about the changes.
Obsolete Gamer: What were some of the reasons for wanting to make Champions free-to-play?
Shannon: We think that a lot of players have made a transition from wanting subscriptions to wanting to pay as they go. Traditionally, North American gamers have preferred all-inclusive subscriptions to microtransacted games. This has changed over the last two or three years. The advent of microtransaction-based social games helped bring about acceptance of this model, I think. At minimum, it proved a robust market existed.
We were finding that many people who played our trial loved the game, but weren’t as willing to subscribe monthly. So we began to explore going free-to-play. We decided to provide a hybrid model because there still were plenty of players who prefer subscriptions. At the business level, subscriptions are nice because they are more predictable than a la carte item purchases.
All of this is driven by our desire to have more people playing Champions. Having more people in the game is better for a bunch of reasons. Mainly, it’s more fun to have a lot of people around on the social level. There’s more heroes to do missions with, chat with, duel with, and so on. It’s just a better game when there are a lot of people to play with.
Of course, on the business side, having more players means that there are more people who may spend some money. We use this revenue to add new content, powers, zones, and so on. So, the more people who come in and spend money, the more things we can add to and improve in Champions.
Obsolete Gamer: Did the recent release of DC Universe Online have an impact on your decision pro or con?
Shannon: Not really. We had been considering going free-to-play for a while.
Obsolete Gamer: Some fans feel that when a MMO goes free-to-play that means it is on its way out, what can you tell us to counter this belief?
Shannon: Well, for us it definitely doesn’t mean that Champs is on its way out. The early success we’re already experiencing with Free for All is great, but we always figured the transition would encourage more users to play. And, given what great competitors like Turbine have achieved with their games, it’s clear that a switch in business model can actually mean new life, not less life. So I think that’s a misconception some users have.
It is a big change to move from a subscription model to a microtransaction model. It’s frightening to the bean counters because it means potentially giving up a nice, even flow of revenue for something which is comparably unpredictable. They see such a switch as very risky. I suspect, then, that some studios may wait until it’s too late before they bite the bullet and try to switch. By then, though, they may have lost the social momentum that MMOs need to survive.
I think the shift in how players want to pay for games has made it rough going for subscription-only games over the last couple years. We’ve been watching this change here at Cryptic for a long while. All our games have had in-game stores, which we used to get our feet wet before taking the plunge. The comments about loving Champs, but not wanting to pay a subscription, became so prevalent that we decided to go for it.
Obsolete Gamer: Does your free-to-play model follow anyone else’s or is it original and if so how?
Shannon: We use a hybrid model that combines free-to-play and subscription aspects. A number of other games do the same kind of thing. We decided to make it as simple as possible, though. There are only two kinds of players, Silver and Gold. Gold Members are subscribers. Silver Players are not. Some other models have four of five levels, which we found confusing.
A lot of the specifics are different in terms of what you get when you are a Gold Member. We wanted to find something in Champs that a casual player might not really care about and provide that to Gold Members as part of the subscription, since they’re enthusiast players who would care. We decided that being able to make a free-form hero (choosing powers and abilities from any framework as you wish) was a good split. We found that brand-new players were often confused about this anyway; they were used to having the role of their characters more defined and their advancement more tightly controlled.
We also don’t break our players up. They all play in the same universe. And, we don’t gate content. We decided to let everyone play all of the core content in the game and advance to the maximum level for free.
In the store, some items we sell will be familiar: XP bonuses, health buffs, damage buffs, and so on. Other items are pretty special to Champions: transform into a werewolf, growing and shrinking, and calling for a sidekick are examples. Of course, we also sell costume parts like we always have. We looked at other games to help us set prices on the items we sell in the store.
Obsolete Gamer: What are the main advantages for those who still pay monthly or are part of the gold membership?
Shannon: Anyone who subscribes, either by paying monthly or with a lifetime subscription, is a Gold Member.
Gold Members are entitled to many things that a Silver Player has to pay for. All the Adventure Packs, power frameworks, and Archetypes are included at no further charge, including any new ones introduced in the future. They have access to an extra dozen costume packs, and several travel powers for free. They also receive a stipend of 400 tokens every month.
But the big feature, which Silver Players cannot get, is the ability to build a free-form hero. Silver Players must choose an Archetype to base their hero on. This specifies which powers the hero can have and what role they play, much like a class in other MMORPGs. A free-form hero has practically no restrictions on which powers they can have. They can choose from any framework they want to make exactly the hero they imagine.
We actually have a handy Features Matrix online to better describe what Gold Members and Silvers Players get… http://champions-online.com/f2p_matrix
Obsolete Gamer: As for updates and expansions how will that be handled with free-to-play?
Shannon: Right now, our Adventure Packs (which can be thought of as micro-expansions) are free for Gold Members and have a small cost for Silver Players. Any new gameplay or systems features we introduce will likely be free for everyone. Our updates are free for everyone.
Obsolete Gamer: Do you think the a-la-carte system of buying various items and access is the future for MMO’s?
Shannon: I think a hybrid model is likely to go on for some time, maybe forever. Some people (and certainly the business) prefer subscriptions. But I think that the a-la-carte model is here to stay and will likely be the predominant revenue stream from here on out.