19 Aug 2013

WildStar: Down to Business

It’s been a while in coming, but the news is finally out: WildStar is going with a hybrid subscription model. We’ll pay once for the box (with a free month thrown in), then pay every month for continued access to the game.

The hybrid part comes in through Certificates of Research, Exploration, Destruction and Development, or CREDD. There’s a neat little guide to how this works over on the WildStar official site, but essentially it’s very similar to the PLEX system in EVE Online. Players can buy a CREDD from Carbine for cash, and then sell it in-game on the Commodities Exchange for in-game gold.

When I had lunch with WildStar Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney, he had this to say about business models. “It’s because everybody hates them [laughs]. Everybody has business models they cannot frikkin’ stand. How many posts do you see on the forums? ‘If the game has a cash shop, I’ll never play.’ ‘If it’s free to play, I’ll never play.’ ‘If it’s subscription, I’ll never play.’ ‘If I have to pay for the box, I’ll never play.’”

Today’s announcement is no exception. Some gamers have cheered WildStar’s subscription offering, while others proclaim it as a foolish move in a market dominated by free-to-play games. What does surprise me is the response to CREDD as a hybrid solution, with a large amount of theorising and postulating on how it’ll actually affect the economy. I’ll come to that in a moment, but first I want to address something else – content updates.

A Reason to Subscribe

Justin Olivetti over at Bio Break has a good point – subscription MMOs are the anomaly rather than the norm. We’ve almost been conditioned to expect subscription games to fail, with RIFT, The Secret World and SWTOR being prime examples of gamers voting with their wallets.

But I’d argue that there’s a flipside to this – RIFT managed to soldier on through several years and a full expansion before making the switch, largely thanks to regular content updates. SWTOR battled against the limitations of the Hero Engine and relied on a Warcraft-style patch cycle, which subscribers quickly grew tired of. And The Secret World had a number of problems at launch, while the Buy-to-play switch worked well in luring players back.

It’s clear that we’re prepared to invest in a dynamic, changing world. Guild Wars 2 now releases Living Story updates every two weeks, setting a record as the fastest-selling MMO. By contrast, Warcraft’s low patch-rate has seen subscriber numbers continue to drop, even though those updates are brimming with heavyweight content.

But is free-to-play the answer? Sure, it’s possible to charge for content updates, but then you have the challenge of working out what to give away to propel the story along, and what to gate off behind a paywall. It results in a continent that’s been broken up by content pockets, or where a newcomer has to dig deep just to catch up with all the veterans.

A subscription isn’t the only solution to this issue, but it is a solution. The important thing to bear in mind is that it’s an agreement between the player and developer. I’ll pay you every month, but I expect regular updates in return. At this point, I have huge sympathy for WildStar Content Director Mike Donatelli – his workload is going to be immense.

Earning Street CREDD

So what about that hybrid model? It’s actually easier to dissect, considering how we have a working example with EVE Online. The premise is simple: If you’re cash-rich and time-poor, buy a CREDD to sell on the Commodities Exchange. If, on the other hand, you’re cash-poor but time-rich, earn some in-game money to buy a CREDD.

Here’s the important bit though – this does not make gold appear out of thin air. Someone has to go out and do work to earn that gold, before they can spend it on a CREDD. It’s not a way of printing free gold by maxing out your credit cards.

Likewise, if I buy a CREDD for cash and stick it on the Exchange at an astronomical price, nobody will buy it. If you spend most of your playtime grinding money for a CREDD, it’s unlikely to be fun. The price will probably vary over time (just like PLEX has for EVE), but it’ll be market forces that work out how much they’ll cost.

As a result, the’s likely to be an equilibrium reached. An agreed market value, between how much effort buyers are prepared to put in, and how much real-world worth the sellers associate that effort with.

That market value is something that the WildStar Econ Team are going to have to watch like a hawk to ensure that it works for everyone. With competing sinks for both money and time (raiding versus grinding out a CREDD, for example), getting that balance right is going to be an interesting one. The last thing anyone wants is a market with no buyers or sellers.

That said, it’s a mechanism that’s worked for EVE Online, EverQuest II with Krono, and Guild Wars 2 with Gems.

There is, however, one last thing I’d encourage Carbine to consider…

Game Time Codes have been a popular part of the EVE marketplace. Several websites sell GTCs through an affiliate scheme, offering fansites a cut of the profits for each referral that leads to a purchase. It means that fans can support the site and the game at the same time, in a way that’s virtually unheard of in other games. Those Game Time Codes can then be converted to a number of PLEX, depending on the duration, allowing them to be sold on through the marketplace.

Considering the now-legendary relationship Carbine has with the WildStar community, please can we have a similar setup for WildStar?

The Unsupported

I’ll be honest, I like the all-you-can-eat subscription model. I especially like the potential that CREDD brings. But there is one group that’s not supported by the WildStar Business Model, and they’re the time-poor but cash-poor gamers. The minimum wage worker who puts in long hours just to make rent, and uses an MMO just to escape from it all for a few hours. The parent with three kids and a few hours spare. For those of us who got into online gaming during our college or University years, these might seem familiar.

In these cases, I’m not sure if there’s a WildStar-shaped answer. Paying a subscription for a few hours of play every few weeks might not be good value, no matter how much you love the universe. Short of having a noble benefactor who sends you a Game Time Code every so often, I can’t see an easy solution. On one hand, forcing players to invest real money in a game cuts out a lot of the unsavoury riff-raff. On the other, it does wall off the game to a section of the playerbase.

But with heavy raiding, warplots and a deep amount of elder game content, is WildStar a game for this type of casual player? The libertarian side of me argues that there should be a way for them to enjoy it, particularly if they’ve been involved with the community these past two years. The rational side runs counter, arguing that there are those who would walk away from a free-to-play game, and that there would always be losers no matter where the balance is struck. And, as heartless as it may sound, developers still need to be paid.

I think that, as long as the content updates continue to flow, WildStar will maintain a respectable number of subscribers. And, as long as the economy functions fluidly, CREDD will be a viable option for many. But for the rest? To misquote Abraham Lincoln, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

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