10 Sep 2014

The High Price of Founding

I have a concern, and it’s about the high price of MMO ‘founders packs.’ For a strong title that’s still early in development, it’s a great way to raise funds and bring in eager gamers to test the game out. But the status of being an early adopter comes with a cost, and it’s usually measured in dollars. I’ve seen studios charge as much as $150 to get into the alpha of a free-to-play title.

Fundamentally, that feels wrong. With an unseen and un-previewed title, the risk for buyer’s remorse is huge. More importantly, however, I don’t think it’ll result in the right mix of testers that will hammer content hard without trying to buy their way around a problem, usually through premium currency tokens. That might be the kind of game that the studio wants to make, but my experience tells me there are better ways to persuade players to part with their cash.

The most common strategy I’ve seen used is where higher prices are charged for earlier access. Pre-alpha costs $150, alpha costs $100, closed beta is at $50, and open beta is free. The bigger packs come with more in-game items and premium currency, but little else besides. It rewards those cash-rich players that can risk that much on a game they might only play once, while hindering the cash-poor but time-rich players that would be a great testing asset.

What would I propose? Glad you asked. Basically, it’s a blend of the existing methods we already see, and the best of Kickstarter. Crucially though, it also lets players trade up – if they like what they see, they can pay more, unlock more, and get themselves a bargain. It reduces the risk on the player, but rewards the developer as well. As an example, imagine there’s a steampunk sandbox MMO called Cogsworld, and it’s just about to hit alpha. Here’s how I’d see it playing out:

  • $20 – Tourist Visa: Limited to 1000 – The Cogsworld Tourist Office only hands out a limited number of visas every year, so grab one before they run out! A stipend of 200 Platinum Cogs is included
  • $50 – Resident: Limited to 2000 – Buy a green card and the city of Cogsopolis will grant you numerous perks, including 600 Platinum Cogs to get you started.
  • $100 – Nobility – As a member of one of the Cogsworld Nobility, you are always welcome. Your inheritance of 1500 Platinum Cogs will be waiting for you at the Bank of Cogsopolis.
  • $200 – Upper Crust – Part of the Cogsworld Elite, your family has amassed a fortune of 3000 Platinum Cogs. In addition, you will be sent a real-life pennant featuring the Cogsopolis Coat of Arms, and real-world versions of the Cogsopolis currency.

All of these are just rough examples – the costs are roughly what I’d charge, but the limits and rewards are completely flexible.

On top of that, I’d allow players to buy premium currency from an item store and exchange it for regular currency on the trading post, giving those cash-poor players a way to earn extra Platinum Cogs simply by playing the game at a rate that’s set by the market itself. Finally, all currency would be reset at the end of open beta, and reassigned to the original players as part of an overall server wipe. The ability to trade would also exist in the live game.

Having this run through beta will, in itself, generate some interesting data:

  • How much/how long does each bracket play?
  • Do players from each bracket drop out/give up at similar points, or is a group more committed?
  • When do players decide to upgrade their package, and what persuaded them to do it?
  • What bracket is more involved in the community, either championing the game or providing helpful feedback?

All of this can help the development team to understand if their actions have meaningful impacts on the playerbase. For a free-to-play title that’s reliant on those with large and small wallets, it also gives them a chance to balance out reception across the spectrum.

Here’s the other thing as well: as Cogsworld edges closer to launch, the limitations on those first two packs can be dropped, but the prices increased/adjusted to the final launch packs. Essentially, players are getting a discount for joining early, rather than being charged a premium.

That said, monetization is an ongoing discussion. Is this the kind of model you’d like to see more of, or would you prefer a different form of founders pack? Maybe you’re happy with the status quo? Whatever your opinion, sound off in the comments.

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