Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

NCsoft unveils Wildstar's "play to pay" business model

Jeremy Gaffney describes the new MMO's solution to the "polarising" problem of free-to-play

Attempting to be all things to all people is generally regarded as bad strategy, but not when it comes to monetising an MMO. Monthly subscriptions have proved too high a hurdle for most players, while micro-transaction based models are the subject of a sustained backlash from those tired of compromised gameplay and mercenary, money-grabbing tactics. MMOs require huge audiences and a constant stream of revenue to justify their existence, but, when it comes to the business model, what works for one developer won't necessarily work for their players.

"Business models are a very polarising thing," NCsoft's Jeremy Gaffney told Gamesindustry International. "Some people love this model or hate that model, but if you look on forums you'll see that people hate models a lot more than they love 'em. They've been burned before. They know the downside way more than they know the upside."

"Some people love this model or hate that model, but if you look on forums you'll see that people hate models a lot more than they love 'em"

According to Gaffney, that's as true for subscriptions as it is for the more obviously controversial free-to-play model, and any new MMO with commercial ambitions must recognise the strengths and weaknesses of both. NCsoft's Wildstar is an attempt to do just that: rather than run screaming from subscriptions and straight into the highly contentious world of micro-transactions, Gaffney and his team have engineered a system that embraces the most positive elements of both.

"There's two major options to play," he said. "One is super simple: buy a box, and pay a subscription. There's a class of player that likes that, because they know how much they're paying, they know the playing field is level, and they can expect big updates. That's the joy of the subscription model."

The other option isn't quite so simple, and while it can't be considered entirely unique - something to which Gaffney readily admits - in theory it will offer the opportunity to play Wildstar for free without undermining those that prefer to pay their way. As such, WIldstar's economy - both real and virtual - is geared around time: players either give real money in exchange for another week or month in the game, or raise enough virtual currency to trade for that extra time with other players.

The key to it all is C.R.E.D.D. - virtual tokens that can be exchanged for more time in the game. C.R.E.D.D. can be purchased through the Wildstar store for real money, or from other players through a virtual marketplace: the rather drily named "Commodities Exchange." On the Wildstar store, C.R.E.D.D. will have fixed price - broadly similar to the cost of subscription for the equivalent time period - but NCsoft will not impose value on the Commodities Exchange. That will be set by the players, and the familiar laws of supply and demand.

Ultimately, Wildstar's economy will rely on some people spending real money on C.R.E.D.D. to function at all, but those with a mind - and the time - to do so can play the game for free and never once be bothered by a micro-transaction. For those with a strong aversion to free-to-play it's an intriguing compromise, and one that places the onus on NCsoft to deliver a game that will reward such dedicated players. If earning enough virtual gold to secure another month in the game feels like a grind, the whole fragile construction could break and fall apart.

"The job we have to do right is to make sure that gold enters the economy properly," Gaffney said. "Not in an abusive fashion, not with exploits. The second thing is to make sure that there's fun ways for gold to be spent... We have a couple of ways that gold enters and leaves the economy that aren't normal with other games, so it's going to make C.R.E.D.D. feel quite different to systems in other games. But I freely admit that we have to do our job well on that. If not, then people will opt to pay for a subscription instead."

Or they may leave the game altogether. One of the major problems Wildstar will have to overcome is communication. Wildstar's business model may not require the several paragraphs of explanation it is given in this article, but it's not something that can be succinctly described on the back of a box, either. Like a good many other MMOs, Wildstar requires an up-front retail purchase to get any kind of access to the game - each copy is equivalent to a one-month subscription, and includes three week-long guest passes - and it's fair to ask just how many consumers will truly understand its "play to pay" system when the time comes to make a purchasing decision.

A monthly payment of £8.99 is a simple enough concept, but the same can't be said of C.R.E.D.D. and its attendant player-to-player economy. Wildstar is not a free-to-play game, but it's success is probably reliant on the ways in which it can be played for nothing. Gaffney is clear about the benefits of subscription revenue for both the developer and the player, but that alone is unlikely to be enough.

"The thing about this system is that it has big upsides for players and it has upsides for us - for that reason we love it. The challenge is that it's not as easy as saying that it's free-to-play or subscription or buy-to-play. It's a particular mix, and for that reason I don't think the mass audience necessarily embraces it. I think skilled players embrace it, who know similar systems from games they've played before and just need to learn our variant and how that works.

"But we're okay with that. We still think it's valuable to players. We think it's worth taking the time to explain it. The mantra has been that we're not marketing our game to naive players... We're speaking to gamers, and I think gamers will get it. If you don't want to pay a sub, we're putting in the extra effort to make sure you can do that."

Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

More stories

Lineage 2 M surpasses $152m in three months

NCSoft's Mobile MMORPG is currently only available in South Korea

By Rebekah Valentine

ArenaNet bracing for layoffs

Update: Layoffs confirmed to have occurred today as part of organization restructuring

By Rebekah Valentine

Latest comments (12)

I wish them luck balancing this model.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
This model actually works "unofficially" but quite successful in EVE Online
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext8 years ago
I fully understand what they were trying to do... but they are both behind the times, and not taking into account how players will use this system.

For the first half of the game, it is PvE focussed, and there is no real reason for players to buy/sell CREDD. However, once the game does the endgame shift, and the focus is the elder games, players will want things... and will buy/sell CREDD to get them. Due to the limited economy, this becomes P2W. It is not about people playing for free off CREDD, as there is no real incetive to do that. What will actually happen, is people will use CREDD as a way to outdo others, and win via monetary means.

It will be very interesting to see how they do with this model, as there is not really an scenario that is win-win, only really win-lose.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (12)
Tim Ogul Illustrator 8 years ago
Well, I'm out. There is absolutely no way that I'm paying for a subscription MMO anymore, and I have no illusions that I would be making money fast enough to afford to buy "CREDD" either. That system will only benefit the market manipulator types that will make a fortune on the in-game markets, not the average players that are just trying to have fun. Also, if they believe this will in any way reduce gold farming they are kidding themselves. What will happen instead is that gold farmers will undercut the $20 sale price of CREDD, just as they undercut the gem prices on GW2.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic8 years ago
There are interesting opposing forces at play here. On the one hand, the in-game price of CREDD will be driven by the steadily increasing rate at which players can earn in-game currency. E.g. If I was a poor Wildstar addict with plenty of free time, maybe I’d be prepared to dedicate 40-60 hours per month doing nothing but farming gold to spend for my next month’s play-time. As players level / gear up and become more efficient at farming gold, the gold per hour rate that players can farm at will increase, driving up the price of CREDD.

On the other hand, once people see that they can pay the equivalent of (just over) 1 month's subscription in real money to get an ever increasing purse of in-game gold, then a significant number of players will start buying CREDD from the store and putting it on the auction house to do just that, trying to undercut each other of course and providing an automatic way to stop in-game prices spiralling out of control. These are the people who would have considered spending real money on ‘less legal’ alternatives anyway, so the game as a whole isn’t affected significantly. Ultimately, the price of CREDD will balance around the amount of gold that the most dedicated players can earn in the hours they’re willing to spend each month to earn their next month.

On a macro level, significant amounts of play time from higher level players will get converted into extra subscription time for them, gold for players who want to pay real money for an in-game boost, and real money for Carbine via the store that sells CREDD in the first place. I’m not sure who loses out compared to games without an official / legal way to do the equivalent.

*edit* @Tim, let's say that the monthly sub will be $8 and that CREDD will be $9, I don't see an easy way for a random gold farming site to get in on the action. Unless they can sell CREDD for under $5, I don't see players taking the risk of having their account stolen or banned or their credit card details abused, just to save less than $3 off the official subscription price.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Edward Buffery on 19th August 2013 9:03pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I quite like the way this sounds. I was never really keen on trying to play the Ah in Wow, and grinding for gold sucked.
I wonder if paying for a game time virtual currency is in practice different that paying for game time directly. Do you pay costs per day or per month? Having a stack of game time that gets used up slowly if you don't play the game often sounds very appealing to me.
Ultimately, what's stopping me to pay for MMOs is that I don't feel I play them enough for the fee to be worth it over an entire month.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Simon Dotschuweit MD SE / CTO, Dorado Games8 years ago
Looking forward to hearing some more about their experience with this after they're live, planning is good and fine, unfortunately reality often is unpredictable, could be interesting though, lets see ;)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Sam Maxted Journalist / Community / Support 8 years ago
I don't see this as a long-term solution for them. It works for EVE Online, but that game really is an anomaly. It might help in the medium-term, but I see the final business model going like this, regardless of what NCsoft hope will happen:

Short-term: People buy the boxed product in reasonable numbers, subscriptions seem fine to start with.
Medium-term: Players reach max level and start grinding for loot / gold. NCsoft's plan to have crafted items be - and stay - the best in the game creates a market for Plex (sorry, CREDD) for those who want to progress quickly.
Long-term: Like other MMOs, subscriptions start to drop off and the game will be forced to become free to play, with micropayments and optional subscriptions.

The best NCsoft can hope for from their point of view is to drag the Medium-term stage out as far as they can, and hope to minimise fallout of building what looks like it might be, on paper at least, Pay2Win system. Also, that in-game currency doesn't become worthless, with vast amounts required to buy a single CREDD and high level items only selling for CREDD.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Joseph Harvey Department head, Firelight Technologies8 years ago
Hmm, a similar system worked for the Iron Realms games; It'll be interesting to see whether it works in this context.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Realistically speaking, a lot of players won't even look at the game after hearing it has a subscription. Creds are a way to reenter the conversation after a person dropped the bomb of saying "subs? not interested."

But imagining somebody say "I can play for free, if I want", is similar to remembering an alcoholic say he could quit anytime he wants. They think they can, but it ain't so.

You do not play for free, you are being groomed to become a whale at the cash shop.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore8 years ago
I think i am getting old. More i work in this industry everything is becoming more complicated than before. From development process to the business model. Some may call it an adaptation or evolution but the way we make and play the games had been lot simplier before.. ;)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Saehoon Lee on 20th August 2013 2:52pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic8 years ago
@Klaus, I would imagine that the potential whales are the people who'd have no problem paying for a subscription, whereas the people who would consider sacrificing gold farming time to buy 'playing' time are the people with little money, so it doesn't make sense to me that the people who they are hoping will play enough to buy CREDD are the potential whales.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.