Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Putting The "Buy" In Buy-To-Play: Guild Wars, GW2

Wilhelm recently rolled out a reminder of the handy NCSoft financials chart, prompting SynCaine to pop up in the comments with a predictable snipe at the Buy to Play model. What that chart really suggests to me, though, is that if you run with a revenue stream built on getting people to buy your boxes you do need to come up with boxes for them to buy at least once in a while.

For whatever reason ArenaNet decided to wait two and a half years before announcing an expansion for GW2. Chances are, a full three years will have passed before money changes hands for that expansion, pre-orders notwithstanding.

By contrast, before the first Guild Wars game reached its third birthday, it had received no fewer than four boxed expansions or "Campaigns". All of them were offered for sale both online and in bricks and mortar stores and there was a fifth, digital download only, Mission Pack. Two of the expansions even had premium-priced Collectors' Editions.

Another expansion was in the pipeline when Anet suddenly changed track. That expansion, which would have been called Utopia, apparently grew so out of hand in scale and ambition that nothing but a full new game would do it justice.

The problem came with the bi-annual development cycle ANet had been running up until then. To quote the PC Gamer article in which ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain and game designer Eric Flannum were interviewed, "What the team felt it couldn’t do was implement its exciting new ideas in the game’s current campaign-every-six-months plan. While the promise of fresh standalone content twice a year sounds great to players, its requirements have actually caused Guild Wars to become somewhat convoluted from a game-design perspective."

Strain explained the decision thus: "We don’t want to make complicated games. We want to make fun, easy-to-grasp games that are easy to get into and not frontloaded with complexity."

Let's pause a moment to savor the irony...

First sighting of the Nageling Giant - Beta 2012

As a result of this new perspective, instead of continuing with the "make a box, sell a box, make another box" routine, development on Guild Wars was effectively sidelined in favor of making a new MMO entirely - Guild Wars 2. Assets from the discontinued project were rolled into the less ambitious, final Guild Wars expansion, Eye of the North. From then on the lion's share of development resources went into the new game.

Guild Wars continued to receive live updates and new content right up until the launch of its successor, at which point it was put into maintenance mode and mothballed. That in itself must have given ANet and NCSoft some considerable data on how much money a B2P game that isn't producing new boxes can be expected to generate.

In fact the change of emphasis pobably generated a lot more data than anyone expected. At the time the announcement was made in the spring of 2007 ANet estimated there'd be a GW2 beta in 2008 and a launch within two years. In the end the beta and launch both had to wait until 2012, twice as long as they'd optimistically anticipated.

Whatever financial metrics were produced during the near five-year gap between the final boxed product for Guild Wars and the one and only GW2 box sale they were apparently encouraging enough to convince someone that a B2P MMO could survive and prosper without producing anything for people to buy. Except, of course, the fripperies of an in-game cash shop.

It did always seem far-fetched. Guild Wars, after all, had more to rely on than just the one original box for those seven years. Chez Bhagpuss, we bought the original game just after release, played it, enjoyed it and moved on. When the buzz around GW2 led us to dip back into the original game again we could just have re-installed from our original discs but instead we both bought the collected edition with all the expansions.

No doubt over the years many returning players re-invested in various combinations of single and combined packs and many new players worked their way through the sequence a box at a time. GW2, by comparison, has had nothing further to offer its 3.5m customers past that initial purchase. Under the circumstances the line on that chart seems to have held up passably well but clearly something had to change.

Three years and a dozen characters later: he's still there and so am I.
The Buy-to-Play model seems to me to be about the best of the bunch but it does, I re-iterate, rely on giving players plenty to buy. Pushing out one box and calling it job done is just not going to cut it no matter how many garish pantomime dame outfits your artists manage to churn out for the cash shop.

The dirty little secret that no-one wants to admit is that people like buying things. Yesterday I spent about £15 of my substantial Amazon credit on a copy of The Elder scrolls Online. It's an MMO I didn't even care enough about to bother downloading at open beta because it uses a combat style I dislike and is set in a continuity for which I have little affection. Nevertheless, now I know the subscription is going away, a purchase seems not just reasonable but inevitable.

Pasduil calls such behavior Buy To Not Play and he makes a very good point. I do have no real intention of playing TESO . On the other hand the screenshots do look pretty so I'll probably have fun running around for a while, maybe get a few blog posts out of it so, what the heck, let's give it a shot. Why not?.

In that fashion Zenimax have been able to get money from me they never would have had otherwise. Chances are it will be all they'll get but who knows? If the game gets a hook into me I could end up buying some of the DLC they've already confirmed will form part of their ongoing B2P offer. The B2P model opens up a door the subscription kept firmly closed.

ArenaNet, on the other hand, will have had my custom for thousands of hours before they get another penny from me. They went with a B2P model that was all P and no B. I would willingly have paid them real money, either for DLC or new boxes, long ago but they have stubbornly declined to give me that option. Instead they've chosen to pump out free content of very dubious quality and cash shop offers of very negligible interest. Everyone loses.

After fifteen years of first playing and paying and latterly playing and not paying for this wonderful hobby, y'know what, game developers? Why not let me give you money for content. That way just works. It really does.

I liked that "Buy An Expansion Every Six to Twelve Months" thing you used to do. It was the best of all the myriad payment models you've tried. Why don't you go with it? What's more, now you aren't asking for a monthly subscription fee there's a passing chance I'll buy your new Expansion or Pack or Campaign or whatever the heck you're calling it even if I really don't have time to play your game!

 Stop giving away the product for nothing! Make something at least halfway decent on a timely schedule and then sell it to me - in a box or a download I really don't care. I'll snap your hand off. Enough with the all the faffing around. Take my money already!

Carbine? You're up next!

16 comments:

  1. I've only been reading your blog for a short time, having just recently discovered it, so I don't know where you stand really as far as story goes, but if you're big into the lore of a game, pay attention to the quests in ESO. I find it a pretty solid mmo that has problems, but I've always found the questing to be excellent. Not because you do a lot of things that are new to questing, but the stories and some of the decisions you have to make are pretty fantastic. It's rare these days for me to remember any quests or quest characters, but there have been a large number of them in ESO that really stuck with me because they were so well done and had such an excellent storyline.
    If you can get past just how many long lost artifacts and relics you're going to uncover in your questing, there's some great tales to experience in the game.

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    1. Hi and welcome aboard! I had heard a few things about the strength of the questing in TESO and I imagine that's how I'll spend much of whatever time I find to play the game. After three years of not questing in GW2 I find I really like getting stuck into a traditional quest chain. I even enjoyed some of the quests in ArcheAge which I think puts me in a very elite club indeed.

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    2. As someone who read all the Archeage quest text, I think I can safely say if you enjoyed those quests, you will really love the ESO ones, even if you're not a huge fan of the ES setting. There are so many memorable characters and moments, and some very "holy s***" moments. I especially love how many times my character has been tricked because people are so shady and they have all these hidden agendas and purposes while sugar coating the things they tell you. It makes the characters and world feel very vibrant and dangerous. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on the game. And I just saw the patch notes for the HUGE 1.6 patch went up, so you'll be starting at a good time. Them adding in the full stealth/criminal/bounty system is going to be a great boon to the game I think.

      - Vamen

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  2. I am in full favor and support of what you say, Mr. Bhagpuss. I like supporting companies and giving them money for value. This used to be subscriptions - when I played 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month $15 was a bargain. When I play your game 5 hours a month, or zero, it's a "waste". This is just my perspective, some still feel, get, and argue there is value there.

    I would buy a box that allowed for unlimited play often. I bought TSW for that reason even though I don't play it much. I am interested and *will* play it, but never would have jumped at it with a sub fee. So now they are $20 richer (thanks to steam, or they would have been $40 richer)

    Of all the payment methods we have there I think it is the most fair and equitable between gamer and company.

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    1. I think the pure subscription model actually favors the player more than the game company, which is why most of them have either abandoned it or at least added cash shops on top.

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  3. I get that Anet felt that GuildWars, while running with a successful buy to play model, made for a "convoluted" game, I just cannot see "let's fix this by tossing out the successful revenue aspect" as the correct answer. But, as I long suspected, their lords and masters in Seoul showed them the error of their ways.

    As for buying things, I always tell my wife that I have no problem spending money on things that get used or, in this case, games I will play. I do want to get out of the "buy not to play" habit however. While I could get ESO for $15, I won't be buying it just to have a copy. But with a teenage daughter and college in the not too distant future, saving money has become a bit of a priority.

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    1. Yes, I left out the part about having the disposable income in the first place. Also in the case of my reckless self-indulgence in buying a game I probably will only dabble with I wasn't spending real money - it was Amazon credit given to me for my birthday and Christmas so I guess technically I didn't even buy it for myself.

      As for ANet's exact relationship with NCSoft I'd really love to know just exactly how that works.

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  4. GW2 cash shop+ whatever number of boxes they still sell have outsold any of the GW1 expansions every single quarter.

    I'll repeat - every single quarter of GW2 bested the best GW:Factions quarter and the best GW:Nightfall quarter.

    That is reason enough to be careful about releasing an expansion for GW2 - they can upset the amount of money the cash shop is generating, which as we saw trounces those GW:Factions and GW:Nightfall boxes.

    GW2 box sales alone in the first 2 quarters of existence (3Q12 & 3Q14) sold as much as GW1 entire life.

    So you say that you do all the P and no B.
    But either you are the minority or the minority that buys, buy enough to offset the majority that doesn't.
    And maybe the non paying players pay for themselves by "encouraging" those that are crazy gem store buyers, buying.

    Whatever the data Anet possesses (which would be interesting to glimpse but will not happen) this model worked even better than GW1 model.

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    1. PS: I believe the original plan for GW2 was to release expansions at a steady pace.
      But surprisingly strong cash shop revenue changed the plans, delaying the release of any expansion and creating all this Living Story, that was produced by Anet B (or even C) team.

      In a earlier post you wonder about the nature of the relationship between Anet and NCSoft.
      It seems clear that Anet is NCSoft's darling and they pretty much have blank check (successful GW1 & extremely successful GW2) and that will only change if GW2:HoT is a failure.

      Revenues of $15-25M/quarter is probably enough to play Anet's yearly budget (and if 1 quarter might just not be enough, 2 surely is).

      If GW2:HoT sells 1-2 million boxes and makes the cash shop revenues stay on $15M+/quarter. Anet is set to have free reign for another couple of years.

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    2. Do you mind linking sources to these numbers? I'm having a bit of trouble finding them through google, especially the GW1 ones, since the search engine always gives me recent stuff.

      -Ursan

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    3. http://global.ncsoft.com/global/ir/earnings.aspx

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    4. I'd like to see the source too - is it buried in those famous "financials" somewhere? - Ah you posted that as I was replying! Thanks.

      Not sure how selling expansions on a timely basis would negatively impact the cash shop sales though. Surely the most likely outcome would be similar or increased cash shop sales (more people actively playing = more potential cash shop customers) plus the expansion box sale revenue on top?

      Unless you assume customers, having bought a box, would reduce their Gem Shop spend because of that outlay, or that ANet doesn't have the resources to produce an expansion and toys for the Gem Store at the same time, neither of which seems all that likely.

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    5. Well I have no data to go for other than the fact Anet didn't release an expansion for 2.5 years.
      So maybe they know something that we don't.

      Expansions have the "downside" of dispersing content, which will lead to sparser populations and "ghost town" syndromes.
      Anet has a story of in both GW1 (zaishen quests) & GW2 to try to keep population density.

      Anet clearly has the resources to do an expansion and gem store content+Living World at the same - they have been doing it for the last 2.5 years.

      And HoT is only one of the projects Colin Johanson alluded to - there might be an inproved Living World 3, the a chunk of expansion 2 already designed (Factions & Nightfall and Nightfall &Utopia/GWEN developments coexisted) or something else entirely.

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  5. Glad to see another B2NP fan!

    I think a lot of games that are allegedly F2P are really B2P in the way you describe and like. There aren't very many LOTRO players that neither ever subscribe nor buy any content for example. Personally I've been pretty happy with buying an expansion a year from them.

    I don't buy a lot of fluff, and charging me for using a few extra database rows (inventory space etc) seems ridiculous bordering on a con to me. But I'm more than happy to pay for new content and new systems that devs have put actual effort into creating. (Of course as long as the value-for-money is reasonable, which with Turbine was getting to be debatable with the last couple expansions.)

    Seems like a fairly straightforward proposition to me... you do some work of substance, I like what you've done, I pay for it.

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    1. I always thought of LOTRO's zone-by-zone content selling as being more reminiscent of B2P than a traditional F2P model.

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  6. I'm generally in favor of the payment models that ask for the most money from the most committed, as long as it's in the $10-30 a month range.

    I haven't paid a dime for LOTRO in ages, I simply don't play it enough. I think it's fair that those who log on for a couple hours a week in GW2 don't need to pay a cent.

    Bhagpuss is a major outlier for the GW2 model, imo, who doesn't feel any need for extra bag or bank slots, or additional fancy cosmetics or conveniences like the salvage kit or infinite harvesting tools.

    Still, his entire household has what... 4 or 5 accounts now? So I think it was pretty successful pulling some cash out of him too, right! ;)

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