Allods Online (AO) started its Open Beta last week, and the playerbase is irate over the initial pricing of Item Shop virtual goods and the changes announced for version 1.0.07.07. Keen has written an excellent summary of the concerns of the playerbase.
AO’s Closed Beta was a very positive experience for many players. So what happened at the start of Open Beta? To understand the situation, let’s discuss the basics of a F2P (free-to-play) game from a player perspective:
- you don’t have to pay for the game client
- you don’t have to pay for game account(s)
- you can play the game without having to pay, or you can optionally pay for virtual goods and/or in-game “buffs”
The success of a F2P game depends on the game’s ability to acquire new players and convert some of them into paying customers without alienating the non-paying players, who are advocates for the game and may eventually convert. Typically 10% or less of the playerbase of a F2P game spends real money on the game and the other 90% of the playerbase plays it for free.
An Example of Savvy F2P Core Game Design: KnightOnline
There is a lot of cynicism among players regarding F2P games, but I have played a game, KnightOnline (KO), that had a savvy design for its “item shop.” Let me first state that KO had some major game design and implementation flaws – notably the game was very hackable and exploitable. I’m not here to say that KO was a “good” game, but KO elegantly supported its item shop via two game mechanics:
- the magic anvil for upgrading items
- the buff scrolls for PVP
The magic anvil was usable by anyone, and you could upgrade any gear piece or weapon to +1, +2, etc up to +8. Each plus rating granted a significant improvement to the item’s performance, and typically players tried to get gear up to +6 (very good) or +7 (excellent) or even +8 (amazing). And for the cool factor +8 weapons glowed! However, there was a catch: when you attempted to upgrade an item, if the upgrade failed the item was destroyed, and as you tried to upgrade the item to higher plus ratings, the probability for an upgrade to fail increased. KO’s item shop allowed you to buy an item called a “trina” for $15 USD which would increase the success chance of an upgrade by ~20%. This may not sound like a good deal, but consider that upgrading from +6 to +7 had a ~25% success chance, so a trina brought that up to ~45% or almost double. For some players, the risk of having a very rare weapon or item burn in the upgrade process wasn’t worth the time it would take to farm it again, so they would purchase trinas (in my case mostly through a monthly subscription) to use when upgrading very rare items starting from +5 and up.
In KO, you could get equivalent buffs from either a player priest or from buff scrolls. Enemies could place a debuff on you that would cancel out a priest buff or scroll buff. But here’s was the catch: when you removed the debuff, any priest buffs would need to be re-applied, whereas if you had a buff scroll, once the debuff was removed you still had the buff effect. Simply put, buff scrolls were simpler and more reliable from a playability standpoint.
So when I played KO back in 2005 you didn’t have to pay to play the game, but I and others in my guild eventually signed up for the optional $15 USD monthly subscription because we felt it was worthwhile to do so. And that’s how the F2P model should work – you get hooked, you see the benefit of paying, you become a paying customer. Some of our guildees paid more than $50 USD per month – more than triple your typical P2P monthly subscription – to buy virtual goods such as trinas. One guildee, a business owner from Brazil, was paying $100+ USD per month.
KO’s game developer made some F2P changes after I quit playing in 2006 that I thought were poor ideas, such as login queues for players who didn’t pay. But I saw firsthand how the trina concept and buff concept successfully motivated players to pay real money for virtual goods. It was incredible to witness from a business perspective.
The Paradox of Allods Online Planned F2P System
Now that I’ve described a functional F2P example, let’s talk about the game mechanics in AO at endgame and the implications for the players. When you die at endgame you get a debuff, Fear of Death (FoD), for 51 minutes that lowers your stats by 25%, and the debuff can stack up to 4 times.
Currently you can remove the debuff by getting resurrected by another player. However in version 1.0.07.07 resurrection will not remove the debuff so your options are:
- spend in-game coin, or
- wait until the debuff wears off, or
- use an Item shop consumable called Perfume, or
- some combination of the above
Perfume costs $13.50 USD for a stack of 20, and they last 30 minutes each. Therefore if you die 20 times a month and decide to use Perfume to remove the debuff each time, you’ll be spending $13.50 USD per month, which is conspicuously close to the industry-standard monthly sub of $15 USD. The FoD / Perfume mechanic effectively turns AO from a F2P game into a P2P game because the game experience of not paying will be lousy. The game operator and developer are not going to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes about this.
The kicker is you get the FoD debuff if you die in PVE or PVP. This is more harsh than the item repair costs incurred when dying in PVE in WoW. The FoD mechanic has major implications in terms of growing the playerbase and the extent to which players will participate in activities such as PVP where death is part of the experience. I was hoping to see robust, active PVP in endgame for AO, but with the FoD mechanic, it’s not going to happen.
Who is to Blame for the Allods Online Situation?
Some players are claiming that the game operator gPotato is pulling a “bait and switch.” Certainly, gPotato has culpability in terms of the initial outrageous Item Shop pricing, e.g. $20 USD for a backpack with 24 slots instead of the 18 you start with.
However, the situation may go much deeper than just the game operator. Check out the following comments from a Russian player regarding the game developer:
Guys if u r really do not understand what is going on, i will explain to you from Russian point of view. Firstly – original developer team stopped developing Allods Online at CBT1-2 at Russia, because Nival – company developer, merged with astrum and mail.ru, main game designer left this project because he had another point of view on this game before he could finish it, new director came, after that Allods progress stopped almost completely, mail.ru bought AstrumNival so at this point game was destroyed, because mail.ru is the most greedy russian game service platform.That explains why they cannot fix music and sounds easily, why it tooks so long of them to fix bugs, why animations are partly ruined and Kanian fem for example run through ground, and explains why there are bugs in game that were already fixed before, they just do not know the code well, and they are not capable of further Allods creation. Allods original developers and designer are working now on project that has Dota like gameplay, and that explains why you have a feeling of unfinished good game,because allods creation was stopped at Closed Russian Beta. But however they see the situation so they r trying to make the maximum profit out of game until it will be too late, because they r not capable of programming anything really new, because they have not developed this game, period. even russians not happy with shop, not even game not finished but i found myself not able to afford stuff
If that information is correct, the game changes in version 1.0.07.07 are being designed and implemented by people who were not part of the original development team. Yikes.
When a game has contuinity in the development team’s leadership and staff, it’s reasonable to expect the following positive outcomes:
- there is clarity on the game’s business model
- there is consistent alignment on the game design: the core game mechanics, the direction for content, and how to improve and evolve the game over time
- there is consistency in the quality of implementation because the development team has learned over time how to architect, design, develop, test, and scale the game, and they know the code base inside and out
- there is a consistent feeling of ownership by the people working on the game – it’s “my game” as opposed to “someone else’s game that I’m working on”
- there are strong relationships between the game developer and its customers (the game publishers and game operators) and they collaborate to create a compelling player experience that drives revenue
However, as noted in the comments above, there may have been significant turnover in the AO development team at both the leadership and staff level. It’s unclear to what extent there is a development team that is continuing to work on the game.
I truly hope gPotato and the game developer can sort the situation out in a way that makes sense from a business perspective and from a player perspective, because AO is an excellent game property.
Update @ 8pm PST, 22 February 2010:
There is a great thread by galethbg regarding the ownership structure and history of the companies involved in AO’s development. This at least gives me some hope that there may be some stability and continuity on the AO development team. Hopefully the game developer will heed the worldwide player feedback on the upcoming changes and adjust them in a more reasonable fashion.
In addition, gPotato is now solicting feedback about the Item Shop on their forums, which is a step in the right direction.
Update @ 1am PST, 23 February 2010:
gPotato has posted an article that communicates the development team is intact and that gPotato is evaluating the Item Shop prices based on the feedback thread listed in the previous update.
Update @ 3 March 2010:
gPotato has reduced the prices in the Item Shop to what I consider reasonable levels. Good news for fans of AO!