The Curious Case of the “F2P” MMORPG Allods Online


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:

  1. you don’t have to pay for the game client
  2. you don’t have to pay for game account(s)
  3. 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:

  1. the magic anvil for upgrading items
  2. 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:

  1. spend in-game coin, or
  2. wait until the debuff wears off, or
  3. use an Item shop consumable called Perfume, or
  4. 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!

 

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Posted in Allods Online, Business Analysis, Game Design
21 comments on “The Curious Case of the “F2P” MMORPG Allods Online
  1. Komaf Apachee says:

    I respect your opinion Taugrim – but the trust level with this mmorpg is gone. Was Warhammer really that bad>? I mean seriously on Volkmar Gorfang etc or whichever of the last 4 servers you choose there is a ton of action…On VOlk I can speak for t1-t4.

    Just my 2 cents but I sadly have to believe Allods has betrayed even itself.

    • taugrim says:

      WAR was a great game concept with a lousy system implementation.

      WAR pissed people off because the game was wildly unstable (frequent client CTDs), couldn’t handle any kind of mass-scale RVR which is what the game had been marketed on, and the endgame PVP system was initially very stupid as it revolved around fort fights that were dominated by lag and AOE wipefests.

      WAR in some ways was incredibly innovative. I loved leveling via PVP from level 1. Loved it. The RVR in later patches, like 9 months after the game went live, was awesome. But by that time 80% of the players had already quit.

      AO unlike WAR is a very stable and polished game with what looks like reasonable class balance. The problem with AO isn’t the game itself but rather how it is being managed by the game operator (gPotato) and game developer (Astrum Nival / mail.ru / whatever they’re now called).

  2. saga says:

    just a small add: FOD is stackable, die once and you get 20% stats debuf, twice for 40%, and caps at 4 times for a 100% stats debuff.
    The average player may die 4 times in less than 5 minutes while PvPing, and shit happens sometimes in endgame raids.
    Oh, and you have to wait >ingame< for 2 hours, you cant simply log out of jump to an alt. You gotta wait 2 hours ingame with your character till the debuff fades.

    • taugrim says:

      That’s a great point. I thought that debuff stacked but I wasn’t clear what the numbers were.

      I’ll update the article.

      Thanks!

  3. Nathan says:

    Not sure about you mate but I’m giving AO a break, not that I got very far anyway.

    I’m going watch all this happen from the outside, I’m still playing WoW too and a bit tied down.

    I like the KO comparison, the +1 mechanics remind me of harsh extremities like Aions crafting/manastone implementations.

    Keep me updated.

  4. Namaste says:

    Allods would be so much better if they just charged the standard $15 per month. I only managed to level 15 so far and thought it was an ok game. I think Allods may seem better to most of us than it actually is because mmorpg’s are kind of dead right now. I can’t get myself to login now after all this Cash Shop stuff. So many people are going back to their first MMO WoW. That is not a good sign.

    • taugrim says:

      Your point re: Allods seeming better than it is is an interesting one. I’ve wondered about that myself.

      Here’s what I like about AO:
      – the ruby customization system is fantastic, because it provides a multi-dimensional spec system which allows a high degree of customization
      – the class mix is diverse enough while still providing clear differentiation between classes. And the classes are the same across races except for the racials. They’re not repeating the mistake WAR made of trying to create too many separate class implementations
      – the game is very stable
      – the size of the maps / cities is about right. A lot of games simply create too much “big” content and bigger is usually not better. Aion’s cities for example were a pain to walk across. And the maps were even worse. LOTRO had the same problem with Freep zones – too much empty space (although they were aesthetically beautiful)
      – each class has a set of core stats that matter, regardless of whether you go spells vs physical damage, ranged vs melee, etc. It greatly simplifies things for players

  5. frint says:

    This is idiotic…the game has potential, even the new parent company would not just scrap it, it would be a completely ridiculous and idiotic business move that only retarded and gullible mmorpg.com posters would believe, especially considering how much debt Nival was in after developing the game.

    • taugrim says:

      it would be a completely ridiculous and idiotic business move that only retarded and gullible mmorpg.com posters would believe, especially considering how much debt Nival was in after developing the game

      Can you clarify what you mean by that?

      An MMORPG typically take years to develop and costs $10+ million USD. The figures I’ve heard for AO were 4 years and $12 million USD. Either Nival made that investment or were paid by a game publisher to do so.

      The business model should account for how to recoup that investment. E.g. a lot of P2P games (WoW/LOTRO/WAR/Aion) charge an upfront game purchase fee once you decide you want to continue playing after a trial period, and this helps to offset game development costs.

      If Nival had already decided to go the F2P route, the implication is they knew that couldn’t charge a game purchase fee upfront and have to make that money up over time through the CS. Which means a longer “tail” before they recoup their initial investment.

  6. Boldoran says:

    I feel sorry for the original developers that managed to create a game that really had a chance to hold its own in a market where there are competitors with access to much larger budgets.
    There was a lot of potential and for many the time spent in AO was a very enjoyable experience. I hope those guys find a publisher that won’t be out to destroy their next project.

    However decided to try and get some cashflow going like this should look for another job. If they wanted to play all “evil empire” they should have introduced cheap items in the CS first and gradually increase the price. That way they would have lured a lot of players in the beginning. Some of them might even have bought a cheap mount etc. Then when everybody has time/money invested in the char they could have dropped the FOD bomb.
    People would have raged even worse but I’m sure more would have paid. As it stands now, few will even bother.

    The best way for players AND investors in my opinion would have been a DDO model. Just pay the developer s to create new content and sell it for an acceptable price to the playerbase.

  7. taugrim says:

    Added an Update section to the article with some interesting links.

  8. Gon says:

    If there were 2 cash shop games I really appreciated , it would of been Atlantica Online , you could play and the items are optional. This is outright killing players… but if you look at it at this perspective… if everyone has FOD on, then who would it really affect.

    Tau you know any good links to a pure healer build btw?

  9. Kyuurei says:

    I was playing AO and thought it was top quality for a f2p. After trying dozens of mmo’s i said myself “this is the game i’ll play with friends for quite some time”.
    Then i reach lv 15 and FOD appears… did some research about FOD and Perfumes and now i don’t even want to log in again.
    Seriously, Perfumes make this game a p2p. You just cant do pvp without it. At End game it’s very easy to do around 2-3 hours of PvP per night and you are gonna die… a lot. Also, now Perfume full buffs are insane, and the gap between paying players and non paying player it’s just too big and they’re making it bigger with updates.
    If this was PvE only i would not be bothered by the Perfumes cause you just can be resurrected by a friend or pay in-game money the servant of light if you’re not willing to pay real money…
    I dont know, i dont care about the price of Perfumes, i just dont feel to play again at these conditions… and that’s pretty sad

    • taugrim says:

      I hope gPotato gets FoD removed. From what I read, Astrum Nival was considering removing it from Russian AO.

      For the most part I simply paid for myrrh to remove FoD. But it adds up at level 40 (~3g per death) to the point where you would need to farm mobs for money.

  10. justin says:

    this needs to be changed or took down because the FoD does not exeist anymore in the game.

    • taugrim says:

      This is my blog, my point-of-view, and if you check the dates, this article was written and updated between Feb 21 – March 3, 2009. If you don’t like what is written here, don’t read it :)

  11. […] cap. AO had a terrific Beta experience go into the toilet when the game developer implemented a Death Penalty mechanic that basically made the F2P game a P2P game. I stuck with AO as paying to play wasn’t an issue for me, but I eventually quit due to the […]

  12. […] (gPotato) couldn’t align on a business model. AO was supposed to be F2P but just before launch a stacking death penalty mechanic was added to the game that essentially required players to buy a Cash Shop item to remove the debuff – i.e. this […]

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