Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Open-world economics

Being right is awful sometimes. I predicted that Funcom's dark urban fantasy MMO The Secret World would struggle, and struggle it has according to Funcom's 2012 second quarter financial report (via Rock Paper Shotgun).

Is anyone surprised by this? They're charging full triple-A retail price plus premium-price monthly subscriptions (higher than premium, in fact, for UK players) for an experimental, work-in-progress, niche-genre game without an established IP or a standard free trial, competing with Guild Wars 2 and a new World of WarCraft expansion - not to mention the fact there are now more free-to-play MMOs in existence than there are people.

The Secret World is a good game, if perhaps not a great one. I for one enjoyed it probably more than any other MMO I've encountered. But I'm not going to spend £100 to play it for six months, especially not when getting the same length out of Rift or Guild Wars 2 would cost me significantly less. Gaming's typical price-based snobbery ("if you think it's too expensive, it's your fault for being poor") is alive and well in The Secret World's community, but that attitude completely misses the point - sure, if you can't afford it then don't buy it, but market forces work both ways and each person who either can't or won't play due to the pricing structure represents one less subscription. A balance must be struck. If a game's takeup is low, it doesn't bode well for that game's future.

At 200,000 accounts, The Secret World's takeup is low.

It was never going to compete with WoW or EVE in terms of market share, so it shouldn't be placing itself in economic competition with those titles. A friend of mine said she was interested in The Secret World, but not interested enough when she was also paying for EVE and Rift. I'm not suggesting that The Secret World should move to a free-to-play model, but if it was cheaper, might she have been interested enough to try it? And while some of The Secret World's players may not like to hear it, any subscription-based MMO is in competition with free-to-play equivalents, and comparison is necessary. Every gamer draws their own line in regards to where they're willing to start paying a subscription, and if someone can get almost as much enjoyment out of a free game as a paid game, how many will realistically fork over £12 a month? Maximising what one gets with one's money is as much the consumers' prerogative as it is publishers' prerogative to charge, and publishers have a lot more to lose than consumers. On reflection, I think that's why many Kickstarter backers get so up in arms by a perceived lack of communication with the developers; it's seen as a form of investment, with the ultimate return not being liquid capital but rather a game.

I've seen it argued that the likes of GOG, Steam sales and free-to-play MMOs have spoiled players into expecting to pay under the odds for games. But that's economic reality. Developers report that during sales on sites like Steam and Green Man, their profits increase. Not just sales, profits. Why, then, shouldn't that trend continue for as long as it makes developers money and lets gamers buy their games cheap? You can argue about whether it devalues games as a desirable commodity, whether it negatively affects purchasing decisions, whether it brings down the incentive to experiment in big-budget titles. But you can't excuse publisher actions with the free market defence if you then lambast players for doing, fundamentally, the same thing. And yet some people try to do just that.

No comments:

Post a Comment