Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why the City of Heroes Free to Play Model Needs Help

To be honest, I had not given much thought or notice to the new free to play options coming with City of Heroes: Freedom. I plan to keep paying, which would put me at the VIP level, and nothing about the game will change much for me. Taking that into consideration, along with the limited amount of time I had to beta test, I focused my testing more on the new stories (my favorite part of the game) and the new power sets. While I do have two inactive accounts that I had planned to make Premium accounts (former paid subscribers coming back to play for free), I didn't think anything about the new program would be objectionable. 


Fortunately for me, you, and anyone else interested in the free to play options, many other people were paying attention and have eloquently spoken up about the defects and inadequacies of the program. The most comprehensive gathering of information comes from my friend and CoH mate Manoa. On her blog, Manoa has compiled the information in a thorough yet succinct way to fully illustrate why she and other players have major concerns about the F2P model. She has her feedback broken up into several parts and gives some excellent background on City of Heroes:

  • Part 1 - Manoa gives her own history with CoH and lays out the changes coming to the pay structure.
    • I wholeheartedly feel, particularly with a community-centric game like COH, that returning players are the key to a successful F2P transition. These are players who have a certain level of experience with the game, have a vested interest in returning (as they have existing characters to return to) and will be able to get up to speed far faster than new players. Treat these players right, you’ll have servers well stocked with players who can contribute to teams, mentor new players and spend money on microtransactions. I personally feel that the best way to lure those returning players back to the game is to make them feel appreciated for the time and money they’ve spent as a past subscriber. And the best way to do so is with a hybrid F2P system.
  • Part 2 - Manoa lays out her concerns about the F2P model, particularly how it affects returning players using the Premium account option.
    • I have absolutely no issue with how the Paragon Rewards themselves are set-up, as it’s quite similar to the current Veteran Reward Program. However, I have some huge reservations with how the Premium Tier Perks are proposed to work, particularly with those perks at the higher tiers.
  • Part 3 - Manoa gives a more in-depth look at why the F2P model is going to turn off returning players.
    • My second philosophy stems from being a long-time tabletop roleplayer…DON'T mess with the players' loot. Players have an emotional attachment to the characters they've played (even if it's a character they haven't played in years) because they've poured blood, sweat and tears to get the gear they want and to mold that character into what they envision. And they detest their characters being messed with, especially when it comes to their hard earned gains. Take away or deactivate a player’s existing loot, they’ll react quite negatively (nerd rage is not a pretty sight).
  • Part 4 - Manoa continues the in-depth critique and discusses one of the more troubling aspects of the F2P model - shutting Premium players out of using loot they already have.
    • Now, some will argue that making IOs such a high requirement is completely acceptable because the game is completely playable with lesser enhancements (TOs, DOs and SOs). And they’re completely right…the game is playable without using IOs. In fact, it typically isn’t even worth bothering with most IOs until you hit around Level 30. But remember, this crafting/loot system has been in the game for over 4 years (it was incorporated into the game in Issue 9, we’re about to enter Issue 21 with COH – Freedom). It’s been in the game so long that it considered standard operating procedure by many players. And again, players don’t like their hard earned gains messed with and those returning players who come back as Premium players will not be pleased to see their IOs not working and being forced into lesser enhancements.
  • Part 5 - Manoa discusses the other deeply troubling aspect of the F2P model - premium access archetypes.
    • Upon the announcement that Controllers and Masterminds would be elevated to the status of purchasable classes, returning players were assured that if they returned with enough Veteran Badges, they would be able to access their characters. However, “enough” is a 30 month (2.5 year) worth of Veteran Badges to yield you the 13 Reward Tokens needed to access your existing character. 
    • If you don’t have enough time with the game to unlock Tier 5, your characters will be greyed out and unplayable. The only way for a returning Premium player to unlock these any characters that are of these ATs is to either spend enough money in the Paragon Market to acquire enough tokens to qualify for the Tier 5 unlock or to spend $15 per archetype to unlock them in the Paragon Market. Buyer beware…if you buy the $15 unlock in the store and eventually unlock your Tier 5, there are no refunds(which can lead to a vicious money trap, which I will discuss later in this blog).
  • Part 6 - Manoa offers some excellent suggestions to fix the F2P model.
    • One possibility is to make the vet badge requirements to unlock Premium Tier Perks more in-line with the financial investment F2Pers have to pay for that same perk. For example, F2Pers would have to pay $390 on the first day of release to unlock Tier 7 and get access to the Invention System (and IOs). This is equivalent to a 26subscription (based on a month-to-month sub of $14.99 per month). So why not make the requirement to unlock a Tier 7 perk 26 months instead of 63 months?
  • Part 7 - Manoa discusses psychographics and how they relate to City of Heroes.
    • I had a revelation during the panel after learning of this form of market segmentation…THIS is the reason I am so bothered by the Premium Tier Perks. Or rather, Paragon Studios either not recognizing or are completely misapplying psychographic market segmentation in City of Heroes – Freedom. (pity I hadn't waited until after PAX to start my Premium Tier Perks blog series...I would have been able to give you readers a far more concise presentation had I realized the root cause of what was bothering me!)
Manoa's critique and possible solutions are an interesting and eye-opening read. It makes me wish I had paid more attention to the system when it was first announced, as I'm afraid now that it's too late to offer any kind of feedback that will be taken into consideration. It also makes me incredibly reluctant to reactivate my other two accounts. One account only has 3.5 years of paid time, and the other has about a year. Neither of which have enough time to use the loot I have on my characters, even though I spent time and in-game currency and resources to make them. I also don't have enough time on the 1 year account to play the Controllers I have on it. These things are huge disincentives to me, and are making me reluctant to reup those accounts. 

This criticism is shared by many CoH players and has been discussed at length on the CoH forums. Now we just have to wait and see if that feedback is being listened to.