Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why The Age Of Conan "FTP" Business Model Not Only Sucks, But Should Be Illegal

 Let's say you're in the market to buy a new car. You've been pretty happy with the cars you've bought in the past from a certain dealer, let's call it Funcom Motors. You head down to Funcom Motors and talk to one of their sales people. You tell the salesman that you're pretty happy with the last car you bought from them, let's call it a Turan XL, but hey, that one's getting a bit old. You've got a little money to spend and you're looking to move up to something a little newer and nicer this time.

The salesman directs you over to one of the newer models, let's call this one the Godslayer 5000. It's got more features, a nicer paint job, and it's a bit more expensive than what you paid for your Turan XL a while back. You like the Godslayer and you decide you want one. You tell the salesman you're ready to buy, but he tells you that before you buy a Godslayer 5000, there's something you should know.

He tells you that unlike the Turan XL, each Godslayer 5000 comes with a special built-in device that's controlled by Funcom Motors. Once you buy the Godslayer, it's yours, you own it, but unless you keep paying Funcom Motors a certain amount of money every month over and above the purchase price, they'll activate that device and render the car undrivable until you start paying again.

You protest, but the salesman tells you that that's the deal. If you want a Godslayer 5000, not only do you have to pay the entire purchase price of the car up front but you have to keep paying this monthly fee or they'll press the button and make it useless.

Do you:

A) buy the car and accept the conditions.

B) leave and go to another dealership looking for a better deal.

C) head to the nearest police station and file an extortion and racketeering complaint against Funcom Motors.

If this actually happened in the offline world, chances are most people would head right to the police station and Funcom Motors would be in big trouble. Yet somehow, in the online world, this is considered not only legal but effective marketing...and then they wonder why so much of Age of Conan is now an unpopulated wasteland.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Glimmer Of Hope For AOC But TSW's Issue #6 Is Totally Pissing Me Off

Age of Conan has definitely taken over the title of my Game of the Moment. I've leveled my Conqueror up to 41 and she's still going strong. The vast majority of my issues with this game are outside of the game itself and mainly concern Funcom's self-defeating, involvement-discouraging free-to-play business model.

Funcom Grand High Mystic MMO Poobah Joel Bylos did an interview with PC Gamer that was released today, and in it he said something that really got my attention:

"Age of Conan is free-to-play, which means there obviously is content gating which can only be removed via a subscription. Currently the Age of Conan model causes a division between paying players and free players—too much of a division, in my opinion. We are discussing ways to broaden the experience in Age of Conan for free players. That’s a priority for me."

 I was very glad to read this, but until it's made clear what it means in a practical sense I'm reserving final judgment, What I'm hoping it means, at minimum, is that Funcom is going to unlock the gates of the AOC FTP forum ghetto and let non-subscribers mingle freely with subscribers, as well as  removing the utterly ridiculous and ill-conceived block on playing Rise of the Godslayer for non-subbers regardless of whether they've already bought the expansion or not. Beyond that, I'd like to see at least some new content made available to non-subbing players, and basically have Funcom give us more reasons to decide AOC is worth spending our hard-earned money on, not less, they way it is now.


I've started playing the "Last Train to Cairo" expansion in TSW. It was thoroughly annoying at the beginning until I figured out how to deal with a certain mob the right way. Now that I've gotten past that, I'm taking my time with it. After all, this "monthly" update took Funcom two and a half months to release so who knows how long it'll be before we see Issue #7? At this rate, I'm betting mid-summer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Age of Conan

I have to admit I'm really liking Age of Conan these days. When I first tried it, right after it started offering a free trial, I just didn't get into it enough to stay with it after a couple of weeks. I levelled a Barbarian up to 23 and then just lost interest.

Part of the reason was my own fault. I was playing several games at that point and just didn't put in the time and effort to really learn the game and get good at it. I spent most of my time in AOC running around feeling confused about what I should be doing and how I should be doing it, and so after a while I just gave up and spent my time with other games I was more involved with and felt more capable as a player in.

Recently, while still waiting for TSW to update and having reached level 60 in TERA and wanting a break from that game, I decided to re-download AOC and give it another try. What I've discovered in doing so is that AOC is really a great game if you develop some confidence that you have some idea that you know what you're doing as a player. AOC's frequent gore and unapologetic violence is something I like in my MMO's and I really enjoy the combat style. In short there's not much about the actual game I'm not having fun with. It's issues outside of the actual game itself that are causing me to be somewhat cautious about getting fully involved with AOC and carefully consider just how much of an investment I want to make in it.

As I usually do when researching a new game I'm considering playing, or returning to an old one, as in this case, the first thing I do is check out the forums in that game to see what players are talking about, both the good and the bad. Better to know what you're getting into and what you can expect as a player before you start investing lots of money. It's a way of kicking the tires, so to speak, before you make a monetary or time commitment.

What I've discovered is that there's at least one thing most AOC forum participants seem to agree on: Funcom's free-to-play business model for AOC really sucks.

From my own perspective, I have to agree. The game has been around since 2008, but has had very limited content updates over those five years, and the two biggest ones cost extra to buy and play. In addition, simply buying the biggest one, "Rise of the Godslayer", isn't enough if you actually want to play it, you also must have an active Premium subscription to get past the first part, "Gateway to Khatai".

This makes no sense to me. If you're being asked to buy something in order to use it, that's not unreasonable. It's the way commerce works: I have something you want. You pay me for it, I give it to you, and then basically it's yours to do with as you please. If copyright law is relevant, you may not have the right to resell that item to someone else, but it's yours to personally use as you please. Essentially, what you're really buying is a license to use that media as you see fit for your own purposes. That's the way it works in every single free-to-play MMO that sells content packs I've ever played...except for AOC.

In AOC, simply buying the "Rise of the Godslayer" content pack isn't good enough if you actually want to play the content. You also have to have a Premium subscription to the game if you want to get past "Gateway to Khatai". So, in other words, Funcom requires that in order to actually enjoy the product they're selling you, you have to pay not once but twice for the privilege of doing so.

From my perspective, as a new player with limited funds, this kind of setup is a disincentive to invest in the game. What if I decide that I can afford to pick up RotG, but I really can't afford an ongoing subscription right now? What if I'm capable of starting an AOC subscription and buying the content pack, but I'm not sure how long I'm going to able to afford paying those subscription fees?

I'd have to consider if it's worth investing all that money in AOC now only to risk losing access to my purchase later if I can't afford to keep up the subscription. If I'm a new free-to-play AOC player who knows it'll likely be difficult to justify keeping an AOC subscription going a few months down the road, chances are I'm going to think twice before investing in RotG, not knowing if I'd get through the content before I'd have to cancel my sub.

Another thing Funcom has done that makes no sense to me at all is when they implemented a new forum structure for the game, they decided to ban free-to-play players from posting in the general forums and limited us to just a small subsection. We can still read the general forums, we just can't post there. How this helps the game, the forums, or encourages new players like me to get more involved with AOC is completely beyond me.

It's like free-to-play players are being "ghettoized", confined to a limited area of the forums and forbidden to mingle with the upper class (Premium subscribers) unless they deign to come to our ghetto and mingle with us of their own accord. Not exactly the best way to foster a sense of community, which should be one of the primary goals of any good discussion forum and is an essential part of any good MMO.

I realize that the launch of The Secret World didn't generate the level of profit Funcom hoped it would, and it's understandable that they'd look to make up for that loss in other ways. What's not understandable is doing so by restricting the freedom of their players and requiring us to pay extra to use content that's already been bought and paid for.

There are many examples of successful free-to-play business models that don't impose such draconian restrictions on their players and still generate plenty of profit. TERA's free-to-play relaunch leaps immediately to mind. It boggles the mind that Funcom thinks this is the way to go in order to generate more profit from AOC. In my opinion, it does exactly the opposite.

Instead of giving AOC free players more reason to invest their hard-earned money in the game, what the current model gives those players more reason to think twice before investing, forcing them to consider whether buying content they can only play if they're paying even more for a subscription is really worth it. In today's economy, with entertainment budgets being as tight as they are, it's hard to see how this business model is going to help AOC survive and succeed, and that's really a pity because it's a great game and deserves better.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

ADD Strikes...

If you've been keeping up since I started writing this blog in earnest, you know that I tend to flit from game to game like a deranged hummingbird, and yes, it's happened again...sort of.

I hit level 60 in TERA a few days ago and decided it was time for a break. I've still got plenty to do in that game and I know I'll get back into it at some point, but I've decided to revisit Age of Conan. I opened a trial account a long time ago, just after it went free-to-play, when free accounts were limited to the opening area and not much more beyond that, but I never actually subscribed to the game.

When I revisit a game I haven't played in a while, I'll often start new character, like I did in TERA. I find this helps me remember the game's back story and relearn how to play. In the case of AOC, not only were both of those things true, but because there's so much to do in the opening area of Tortage, I've actually found myself doing missions I'd never done before, and I always enjoy that. It doesn't have to be actually new as long as it's new to me.

So, why AOC? Well, I like the Conan storyline, but it's really more than that. As with TERA, one of the things that attracts me to a game is a unique combat system. As much as I love the flipping around, zap-and-dodge, free-flowing combat style of TERA, there's just something viscerally satisfying about bashing an enemy over the head with a big club. The graphics, while not quite up to the level of TSW or TERA (at least in Tortage), are still quite pretty and I find myself getting lost in this game in a way that I have in very few others.

The real question will be how much time and money I'll invest in AOC going forward, but if I end up having as good a time with AOC as I have with TSW, I expect I'll be buying Funcom points with regularity for use in both games, something which has now been made much easier by Funcom's excellent Customer Service Department.

After spending about a week in AOC, I decided that I liked it enough to keep going, at least for a while. I soon realized that the Funcom points I bought for use with TSW weren't usable with my AOC account. I got in touch with Funcom's customer service department and asked if I could use the points in both games. I got an initial response that told me that because I had two different Funcom master accounts the answer was no. I replied, asking if there was any way to link the two accounts, and offering to prove my ownership of both accounts. I got a response very quickly from one of their GM's who told me he linked the two accounts for me, but that the bonus points I'd earned in TSW were not transferable between the games, though the Funcom points are.

That's a minor disappointment for me because right now there's a lot more I'd be interested in buying in AOC's cash shop than in TSW's (I've already spent a bit there but until TSW gets better stuff in their cash shop, there's not really much that interests me there), but I guess I can live with it. Still, the fact that I can buy Funcom points and use them in both games without having to fund two separate accounts or create a new AOC account and start from scratch is a major convenience, and so overall I'm very happy with the result.

So, I'm a pretty happy camper as a Funcom customer these days, both in terms of being an actual paying customer and in terms of being a player. Both TSW and AOC are keeping my attention right now, and I'm anxiously awaiting the drop of TSW's Issue #6. I expect I'll be hopping between both games for the nonce, and that's probably the best way to keep an ADD gamer like me happy.

Keep it up, Funcom...at this rate, you'll end up on the receiving end of most, if not all, of the disposable income I spend on gaming...at least for a while, anyway.