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.