You do get the sense that MMOs have gotten stuck in a financial rut. Either they go the increasingly risky route of subscriptions, or they just skip ahead to the free-to-play microtransaction model.
But NCsoft might have a third alternative — one that reinvents the wheel in a way that gamers might just embrace — and the Guild Wars publisher plans to deploy it for their upcoming sci-fi MMO, Wildstar.
It’s an interesting choice of guinea pigs. The developer, Carbine Studios, was founded by 17 former lead and senior members of World of Warcraft’s core team. Their first project looks like a fun, anime-inspired treasure hunt as two opposing factions descend on an abandoned planet to loot the highly advanced technology left behind by a mysterious race. But it’s not all bunny girls and rock golems…now it’s also a bold experiment in alternative financing.
Core to this new model: Letting gamers decide how to approach it.
“There’s two major options to play,” NCsoft’s Jeremy Gaffney told Games Industry International. The first is a traditional retail route. “Buy a box, and pay a subscription,” says Gaffney. “There’s a class of player that likes that, because they know how much they’re paying, they know the playing field is level, and they can expect big updates. That’s the joy of the subscription model.”
The other option requires a certain commitment — something not hard to find in MMO player populations — and allows you to play Wildstar for free, indefinitely.
All you have to do is dig into C.R.E.D.D., the game’s virtual economy. Earn enough in-game money or goods, and you can buy or trade with other people for C.R.E.D.D., which you then redeem for more playtime. This will happen on Wildstar’s “Commodities Exchange,” where the player population will determine prices according to the laws of supply and demand. C.R.E.D.D. can be bought straight from the Wildstar store itself at a fixed price, roughly equivalent to the normal subscription price.
NCsoft is counting on some players to do just that. The whole system assumes some players will choose to buy rare items and super weapons from other players, and that’s a fairly safe assumption to make. Instead of paying real-world money directly, that cash is traded in for virtual tokens, so NCsoft profits from the exchange.
The C.R.E.D.D. system makes a few other assumptions, like how the price of C.R.E.D.D. won’t exceed the regular subscription costs. If you spend all your time scrounging for loot to trade, C.R.E.D.D. looses all credibility. Players could start dropping out of the game en masse instead of converting over to subscriptions. On the other hand, if C.R.E.D.D. comes cheap, players will check out of the economy — both real and virtual — and just buy it direct. A few gold-mining exploits could unbalance the entire system.
It’ll be a tough juggle. NCsoft is taking a big gamble on the belief that water will find its own level. But if that gamble pays off, it’ll be one more option for games to offer players…and arguably, it’ll be the most populist option around.