10 Tips for Free-to-Play MMO Developers

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Over the years, I'd like to think I've become fairly versed in the free-to-play MMO market. And now, with this new job, I've found myself called an "expert" in the burgeoning field, whether or not I agree with that.

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Still, there are companies who read this site -- just as there are regular readers like you. A lot of these companies have created their own MMOs before, but just as many are developers (largely Western) entering the field for the first time. So, for them, I've come up with a list of 10 tips that -- I believe -- should be kept in mind for free-to-play titles. Will they all be followed? Probably not. But, at the very least, hopefully this will lead to further discussion with various MMO communities, and we'll see more actively telling developers and publishers what we want to see, and less pretending that the new game that just came out is incredibly awesome, even if it breaks all sorts of unsaid taboos.

Without further ado, here's my list of 10 things developers should pay attention to as they craft their products. Whether or not you agree with any of them, I'd love to see your own suggestions in the comments below. The free-to-play market is still in its infancy; now's the time that we can help shape the outcome with our voices.

1. "Free-to-play" should mean exactly what it says. Not "free-to-play-until-level-7," or "free-to-play-unless-you-want-to-chat." Can you offer premium content? Sure. But don't limit the core game for non-paying customers. That makes it less than a trial!

2. On that note, stop the bait and switch tactics, and flip-flopping. If you launch your game or announce that it's free, keep it that way. Don't make it free and then change your mind later on, and inform your players that, should they want to keep playing, they'll need to pony up a subscription. Sadly, quite a few games have done that over the last year.

3. This one's a little more for those of us in the press, but you don't need to send announcements or press releases for every little change to the game. New expansion? Significant new feature or new quests? Sure. Adding a new color for a single piece of equipment? Changing a single NPC's dialog to reflect that it's some sort of holiday? No. Lots of press releases means that we'll be less likely to fully read each one, and when the time comes that you DO have something big ... it might get skipped over. (And, for those who don't get press releases, several developers do do this; at one point, a single developer sent out 12 press releases in one day, the most important of which was announcing a new color of a common monster.)

4. If you DO send out press releases -- and your company doesn't speak English very well -- please hire or contract someone (or a firm) who does. Nothing makes people less interested in your game than reading a press release with broken English, multiple contradictions, and sentences that make little to no sense. The translation of the release might not be indicative of the translation in the game, but for many players, seeing a release where the writer doesn't know the difference between their/there/they're is going to dissuade them from finding out.

5. Pick a revenue model, and stick with it. Do you want to offer premium content for a monthly subscription, or in an item shop? Please do not offer both. There's no point in charging people a monthly fee to get some features, and then to get BETTER features than that, charge them more in an item shop. It's greedy, it looks bad, and it makes people not want to play your game.

6. Stop blatantly copying "Lineage 2" and "World of Warcraft." Yes, "Lineage 2" is a huge success in Asia, and it was a big step forward for MMORPGs when it came out -- 6 years ago. And yes, "World of Warcraft" is the most popular MMORPG of all time. Do you know why? Because, at the time, they were unique. Copying them won't make your game successful. If anything, it will put players off.

7. Don't be afraid to take chances. If people want to play a game like "WoW," they'll play "WoW" or one of the older, more established clones. Don't be afraid to do something different, that no one else has really done. Look at "Wizard101" and "Atlantica Online," for example. Both tried something new, and both are finding tremendous success both in player numbers and in money. (And notice how "Wizard101" is doing so despite breaking the first rule? That's because it's unique and people are willing to forgive and still pay for it.)

8. Make premium content a matter of convenience or aesthetics, not something that drastically alters the game. As developers have found, people are willing to pay a ton purely for aesthetic items, or items of convenience. (Exp bonus potions, buying gold/high level items with real life cash, etc.) So why offer items that will give paying players a huge in-game edge over even the most dedicated of free players? If a free player can do things that a paying player does by putting in more in-game work, then you'll keep both sides of the coin happy.

9. Non-paying players are customers too, so treat them that way. Sure, they don't pay, but they fill up the server, offer companionship to paying players, and help keep the game running. Do you really want your game to only have paying customers when they're a minority of the playerbase? People won't pay to play a game if no one else is playing it. So remember to offer events, bonuses, or little thank-yous to everyone who plays, whether they're paying you money or not.

10. If you're charging money for content, your game isn't a beta anymore. A lot of developers keep their game in a permanent state of "open beta," yet still run it as a final product. Why? A few claim that it's because the game is always a work in progress. Guess what? So is every MMO. Ever. The main reason so many companies keep games in open beta is so players have no ground to sue or demand refunds if something goes wrong with the content they pay for. Stop hiding behind that, make sure your new content works and isn't going to ruin your game, and treat it like what it is: a final product some people are paying for, and that many people have invested their own time in. If you claim it's an open beta, open everything to everyone -- offer free premium items, and don't charge for content. The minute you start charging, stop calling it a beta.

So there you have it. By no means is this a perfect list, and by no means will a majority (or even more than three) other people out there agree with me. Like I said: the point is to get people talking about this stuff. What do you want to see done differently with f2p titles? Right now, the market is still in its infancy stages in the Western world. So speak now, while we can still have some sort of input, or forever hold your peace.

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Chris Ruter
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