Jaradcel writes up another great guest post. Enjoy! –Ravious
Stemming from the thoughts on micro-transactions and the use of freemium, I thought I would offer my thoughts on the parallels from another game that has recently gone freemium – Team Fortress 2 (“TF2”).
At first blush, the game does not have anything to do with Kill Ten Rats – It’s a hat-collecting sim/FPS after all. But what it is doing mirrors closely the models that Turbine are using on Lord of the Rings Online (“LotRO”) and Dungeons and Dragons Online (“DDO”), and which other companies like SOE and NCSoft are also moving into as well. That is, turning a pay product into a free model to attract new revenue via a cash shop. And TF2 does so by scratching the same itch that MMO cash shop users have – the need to have it all and look pretty besides.
TF2`s promise is that players now do not have to pay a cent in order to get the most out of the game. This is arguably true, as the various weapons, hats and other knick knacks that riddle it are there to offer different styles of gameplay, rather than an actual advantage. But similar to MMO`s, you’ll be reminded constantly of your free status. Hey, how did he get that huge axe for his melee weapon? Where did that damned Spy get that knife that lets him disguise instantly? How do I get these items and options faster?
Hypothetically, a bit of luck and crafting will get you most of these items anyway, right? Much like players don’t really need a 10% EXP potion from a cash shop, you don’t need these additional weapons (and especially not cosmetic hats) in order to frag. Except in reality it isn’t. A quick glance at TF2`s free-to-play FAQ page shows some differences between people who’ve put a little cash in and those who haven’t. Free players can receive items, but can’t trade anything away. They have limited backpack space. 50 sounds like a lot, until you realize there are nearly that many weapons alone already in the game. They can’t wear or own rare or cosmetic items. They can’t craft everything, either. Yes, you get the base experience, but like all free-to-play titles, you’re mostly crippling yourself if you do.
This leads back to the curse of every MMO player, the loot grind. Want that shiny epic sword? Be prepared to hit the same dungeon day in, day out, until it drops. Want that cool crocodile hat the Sniper can wear? Pray it drops. But the cash shop is dangling its tantalizing promises all the time as you play. Why wait? Why remain free, when you can get so much more by plonking just a little bit of cash in? Buy now!
If that doesn’t sound like enough of a parallel, consider this next addition: Another way Valve tempts players to spend money is by dropping locked crates in the game. Players can only unlock them by buying a key from the store, which costs USD$2.49. Its contents range from new weapons, to paint, to rare items with glowy effects. The newest crates are series 19 through 21, and depart from normal by being class-specific in their contents. 19 will reveal only Demoman weapons, with Soldier and Heavy in the next two. The twist is that alongside the new weapons to be found for that class, these crates also drop each class’s base, starter weapon as well.
One would think players were getting a bum deal out of such a chance, except these base weapons have been modified. They now track your kills with the weapon. Kill enough, and it ranks up, announcing to all your friends its new rank. Your kill count also shows up in kill cam shots. While all it does right now is stroke ego, it cannot be denied that one good reason cash shops thrive is because people want to show off whatever they bought. That’s why we buy hats that do nearly nothing in TF2 already. And it opens up the possibility in the future of leveled-up weapons ala LotRO.
Finally, several games in the past few years have utilized a cross-promotion with TF2 to pump up hype. Off the top of my head: Left 4 Dead 2, Sam and Max, Portal 2, Killing Floor, Monday Night Combat, Homefront, Rift, Shogun 2 and Poker Night at the Inventory. Players who pick up the Steam version of the game get some doodad in TF2 as well, mostly hats. Additionally, Rift, Shogun and Poker Night all offered in-game weapons. It’s almost as if Valve is saying, “If you’re going to buy the game anyway, why not buy it from us? Here, have a hat.” A similar thought can be linked to LotRO`s recent announcement. Lifetime and premium players were going to get the expansion anyway, but if you pre-order, you could get more free stuff, so why wait?
Free-to-play models make their nickels and dimes by showing off the have’s against the have-not’s. Alongside LotRO, DDO and City of Heroes, TF2 definitely has some interesting parallels to watch for as Valve continues to tinker with their store concept.