The free to play MMO model has been good to Cryptic CEO Jack Emmert.
There were a lot of MMOs released over the last few years that didn't live up to expectations. Star Wars: The Old Republic, Age of Conan, and Cryptic's own Star Trek Online are just a few that come to mind. All of these games were big budget endeavors with a sellable license, but they just couldn't support the large number of subscribers paying a monthly fee needed to sustain the game's expenses. Switching to a free to play model may seem like a copout from the outside, but allowing potential customers to download the game client for free and then offering a large number of in-game purchases has been much more than a lifeline to keep MMOs afloat. Most companies report a huge increase in revenue when a game switches. That's why Jack Emmert - who's been at Cryptic since before the launch of City of Heroes way back in 2004 - has decided to start out that way with his next big release, Neverwinter. Because it works.
"Star Trek Online is, as of this past month, it's a bigger game than City of Heroes ever was at its peak," Emmert told me on the show floor of PAX East this past weekend. "And I mean bigger in every sense of the word, more players and, yeah, more of everything."
The business model landscape for MMOs has shifted incredibly from the early 2000s. "When I first started you couldn't throw a rock without hitting somebody announcing an MMO," he remembers. "Because there were only three or four big ones, you had EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online so of course everybody flooded in there." After World of Warcraft blew up everyone's concept of a subscriber ceiling by collecting 12 million subscribers at its peak, even more publishers tried to slice off a corner of an ever-shrinking pie. And most of them failed.
"When you spend $200 million on a game [as EA did with The Old Republic], it's really hard to make that money back because when you know the cost structure and the R&D cost for an ongoing game, you have to be so successful coming out of the chute," he explained. "With a subscription model, it's all about the first month. You've got to sell, sell, sell, sell, sell, push people into the game and then hold them, hold them, hold them, hold them."
There's specific strategies game designers must employ to keep people in the game and it has almost nothing to do with whether the game is fun. It's all about hitting that first cycle on the credit card bill. "With the subscription game you're like, 'How can I get somebody to be interested for 31 days?' That's what we think about," he admitted. "You come up with systems that are all about keeping people online for significant amounts of time. That's why there's the grind. It's because, oh my god, you've got to put out so much content to maintain those numbers."
Emmert doesn't want to do that with Neverwinter because he just wants the game to speak for itself. "In the free to play model, let's say you get in the game and you play Neverwinter for ten hours and then life happens, you don't come back to it for whatever reason," he said. "But then you get an email, saying 'Hey the latest update for Neverwinter is out, give it a try.' You're like, 'Oh yeah, I had a good time I'll think I'll go back.' It's frictionless, who cares, you've already downloaded the client it's just boom click on it."
The free to play model also puts more of the focus on creating a game that's just super fun to play. "Right now, the only thing I care about is that people are having fun with the game and I think with subscription you're trying - I mean, you're always thinking about fun nobody says they aren't - but I think the hidden elephant in the room is, 'Yeah, but we've got to keep them playing.'"
Now that he's abandoned the need to design Neverwinter so that the players don't have to feel compelled to keep paying every month, how will Cryptic make money? This is a business after all. "I don't want to nickel and dime people or force people to buy things," he said. "I want to present products so that if you love Neverwinter, here's stuff you can buy. That's kind of the way that I want to approach it, and that's the way we try to approach it with Star Trek Online."