New subscription-based games a flawed strategy - CCP dev

GDC Online 2011: Lead designer of Eve Online Kristoffer Touborg talks about the mutating MMORPG market, working with Sony for Dust 514, and the dimly understood details of World of Darkness Online.

Yesterday, CCP Games announced it was laying off 20 percent of its workforce (roughly 120 employees) and refocusing its efforts on its venerable massively multiplayer online role-playing game Eve Online and the upcoming PlayStation 3-exclusive Dust 514, a first-person shooter set in the Eve universe. As a result, the company has cut resources from its early-in-development World of Darkness Online, even as it reiterated its long-term commitment to the project.

The future of Eve Online should see fewer faces and more spaceships.

Before the news of CCP Games' layoffs hit, GameSpot sat down with Eve Online lead designer Kristoffer Touborg at last week's Game Developers Conference Online, for a wide-ranging discussion on the state of CCP. While intervening events may have rendered some of Touborg's answers outdated, the designer's responses shed light on the Dust 514 development process, the studio's recently rethought approach to Eve Online, and the future of online gaming business models in general.

GameSpot: Give us an update on Dust 514. How has the team taken to working on a PS3 title? What are some of the new challenges the team has encountered working with new hardware and with a publisher that requires strict code approvals?

Kristoffer Touborg: The biggest challenge for us is going from making an MMO to a console title. We have a ton of experience making MMOs, but a console title is something that we have never done before, and that's proven to be relatively difficult. We did inherit a lot of designers from an old studio, Midway in the UK, who were doing console titles and joined us early on, so we have a good mix of veteran console developers and a lot of old Eve people. It's definitely a bit of a challenge, but the product is looking really good. We've been playing it internally for a while now, and it's looking like a ton of fun. In terms of publishers, Sony is giving us a lot of support. This is one reason we went with PS3-exclusive development. It afforded us a lot of freedom in terms of development and marketing support. The PlayStation thing is a really happy marriage, no doubt about it. The biggest technical hurdle is tying it in to Eve Online and hooking it into our servers. That going to be the biggest challenge for us when it comes to us going live, but we are still scheduled to begin our beta this winter. That's when players will see it first, and we'll take it from there, but it's looking like a lot of fun.

GS: World of Darkness Online was recently unveiled. Are there any new details you can share with us?

KT: Not really for World of Darkness. We have Eve out now; we are looking at Dust next, and then World of Darkness, so we are still kind of keeping that under wraps. We do traditionally go to the "Grand Masquerade" to give out a few bits of information, but aside from that we are still in the teaser timeline, so nothing new to say about World of Darkness.

GS: It is a single-shard world like Eve?

KT: I don't think we can really say whether it is single-shard or not. We would like it to be so that all users can interact with each other, but we are not ready to unveil the actual final architecture of it yet.

GS: We understand that additional White Wolf settings such as Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse are not planned to be implemented for playable characters at the game's launch. Are Mage or Werewolf characters and content/skills definitely planned for implementation at a future date into World of Darkness Online, or do you perhaps plan to implement either of these settings into an entirely different game?

KT: Of course we would love to leverage the entire IP. With White Wolf we inherited a really, really rich set of games, a really rich story, so hopefully we'll see a lot of it. Whether you are going to be able to play as a werewolf in the expansion to World of Darkness, or they are going to have their own game, it's too early to tell, but it would be dumb of us as a company not to leverage all the stuff we have. So let's hope you'll see Mage in some way, shape, or form.

Dust 514 will feature guns (not pictured) as well as ships (pictured).

GS: Can you give us a general update on Eve, in terms of what the team is working on and what players are asking for?

KT: Yeah. Last week we announced a pretty big content switch for Eve Online. We've been working on a lot of other products as we wanted to diversify Eve a bit and bring it into 2011. We added [the expansion] Incarna; we added a virtual goods store. A lot of that stuff was us trying to take an eight-year-old game and bring it up to date and branch it out. It's become obvious that that hasn't really turned out the way we wanted it to, so we've said, "Let's go back to doing what we are good at." So, the majority of our development resources are back to making spaceships again. There won't be the same number of people working on stuff that is not related to flying in space, so this winter you should see the first push of much more old-school expansions.

We used to have very rich expansions, and that's what we're going back to. The number of people working on things related to flying in space has probably tripled, so we are ready to start delivering a load of content. We had a pretty slim summer, but this winter we are going to rebalance five or six ship classes; we are going to be making new ships, and just tearing into a lot of stuff that we haven't touched before. It's a lot of fun. I've had a very slim crew recently while doing all of these other things, but we are back to a ton of developers making spaceships again. So if you are part of the customer that enjoys the spaceship aspect of Eve Online, winter and onward will be a very exciting time.

GS: So are you looking to just retain your current customer base, or is there a push for new Eve Online players?

KT: I'm not sure that balance has fundamentally changed. Of course, all of this stuff should be very good for existing players. Some of the people that have been with us for five years have been screaming for some of the features that we are just now getting in, but of course we also want new players to play Eve Online. Those goals haven't fundamentally changed. We've changed the way we approach the product; we've changed our priority list, and flying in space is back on the top of that list. A lot of flying-in-space stuff.

GS: Eve is one of the few online games that have not changed their pricing to a free-to-play model. What's the reasoning behind this, and does CCP have a position on alternate pricing models in the future, either for Eve or for CCP's other online titles?

KT: So, we've gone to a kind of hybrid model. You have your subscription, and you can also buy virtual goods. What we often see from games that successfully use the microtransaction model is that they are either games that are built for it, which Eve certainly isn't at eight years old. That's a very important part. Doing microtransactions is much, much easier if you construct the game for it, and Eve wasn't constructed for it. Or, that model is good for MMOs that were previously doing really poorly. In some cases, swapping business models was the last resort. It was either, "We are shutting this down, or we are going to try something new," and we really aren't in that position. We are a really healthy, subscriber-based game. Does that mean we will be a subscriber-based game in five or 10 years? Maybe not, but as it currently stands, we have 400,000 subscribers, and there's really no reason to turn that bucket upside down.

GS: But you are not ruling out designing more new games around microtransactions in the future?

KT: No, certainly not. It does seem to be the currently popular business model, and with good reason. There are a lot of companies that are doing really well. And for example, Dust 514 won't be subscription-based. It's going to be based on microtransactions, so yes, we are certainly stepping into that. With Eve Online, it is a much more complicated question since it is already in the market and difficult to adapt. The single-shard environment is a bit of an issue. A lot of these games rely on having a mass quantity of new player acquisitions--if you run a game on a single server, that mass quantity of acquisitions can work against you. We can't just have 3 million players come in over night; that just wouldn't work for us. I don't know how Eve will evolve, but it will continue to be a subscription-based game for now, and that's working for us.

GS: Do you see the market shifting away from subscription-based in the future?

KT: Oh yeah, definitely. I was looking at games currently in beta on MMORPG.com the other day; I think they had 30 games listed, and four of them were subscription-based. It's definitely going away, and we're seeing big titles, like Modern Warfare 3 and others, looking like they will be heavily microtransaction-based. I would say it's the way of the future, but these kinds of things also tend to come and go. It's a current trend, and it will be for a while. I think designing a new subscription-based game is a flawed strategy, because you are basically competing with free.

GS: Where do you see CCP fitting into the current and future game market? The studio has always prided itself on single-shard gameplay focused on player interaction--player economies, player associations, and so on. Do you feel that this strategy of keeping all players on a single server will bear out in an increasingly connected world where social media and mobile compete for people's time, or will there need to be a significant change to the way CCP and other studios approach online games?

You know what would look great on that eye? A luxury microtransaction-based monocle.

KT: I see a lot of people actually following us. We've always been a multiplayer company; we've never done single-player games. Our primary design principle is human interaction, and that's what everyone is doing. Social games are about human interaction. So I don't see us changing as much as I see the industry following us. Now, of course, the whole direction of making social games like Eve--a lot of people call it a spaceship game, or a game about spreadsheets, but Eve is inherently a super-social game. That's really what Eve is all about, and I don't think that will ever change. On the other hand, the single-shard environment may not stick around exactly as it is now. What if you had an MMO that was sharded but you could freely move between servers? It's not a single-shard in its entirety, but if your friends are on another server and you could just click and move, or something ever more graceful than that such as an in-game area for travel to other servers--I think there are a lot of ways to keep the feel of a single-sharded game, but accomplish it through loopholes. I hope that's how we continue to make games. I don't like sharded environments. The single-sharded nature of Eve is one of the things that helps it retain its charm, and I think you can really take that principle and apply it to any other game if you just sit down and engineer your way around it. We'll see, but we will certainly continue with very social games that are about social interaction. That will always be our mantra.

GS: Since GDC Online has become a convention that is focused on figuring out the nature of the next big thing, what kinds of trends do you see and feel like that's where everything is going to be in five years?

KT: Certainly this year it has been virtual goods. CCP had a talk about what we've done with virtual goods, and a few other companies are doing the same. It seems like the honeymoon period of it is over for some companies--us included. We kind of jumped on the bandwagon and didn't do very well, so our GDC Online talk is about not doing it very well. At first you had people coming here saying, "We were the first guys doing virtual goods, and we're doing tremendously." Now, there has been time for broader testing, and you are seeing some people doing well, and some doing poorly--and that is the big theme for me this year. Not everyone is coming back able to throw money around. We are starting to get a more balanced and realistic view on the model, and that's really where all of these trends become interesting. The first people to do it well aren't that interesting, and you will almost never be able to perfectly mimic them. Getting the broad batch of data where you can see what works and what doesn't is interesting, and that is what I am going to be keeping an eye on here. A more balanced view on virtual goods is probably my trend to watch this year.

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34 comments
twistedprince
twistedprince

@bboyart there is a free trial for eve online its like a two week trial if i remember right. i have a problem with free to play games because most of the time they turn into pay to win games

raahsnavj
raahsnavj

Anything that forces me to keep paying to play it is already dead for me. I won't even buy it. I'm yet to even play WoW just on merits alone.

Vestia
Vestia

As long as these microtransactions are just monocles/weapon skins/tophats, i don't care too much. Look at a game like League of Legends, you can be a TOP player, while never having spent a dime, and nobody will have an edge over you because they went and emptied their wallets.

bboyart
bboyart

Paying some ~50$ for a game is much more reasonable than paying monthly sub or "F2P" paying hundreds $ for later upgrades. Also before I fork out my money I want to be sure that I like the game, which means some kind of trial should be available.

megakick
megakick

WOW is already F2P level cap.

packtop
packtop

It's true lot of peoples play mmo for free and will never spend money on that mmo but F2P mmo must still be successful if you see new F2P mmo made so often and so many subscription mmo going F2P. I think F2P will start to change a lot from now on F2P is still pretty new so not much competition but competition will start sooner or later and i think after that we will start to see more and more decent F2P mmo with microtransaction that don't make people who spend money overpowered or with overpriced item.

packtop
packtop

Until now i have saw really few free mmo that wasn't overpowered because of item mall i have tried a few hundreds mmo and as soon i entered the mmo and saw the mall items right away it was obvious it was overpowered. MMO need to change that. Microtransaction need to give thoses who pay some advantage over thoses who don't but not to the point where someone who doesn't spend thousands of $ on a MMO don't have any chance against thoses who do. I don't know how everyone think but i'm never gonna spend thounsands of $ on a MMO. I don't mind spending 50-100$ a months but not more no matter what and if i feel like thoses 50-100$ a months are completly useless against thoses who have spended a few thousands i won't really feel like spending money on that mmo at all. Another things microtransaction items a really often overpriced specially with items that give more stats i saw a mmo before where they was selling gem that was giving 5 stats like 5 str or 5 sta and that gem was selling around 50$ and you are able to get 5 stats each lv up i know they are extra stats but i still think that's completly crazy paying that much just for 1 gem. That's not all 7days suit to change you character look for like 15-20$,2X exp for 1 hour for 5-10 $ etc. it depend of the mmo but in almost every free mmo you will always sell a few overpriced items.

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

I dunno; a think a fairly large percentage of employed, adult gamers will stick with the subscription model. As with anything else, asking for money up front is a great way to weed out the kind of people who will grab anything that's free but feel no need to contribute. World of WarCraft has a ton of griefers, sure - welcome to the Internet - but anyone past the newbie areas is paying to be there. That kind of personal investment helps temper the jerk quotient considerably. You get what you pay for. You pay nothin'? Outside of a few special cases (Team Fortress 2, for example), that's what you get.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

Interesting interview. And subscription games are the ones you pay a timely fee. Microtransactions based, are the ones you buy upgrades. So, subscrition based is not killing the pc. Micro is. It's ruining the average quality, and bringing in players that (not all) only get in because it's free, and so are not going to invest in the game and it's universe as much as the others, ruining the game for them. But this is apllyed to games that were payed, and turned free. Because like he says, if the game is built to be free from scratch, it might work good. Certainly the industry is going mostly free, but I think there's space for both. When people say it's too expensive, well... Sometimes that's the idea. By being expensive, a die hard fan universe is created, with people who invested for real to make the comunity, and will defend and protect their investment. EVE is certainly a good example of it.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

John_Read
John_Read

subscription-based games killing the PC gaming i would rather play 50$ than forced to spend money on stupid upgrades

Poodger
Poodger

Free-to-pay isn't always bad. Games like League of Legends have done it well. Riot makes a ton of money off microtransactions, and all that they have to sell is cosmetic items. Free-to-play microtransactions only are bad when it affects actual gameplay and performance. I would much prefer to just pay the 15 dollars a month though. I look forward to The Old Republic later this year, and don't mind paying the meager 15 dollars a month to enjoy it. I make 5 times that much money in a single day at work, and would prefer to fund the game monthly for exceptional service and content.

ColdfireTrilogy
ColdfireTrilogy

@paranormalnut once again thats about as hearsay as it comes. Anyone can say what they want but not one piece of concrete evidence has been brought to light of any specifics relating hardware for both the next Sony and the next Microsoft product. Developers can say what they will, but after everything developers "said" about the hardware in Vita I am inclined to believe almost none of it. Memory wasnt halved and cores weren't downclocked by 2/3 like many people SPECULATED, and thats with hardware specs having been at least partially confirmed.... Sony is still at least 3 years out from a product, don't believe anything you hear at this point.

mingolo
mingolo

I wish I could grab that concept known as the "microtransactions business model" by the entrails and rip them out as I watch it bleed out on the floor and see its life leaving its pathetic body. I hate the so called "free" to play games, Guild Wars being the only exception that doesn't exploit its members.

Daemoroth
Daemoroth

F2P is such a misnomer. What many people don't realize is that developers detract from the gameplay experience deliberately to make you buy their "XP bonus" items and other convenience stuff. I've yet to play a F2P game that didn't suddenly have its levelling curve shoot through the roof. Sure, you don't "have" to buy the convenience items, but you'll have a pretty bad experience if you skimp on them. Face it, hosting servers costs money - one way or another the MMO needs to generate that money to continue. Give me a monthly sub with the same access to all the items as every other player, thanks. And besides, what's the big hoopla about $15 a month for an MMO? Care to take $15 out on a Friday night and see how long it can keep you busy?

protius2214
protius2214

@Arkanis_Vayll You make good points, but you're generalizing far too much. The "insidious, soulless experience" isn't exclusive to F2P, and completely working mechanics are not exlusive to P2P. We saw what happened with APB, Tabula Rasa, AION, and so many other MMOs. Now look at the sheer potential of F2Ps as shown with Guild Wars, Maple Story, LOTRO, and many others. There are many F2P MMOs that don't exclude actual content, and instead offer more of "convience items" or silly things that are simply for fun. Granted, LOTRO doesn't fit in this category, but it--and other MMOs--offer mini-expansions or DLC for a one-time fee. Look at the flipside of this: if you aren't interested in that particular content, you aren't paying for it as you would with P2P. Sure, many F2P MMOs aren't worth the time. But the same can be said of many P2P, as well. Sometimes, the subscription *IS* the problem, and that's where the F2P model becomes the remedy. It just has to be worthwhile, much like the fees for P2P.

blackace
blackace

@SlickMajestic @DeadRisingX1 - My response to that question is; What's the difference between that and some console game these days? You drop $60 bucks for a console game that lasts you 5-10 hours (more if multiplay is decent) and then continue to pay $5-10 every other month for DLC. In the end you pay around $80-100 for a console game that might last you a week in total play time. I'd rather drop $60 on an MMO and pay $15 a month for a game that can absorb months or possibly years of game play. Besides, the only people who complain about $15.00 a month for a good game are young people who don't have their own income. That is nothing for entertainment. As much a couple of drinks on a Friday night after work which you can down in a few minutes. *************************************************************** I think it depends on the game. You do realize that there were still people playing Halo and Halo 2 online for the original XBox before they shut the servers down for that game. That is one of the reasons they created Halo Anniversary. So gamers could continue to play it online. Those old games didn't cost $60 or $15 a month to continue playing them. GTA IV is another game that people played online for over a year. So it really depends on the game. Many MMO don't even last 6 months before people are quitting in droves.

KamuiFei
KamuiFei

More games should follow Guild Wars strategy, buy the game once, buy the expansions once. But God forbid, devs put any effort into real expansions into games anymore. Very few do.

Arkanis_Vayll
Arkanis_Vayll

I, pesonally, will not play a game that is micro-transaction based. I understand the appeal, especially for those with limited funds or limited time, but the fact is, and this will NEVER change - to experience a F2P MMO to it's fullest, you WILL pay more than you would to experience a subscription game to the fullest. If that wasn't true companies wouldn't be pushing so hard. It's the current pinnacle of evolution of the carrot-on-a-stick incentive systems that drive MMO's. Constantly pulled forward by the next micro-purchase reward. The difference from subscription models is that, in a sub model it's the rewards themselves that are being held hostage until you devote the time to get them. In a F2P game it's the actual game experience being held hostage until you devote the money to break through the pay wall. If I want a AAA, polished, full game experience, that's not broken down and compartmentalized, constantly breaking immersion and making me crack open my wallet for $3 here, $5 there, I will -always- go with a subscription based game. It's a quality-of-gaming-life issue for me, and I honestly find it a little sad that the F2P model has had so much success, because while it might be making money, it's an insidious, soulless experience that takes incentivized gameplay and works on psychological mechanisms to keep you from realizing that the 'reward' has ceased to exist, or more accurately, the mechanics of the game working as intended have -become- the reward.

DeadrisingX1
DeadrisingX1

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

ZoTrAcK
ZoTrAcK

Ask to Blizzard if it is a flawed strategy!

Bobdog52
Bobdog52

Microtransactions are the way to go :D. Me personally i dont have time to play game 24/7 so dont really get subscription games. I preffer games where once u buy it you have the option of spendin more money on gettin afew things that will give you an edge in game.

Zloth2
Zloth2

No World of Darkness!? Aww, that is a pity.

megakick
megakick

Exactly with microtransaction u don't have to buy it you can try it out for free and if you like it and want a head start or a hat for your toon you buy the items. WOW even has microtransactions + buy the game + subscription. Your kidding yourself if you think D3 won't have microtractions + buy the game.

SlickMajestic
SlickMajestic

@DeadRisingX1 - My response to that question is; What's the difference between that and some console game these days? You drop $60 bucks for a console game that lasts you 5-10 hours (more if multiplay is decent) and then continue to pay $5-10 every other month for DLC. In the end you pay around $80-100 for a console game that might last you a week in total play time. I'd rather drop $60 on an MMO and pay $15 a month for a game that can absorb months or possibly years of game play. Besides, the only people who complain about $15.00 a month for a good game are young people who don't have their own income. That is nothing for entertainment. As much a couple of drinks on a Friday night after work which you can down in a few minutes.

SlickMajestic
SlickMajestic

Subscription based games are fine but in the current MMO market (which is so over saturated by the 1000s of new F2P games, 98% of which are terrible) it's hard to compete unless you actually bring a good game to the table using that subscription method. Solid games like WoW and EVE will work with a subscription - however as the years go by and those games become old and new games take their place, they will need to convert over to a microtransaction/F2P model to compete with the newer P2P games as well as the overabundance of F2P games. The P2P games need to remain the genre leaders - the "big guns". The F2P model should mainly be used for cheap, 50% MMOs (like most F2P games) and for older MMORPGs which are too dated to maintain big subscription numbers utilizing a P2P system. I've been and always will be a P2P orientated player - but then again I only like good MMORPGs and outside of the rare exception of Guild Wars 2, no F2P game is really worth paying for. They are F2P for a reason you know...

Vari3ty
Vari3ty

@nevryn I think you may have meant "pay to win". But yes, I agree with you. The microtransaction model is flawed.

megakick
megakick

Companies make way more money with microtransactions just don't make a bad game.

nevryn
nevryn

Personally, I'd rather pay a subscription than even touch a "pay to win" game. While other microtransactions exist, the most successful (in terms of making money for the company) involve giving strong advantages to the players that pay the most. Others limit the "basic" game so much as to essentially just be a demo where you get a tiny portion of the game and it really isn't worth your time. Basically you get what you pay for. Furthermore, several studies have shown that players that stick with the game (compared to game jumpers that switch games monthly) pay significantly more in a "free-to-play" game than they would have for a subscription.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@Phazor58 He said it looks like it will be "heavily microtransaction-based". Micro-transactions are not unique to MMOs.

DeadrisingX1
DeadrisingX1

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Phazor58
Phazor58

"Oh yeah, definitely. I was looking at games currently in beta on MMORPG.com the other day; I think they had 30 games listed, and four of them were subscription-based. It's definitely going away, and we're seeing big titles, like Modern Warfare 3 and others, looking like they will be heavily microtransaction-based." MW3 is an MMO? Lol wut?