Q&A: What free-to-play means for Aion

Aion publisher NCsoft answers questions about its fantasy MMOG turning free-to-play in February.

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GameSpot UK: Why is Aion going free-to-play?

Gameforge has built up a reputation as the premier publisher of free-to-play massively multiplayer online games in Europe while NCsoft is known to produce only the best in MMOs. Bringing these two strengths together to create the next big free-to-play MMO was the logical step to take.

Our goal with going free-to-play is to bring the Aion experience to as many players as possible across the whole of Europe. Transitioning to a free-to-play model will allow us to show to all these players and fans of MMORPGs what the Aion experience is all about and why it is still the number one MMORPG in Korea today.

GSUK: Aion already had an in-game shop; how will this change in the move to free-to-play?

The current shop for the subscription version of Aion was only available outside of the game. For the free-to-play version, we have worked with the developers at NCsoft to integrate the shop directly into the game client to ensure a much more coherent user experience. This will make it much easier and more enjoyable for players to browse the available services and microtransaction options in the in-game shop.

GSUK: We've seen Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and now Aion all go free-to-play after launching as subscription-based titles. Is the subscription-based MMO no longer a viable format unless you're World of Warcraft?

Compared to a subscription model, the free-to-play model offers developers and publishers alike the possibility to reach out to a much wider audience of players. Not having any required payments increases your target audience dramatically and will allow you to fill the world with higher numbers of players to group with or to go up against each other in player versus player, making for a much livelier and challenging experience.

GSUK: What gameplay changes will be necessitated by the move to free-to-play?

Apart from slight changes that we have made to the interface, such as integrating the in-game shop and displaying additional information in regards to the free-to-play system, no changes to the core gameplay have been made. The game will be the same great experience in free-to-play, as it is in the subscription version now.

GSUK: Would Aion have been better off launching as a free-to-play MMOG?

When Aion launched back in 2009, the free-to-play business model was only just emerging, so launching the game as a boxed and subscription-based game was the right decision at the time. However, since then, the market has changed rather dramatically, and changing to a free-to-play model is the right move at the right time.

GSUK: Is a subscription-based phase now just a normal early development phase of the MMO business model?

While more and more games will directly launch into a free-to-play business model in the future, for some games that start out with a subscription model, the market has shown that transitioning to free-to-play has become a valid option to extend a game's life cycle.

However, switching a game to a free-to-play model is a significant effort and should not be taken lightly, but only a few publishers and developers alike understand how to approach and realize the free-to-play model.

So it certainly can be a viable option for more MMOs in the future. Companies such as Gameforge who specialize in publishing and developing free-to-play games have gathered experience and knowledge in this area for years. This is also what makes it possible to realize a huge endeavor such as transitioning Aion to free-to-play.

GSUK: Will you be keeping a subscription-based plan in place? And will this result in some sort of premium experience?

At the core of our free-to-play model is the creed that any player can experience the whole of the game's game content for free. In contrast to other games that have switched to free-to-play, we will not have any artificial restrictions on levels, classes, content, or PVP.

The whole game that has been available for a subscription in the past will essentially be available for free without requiring any sort of payment.

For the free-to-play version, we will have two basic account types: Free and Veteran. Any player who has purchased the original boxed version of Aion and created an account with it will receive the Veteran account type, while new players will start the game as a Free account.

These Free Accounts will have some restrictions applied to protect players from bots and real-money trading, which will not be applied to the Veteran accounts.

In addition to these account types, all players have the choice to purchase a Gold Pack, which, for a limited time, not only removes all the restrictions from their account, but also gives additional benefits to improve the game experience, such as lower instance cooldown times, increased PVP currency rewards, and more. We are currently evaluating if we will provide this Gold Pack as an optional subscription service.

GSUK: It's not been long since the 2.7 update landed; by the time the game goes free-to-play, can we expect another major title update?

Before the transition to free-to-play, there will be no additional major updates to Aion. However, in preparing for post-release, we are already working on the coming updates to ensure that European players can experience them as soon as possible.

GSUK: What other developments in Aion can we expect in the future? A higher level cap or any new races?

One of the great strengths of Aion and its developer NCsoft has always been the frequency at which updates were supplied to the game. NCsoft did a great job in updating the game since its launch, providing multiple updates each year and adding new levels, areas, quests, dungeons, and gameplay features.

NCsoft and Gameforge are aiming to maintain this update frequency to ensure that Aion continues to stay ahead of the competition. The change to a free-to-play business model will have no impact on the planned updates for Aion.

The version 2.7 update, under which the transition to free-to-play will happen, is actually not necessarily considered a major update by the developers. While version 2.7 already added lots of new content and features, the next really big update for Aion will be version 3.0, which has just been published to the live servers in Korea.

Version 3.0 will dramatically add to the existing game, not only increasing the level cap by five levels and introducing new zones, skills, and a mount system to the game, but also by implementing a full-blown housing system that allows players to own and decorate and their own personal houses in the game. We will be talking more about this exciting update in the coming months.

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