For the past two years Carbine Studios have released a steady stream of information for their upcoming MMO WildStar. We’ve learned about the Paths system, the races and their history, the active combat with telegraphs, and how housing and Warplots will work, amongst other things. However, one of the topics Carbine have stayed silent about is that of the business model. Were we going to see a monthly subscription? Perhaps it would be Buy-to-play like Guild Wars 2? Would we be seeing a Free-To-Play option? The community has theorised over the issue for months, with all sides of the discussion weighing the pros and cons of each possibility.
Today, we put the theory-crafting to rest – we now know what the business model for WildStar will be, and it might surprise a few of you.
We were invited into a conference call alongside other industry journalists to chat with executive producer Jeremy Gaffney about the ways (notice the plural, there) that players can get involved in the upcoming Sci-fi MMO, but before we get into the Q&A let’s get down to the facts. Players will need to buy a copy of WildStar, and it will have a monthly subscription fee in line with most other titles in the genre, but those players who dislike the idea of a subscription have an alternative option. They can purchase something called a C.R.E.D.D. (or a “Certificate of Research, Exploration, Destruction and Development”) using their in-game gold from another player, which can be used to grant them an extra month of game time. This, in theory, means that if somebody plays the game enough (or has a knack for making huge piles of virtual cash) they can play WildStar for free.
Those of you that know how EVE Online and its PLEX system works will be familiar with this concept. Players will be able to buy C.R.E.D.D. on the official WildStar website, and then take this item and put it on the Commodities Exchange (WildStar’s version of an auction house.) Here, they can set a price of in-game gold pieces and sell it on to somebody else. The idea is that it one player gets a huge amount of gold without the risks of going through dastardly gold farmers, and the other player gets 30 days of game time without paying any real money. “In our findings, people really, more than anything else, more than anyone loves a business model, people tend to hate business models,” Gaffney said as he explained why Carbine went for this model. “They’ve been burned by them before in different games, and it’s kind of true about all models. So for people who don’t like sub games, “oh we don’t think the monthly updates are worth it,” or they just don’t like to pay to play, we provide the C.R.E.D.D. option.”
One of main reasons Carbine went for this approach is how different sets of users should be happy by the end result, as everybody gets what they want be it a free month or a virtual cash injection, but Gaffney also felt that beyond these options this approach meant users “don’t need to feel like we’re selling gold to them and trying to gouge every dollar out of the players,” as well as avoiding splitting the community into “first-class citizens or second-class citizens” by offering a free-to-play option. In fact, Carbine’s participation in the system ends once a C.R.E.D.D. has been purchased, with the players directly controlling the in-game price themselves. “Our influence on that market is more to make sure that there’s lots of good ways to spend your gold in the game that are fun” Gaffney explained, “and make sure there are good faucets so gold enters the game on a regular basis.”
Of course, not everybody interested in WildStar will be able to get their head around the idea of C.R.E.D.D, with Carbine Studios aware that explaining the model clearly will be a challenge, considering it has taken pre-release material and a press conference to ensure journalists understood the model. “We’re willing to take the cost or the burden of letting people know about it,” Gaffney said, “and helping to educate on it in part because we think it’s of value to us, it’s of value to the players, and a couple of different kinds of players.”
One thing you might notice is that a C.R.E.D.D. costs more than a monthly subscription - £3 more in fact – but Gaffney explained this was all part of a scaling system that provides benefits to those that commit to the game. “If you get a subscription, we sort of say “Thanks!” and there’s a benefit to doing that instead of doing it through C.R.E.D.D.,” Gaffney said. “If you subscribe for a longer period of time, great! We’ll reward the fact you like our game and you’re trusting us by lowering the cost for you – we’ll share that benefit with you. With C.R.E.D.D, we set it up so that [it costs] slightly more than subscription because we don’t expect players to buy a C.R.E.D.D. and then immediately convert it. If you want to do that then use a subscription as that’s what it’s there for, so really a C.R.E.D.D. is meant to be bought and then traded.”
It’s hard to ignore that nearly every MMO that has launched over the last few years with a subscription has suffered for doing so. The Secret World turned into a Buy-To-Play MMO, and Star Wars: The Old Republic eventually turned Free-To-Play last year as well, so when asked if he felt Carbine’s approach would protect WildStar going forward Gaffney responded by stating how, in the long term, it wouldn’t be the business model that makes or breaks the game – it will be the end-game content. “Once you’re done levelling, are you having fun? Is there something fun to do at top level that is repeatable and that is interesting and that is engaging? And it is so, so easy to ship your game without having done that top level stuff, it’s so easy to say “Ah, yeah, we’re going to pack that stuff in in two months or three months” and [developers] don’t have time to. You need to make sure that’s in your game at launch, and so I think that a game’s success or failure is based much more on that than on business model. I admit that’s controversial, you know, I see our industry is being won where interesting new games that do some fun stuff succeed and games that don’t, that might have a fun levelling game or might sell a lot of boxes, but don’t have long-term gameplay, they kind of have to fall by the wayside over time.”
This lead onto the discussion on the importance that games should deeply integrate their business model from an early stage. “I think part of why you see so few games really make the leap from sub to free-to-play well is that you need to integrate it at a deep level,” Gaffney explained. “Guild Wars  is designed from the ground up to be the Buy-To-Play MMO and that impacts everything from how they do support, to how the game is structured and architected, how it consumes bandwidth and all that, and for us we really wanted to have a game that is based on the fact that has a consistent amount of revenue per player because it lets us gauge better how we’re going to roll that money into updates and advancements and how we handle all that. It allows us to gauge better making sure that we don’t have multiple classes of players where some are playing for free and others are paying $200 a month, and then trying to balance those things against each other.”
Gaffney went on to praise ArenaNet’s handling of their business model, but stated that is was a universal recipe for success. “Our competitors would have a hard time leaping over to that model because they’re not designed around it, and so I think one of the most important things for model is that it needs to be integrated into your game from launch and you need to plan ahead for the advancement of things you want to do so you build this in from the ground up.”
Gaffney feels the concept of buying game time with in-game currency is “a really strong one,” going as far as saying that “if we give them a good value they’re going to go for it,” but in terms of predicting the split between the two payment methods wasn't sure how it would swing. “That’s going to be determined in larger part by the free market,” Gaffney explained. “If not a lot of players want to get extra gold, and so they don’t buy a lot of C.R.E.D.D, it means that effectively the price goes up from the perspective of how many gold pieces people pay. If it’s common for people to purchase C.R.E.D.D. and then sell it on the Commodities Exchange then it drives the prices down from a gold piece perspective, and so how it’s going to work out over time is going to be very interesting.”
It’s not hard to feel that in buying a C.R.E.D.D. is just an elaborate way of buying gold direct from Carbine, something Gaffney agreed on, but he added that it is ultimately “the best possible way” of doing so because it avoids the scourge that are gold farming companies. It was at this point that Gaffney explained why going beyond the traditional subscription method was a no-brainer – there’s a vast amount of money to be made.
“When we did our early numbers about eight or so years ago, we looked at how much money we were making in Korea on one of our games, and it was a lot – something like $150+ million dollars a year – and then we looked at the Korean version of eBay and looked at how many items were being sold by players to other players, and it was about four or five times that number, a massive amount of money.” He went on to state that people enjoyed playing the game they would be more willing to part with additional cash, but up until recently this would mean dealing with shady third-party setups. “The problem is you get companies set up just around farming gold and then selling it to other players, and some of them may be legit but many are downright evil. They’re stealing accounts, they’re stealing credit cards, they’re hacking accounts, you buy gold from them and then they use your credit card to start paying their subscriptions.”
He rather rightly described the process to a “Wild West black market.”
The thing is, Gaffney feels buying gold directly from the developer isn’t any better a solution – “Can you trust developers? Like “Yeah, trust me, here, buy more gold! Buy more gold!”… erm, yeah. There’s something a bit scheme-y about that, and it’s really incenting the developers to potentially do bad things in their game.” Because the C.R.E.D.D. system is built into the game, and is controlled by the players, it ends up being what Gaffney described as a “pure transaction”, where one player basically pays the way of another for in-game gold. Gaffney went on to concede that there were “probably no perfect solutions” in eliminating and underground black market in games, but that Carbine are happy that their business model can cater to a few different types of MMO player. “It makes us happy because it’s revenue, because we like revenue – it pays our salaries and things like that – and it makes gold farmers unhappy. That’s exactly how I like to operate my world – I like players happy, I like us happy, and I like gold farmers unhappy.”
Of course, the inevitable happened during the conference call when someone compared it to EVE Online’s PLEX system, which was introduced back in 2008. When asked what the difference between the two systems were, Gaffney felt that installing C.R.E.D.D. into the game from launch meant that it could be embedded into various aspects of the game, before stating that comparing WildStar to EVE was a difficult thing to do as they are such different games to begin with, but that it has succeeded because it has “a good player base” and “provide a good [business] model. “They haven’t shifted to Free-to-play, they haven’t done any of that kind of stuff because they have the solidity of having a couple of different ways to pay for their game. So we’re not identical by any stretch but that free market concept I think is a really strong one and is in fact across all games.”
Going back to the comparison to EVE, Gaffney feels the way WildStar has lots of different money sinks, and in turn how it keeps the wheels of economy turning, is what truly sets the two games apart. “We don’t just have your character or your ship or whatever, you have an entire home and entire land around home to invest in and then build up, and you have Warplots – these giant death fortresses that you get to capture raid bosses and sent them out to destroy everyone else’s fortresses. It’s just a very different kind of system [compared to] what other games have, so again there’s the new class of gold sinks of you and your buddies pooling gold together to help fund all of this stuff and help maintain all of your different plugs.”
One of the more popular things to emerge from Carbine during the course of WildStar’s development have been their videos. From the initial announcement trailer, to the early gameplay reveals (voiced by Gaffney himself), to the recent cinematic race reveals and the DevSpeak series, each video has not only captured the sense of fun and humour for WildStar but has reflected the personality of the developers themselves. So when it was asked if there would be a video to explain the business model, Gaffney admitted that, with this particular topic, they were slightly conflicted. “We can do it, but do we lose our [credibility] the more we have more business stuff in there?” said Gaffney. “I don’t know, we debated it because we want to be upfront. We’re really ethical in making sure we’re doing the right things as a developer, and do we want to take that same game voice and talk [about the business model ] or is that too weird to players, you know? We’re jokey and goofy people. People don’t want us joking about the business model, they want to know what the hell the model is without feeling like trying to add humour to it or something like that.”
This led to the point that, because WildStar is a new IP with no existing fanbase, they have to fight tooth and nail for every single fan. “We can’t be like “Hey, here’s your favourite movie from childhood and we’re going to now make it so you can go run around in that world.” No, we have a new IP and we have all the freedom that comes with making a new game but we need to earn users – we don’t get handed them, you know, “Hey, buy the box! Even if you hate the game, woo-hoo! We pocket the cash!” Nope, we earn every box we sell and we’re going to earn every subscription, and we have to do that through game quality first and foremost.”
In addition to a copy of the game and a month of game time when players buy a copy of WildStar, they will also receive three Guest Passes which can be passed on, each granting ten days of game time to try out the MMO and see if it is to their liking. It’s a bold move, as a lot of other games in the genre have waited several months or even years before doing something similar, so when Gaffney was asked why Carbine were providing them with every purchase he responded by saying that, because of the way the market has evolved, they had to embrace the creation of communities, and that starts with playing together with friends. “It’s a very social game – the paths [system is] built around having people doing different game styles can interact with each other and have a good time playing either with each other or near each other, and getting people hooked into that social nature I think is kind of where… I don’t know if it’s where the market is going but it’s where games succeed well, that really let you embrace playing with your buds, and make new buds as well!” When asked if there would be referral rewards for getting new players on-board, Gaffney stated that Carbine hadn’t discussed specifics yet, but he supported the idea. “I mean, if you’re out there saying “Hey, everybody come play this game!” well thanks, we appreciate it, and it’s something that’s worth rewarding.” But for now, though, we’ll have to wait and see if that happens.
The conference call ended with what is now probably the most important unanswered question left – when is the release date? When pressed about the latest word that Carbine are now aiming for a Spring 2014 release, Gaffney was surprisingly open. “One of the things is [Wildstar is a] “it’s ready when it’s ready” kind of game,” he replied, “but we’ve doing different stuff with the game and saying “here’s where we’re targeting.” So yes, that’s kind of the date that we’re targeting right now, but everything is really based on putting stuff in the beta, making sure people love stuff in beta, and then changing the things they hate and doing more of the stuff they’re really stoked about. So that determines our ship date more than any single thing.” So we’ll have to wait a little longer to get our characters on the planet Nexus, but with The Elder Scrolls Online also looking at a similar release date, it’s now looking like 2014 will be yet another busy year for MMORPGs.
Stay tuned to Dealspwn for more coverage of WildStar, as we’ll be chatting with the developers and getting more hands-on time with the upcoming MMO at this year’s Gamescom.