Last week, Funcom announced that The Secret World would no longer be charging players a subscription fee to play the conspiracy-fueled MMO. In effect, this reduces the cost of entry to a one-off payment for the game itself. Assuming the Mayan apocalypse doesn’t show up on 21 December, that sounds like a pretty fair deal.
IncGamers caught up with Game Director Joel Bylos in his survivalist shelter (ok, fine, by email) to ask what prompted the decision to drop the subscription fee, how DLC add-ons will work from now on, and where The Secret World goes from here.
IncGamers: Regarding the new business model: what led to this decision? Why did you decide to make basically everything (except the content updates) free?
Joel Bylos: It is probably worth first pointing out that we still have a client fee and thus we don’t consider everything to be free. However, the reason we wanted people who paid the client fee to be able to access everything in the game is simple – we want a game full of satisfied customers who can play together.
As for what lead to the decision, well the simple fact is that the subscription route just wasn’t going to be viable in the long term. We didn’t attract the numbers at launch, and though our churn has been well above industry averages, we still needed to make a call about the best future for the game. We know that a lot of players end up having a ton of fun as soon as they make the jump into the game, so we decided that we wanted to remove the barrier of entry that subscription tend to be for many people.
IG: If players don’t purchase the DLC story content, are they going to be missing out as the world progresses? How are you tackling this so the game world feels like it’s evolving even for free players?
JB: If people choose not to purchase the DLC, they will indeed miss out on pieces of the story. However, over time we will bundle the DLC together, first as a lower priced offering and eventually rolling them into the original client price to maintain the integrity of the client price. So if you are a free player and you absolutely refuse to pay for anything, you will eventually get access to the content, it will just take some time.
IG: We’ve heard little about any major expansions adding new areas and massively expanding the storyline. Is something like this still on the cards, and if so, how are you planning on integrating this with the free-to-play model?
JB: We have spoken in the past about Tokyo as the next major area update in the game. That ends the first season of the storyline and kicks off the second. We’ll integrate it as a form of DLC and if it is too large for us to justify it as a single DLC we can easily divide it into small DLCs spread across a longer period of time.
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IG: How significant will the “free content and updates” be? Can you elaborate on what sort of things we’ll be seeing, and how regularly? Are any future dungeons and raids likely to be free, for instance?
JB: It is really hard to say until we settle on exactly what works. A new dungeon, for example, will probably be a DLC. We do have several small raids planned that are not planned to be DLC, however. I think it will all really depend on our development pace and how we feel about the DLC we manage to deliver. If we have to bundle more things into a DLC price to make it more attractive, then that is something we will do. If we feel like a DLC is great value and we have a bunch of content left over, we will probably roll that out as free content. The great thing about the model is that it allows us a lot of flexibility.
IG: On that note: how much will the DLC updates cost, and will they feature anything aside from an Issue’s story?
JB: The plan is to charge between $5 and $10 for the DLCs. We fully expect players to vote with their wallets and we’ll be able to see when people feel like a DLC is worth their money or not, which means we can adjust our values to match their expectations of value. What DLCs will feature is hard to pin down, exactly. Currently we are planning around 5-10hrs of gameplay paired with a new auxiliary weapon and several new instances for Issue #6. But again, because that is our first DLC we’ll have to see how it goes.
IG: Did you consider giving new story content away to all the players, or was that just a step too far when it came to monetising the game?
JB: I think story content is one of the major reasons that players come to The Secret World. It is where we put a lot of our focus, both pre and post launch, and I think our community are people who tend to love a good story. For me, it then makes sense that story is our strength and therefore the best area to monetize. We are essentially “giving it all away” in the client price, but as with any good story we want people hooked and wanting to see where it is going. I think people feel better about paying for a good story than they do for a glowing pony.
IG: Will you be ramping up the amount of items in the store to further monetise the game? Are we likely to see things other than boosts and cosmetic items added, at some point?
JB: I am not a fan of selling power, as it creates segregation of a different type in the community. I think the boosts we have are perfectly acceptable ways for people with less time you increase the effectiveness of their time spent. We will definitely try to find ways to increase the amount of items in the store, as well as looking at ways to improve the utility of the store itself (gifting items, account-wide unlocks etc.), but I will always be an advocate of keeping power out of the store.
IG: Did you consider going completely free to play and supporting the game 100% through micro-transactions?
JB: That was one of the many, many different scenarios that were discussed. However, there is a level of compromise there, both in terms of what you have to do to make money, and what you do to your community, that I wasn’t willing to make.
IG: When deciding to move to free-to-play, were you concerned about alienating long-standing players who’ve already invested a fair bit of money into the subscription model since launch?
JB: Actually, I felt like the deal we were offering was better than most were getting from other games which have made a similar transition. Of course, people who have invested a lot of money on the basis of a subscription fee and calculated the value based on that, have seen the relative value of their investment drop. We have and are actively working to ensure that people feel like they still get value for money from a membership and/or a lifetime membership.
IG: TSW didn’t sell quite as well as many expected at launch. Why do you think that was? Do you think the combination of an initial cost, a monthly fee, and microtransactions contributed?
JB: We have run quite a few follow-up surveys with players who played the beta, but didn’t purchase the game and the overwhelming response was that they were not interested in the game with a monthly fee. I think the negative effect of those expectations was reinforced by the arrival of GW2 shortly after our launch.
It was quite a competitive launch window, and obviously that was quite challenging for us considering The Secret World was a new IP and very different from the typical MMO.
That said, I don’t think it is fair to blame business models only for turning away players. We received plenty of feedback on the design of combat, the animations etc. The development team has a focus on improving those parts of the game as well, to improve retention and bring new players into the flock.
IG: With the MMO business the way it is, and most games eventually going free-to-play, did you expect and have plans for this change earlier in the game’s life cycle? Has this change arrived a little sooner than expected?
JB: We really tried to make the subscription model work, and we had no plans until recently to make this change. Because we inherited the item store technology for free from Age of Conan, the switch to a new model was much easier for us to make in a shorter time frame. I can’t speak for whether this was sooner than expected or not, certainly just a couple of months ago the plan was to keep the subscription.