Pirates of the Burning Sea
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In an interesting development last week, the MMORPG Pirates of the Burning Sea announced that it was going to transition to a Free-to-Play model.  Appearing on the same day as the release of the Power and Prestige expansion (that, among other things, allows players to run for Governor of the various ports in the Caribbean,  to set taxes for other players, and adjust port expenditures on defense and economic infrastructure) the announcement took a lot of players by surprise.  There is currently no timeline for the change from a subscription-based business model to that of F2P but Flying Lab Software (FLS) has made it clear that they have been working on this for the better part of a year, that the infrastructure is in place, and they expect the change to take place quite soon.

A recent POTBS devlog has discussed the broad outlines of the new model.  New players will have access to virtually all existing game content but will have some limitations on their capacity (the number of character slots, for example).  Existing players (and, in fact, anyone who has ever subscribed to the game) will be allowed to keep all their existing structures, character slots, and equipment.  There will be a mall (with the catchy name of the Treasure Aisle) where players will be able to purchase additional outfittings.  In addition, a subscription plan will be available that will give players access to additional content, to bonus XP, etc., all mechanisms chiefly geared to helping them level more quickly.

It is no secret that the game has been troubled in terms of its numbers.  Populations on the few servers have fallen to the point where the Caribbean has started to seem empty in places, and the various Nations have often struggled to offer a decent showing at the port battles that are the game’s key capture and control mechanism.  Certainly FLS seems to have lacked the either the skills or resources to promote the game adequately in the mainstream gaming media.  Given that Power and Prestige represents the first major expansion for an established title, it was surprising to find virtually no mention of it anywhere even in those forums devoted exclusively to MMOs.  It is also true that there is the perception at least that the game has a steep learning curve; my own experience, however, is that it certainly isn’t any steeper than most MMOs, a lot less steep than some (EVE) and that now in its mature form the early stages of the game are very effective in guiding you through even some of the more complex aspects of economic production.

The overriding challenge that POTBS faces is what has always been its greatest strength: there isn’t another game like it out there, either in terms of game mechanics or its specific focus.  There are other pirate-themed games, obviously.  But what sets POTBS apart from dreck like Pirates of the Caribbean is that it is set in a semi-historical world.  Yes, it is a romanticized, idealized world.  But the world is one that is characterized by high levels of attention to historical detail when it comes to ships, ports, specific gameplay elements (such as a non-sensationalized incorporation of voodoo) and the economic and political rivalries both national and internecine (conflict between historical trade societies and religious groups, for example).  Furthermore, while players don’t have to participate directly in the Realm vs. Realm conflict, all gameplay is effectively structured by it.  More to the point, the game looks great (and often just downright gorgeous) and many aspects of it are some of the most legal fun you’ll ever have.

What has always troubled me about the fact that POTBS is struggling to find an audience is that it is a bad sign for MMOs in general.  99% of MMOs are either fantasy based or sci-fi based.  There are only so many changes you can ring on those particular domains.  So players continue to pin their hopes on games that are, at best, a “meh” version of the same-old same-old (Aion) or which represent outright design failures (Star Trek Online).    MMOs with real-world referents, however, are almost non-existent except for very tiny niches (the online combat flight simulator Aces High still seems to be plugging away quite happily).  But the failure of an MMO with a real-world referent to find a large audience may suggest that the imagination of players is inherently limited, that designers simply haven’t found a way of enabling people to have fun in something resembling the real world (and while it isn’t exactly a “traditional” MMO, The Sims Online would seem to suggest otherwise) or that complex role-playing games are, by their very nature, for some reason we don’t quite understand yet, inherently ill-suited to anything other than fantasy or sci-fi worlds.  I’m not quite prepared to concede that point yet.  I think we’re trapped by history and tradition, rather than limitations on the inherent potential of the form.

In a follow-up interview, FLS Design Department Lead Declan O’Connell has offered two main reasons for the shift to F2P.  The first is that it lowers the bar to entry for new players, that new players don’t want to have to think in terms of commitments represented by subscriptions when they are taking on a new game.  This is bullshit reasoning and if FLS really believes that it may go a long way to explaining why they are having problems.  The barrier to entry for most MMOs is already ridiculously low.  With a monthly subscription price set at $US10 to $US15 per month, that is probably half of what the average gamer spends on junk food in a single week.  Or, compare that with the price of a single ticket to a 3D movie.   Electronic games in general and MMOs in particular are some of the best value around for your entertainment dollar.  Certainly the barrier is perhaps much too low for some players.  Discussions on the POTBS forums have featured players who self-report holding anything from three to ten (!) individual accounts in order to create mega-economic corporations (or, I suspect, to allow them to play a multiplayer game by circumventing the need to actually interact with other players; money in this case probably compensates for lack of online social skills and is probably a net win for other members of the community who are spared having to interact with said individuals).

In addition, whatever the chaotic status of their personal lives, gamers are not generally commitment-phobic when it comes to games.  Most MMO players are pretty aware that you engage with such games on a long-term basis; potentially a very long-term basis.  However, this is also true of gamers in general, I would argue.  Players don’t typically buy a game expecting to finish it in a couple of hours.  That our involvement with various games is more in the nature of a hook-up than a shared toothbrush holder regrettably says more about the quality of the games we are presented with.  Most players I know, after all, really want a game that has great replayability and to which they can return after being unfaithful with some other tawdry and momentarily attractive title and find that it welcomes you back without any questions asked.

The more plausible reason for the F2P move that O’Connell identifies is that a subscription model tends to frame the player’s involvement in rather more limited ways.  Regardless of the fact that you are paying virtually nothing for the experience, the player that likes to log on and play for a couple of hours a couple of times a week is still paying the same as the player who locks themselves in their room with a bag of Doritos, a case of energy drink and a catheter for days at a time.

But the move is also a recognition that the overall MMO landscape has changed significantly in recent years.  In their initial announcement of the changed business model, FLS noted the tendency of players to “rotate through several games that they’re engaged in.”  This is certainly true, although the reasons for it are perhaps a little disturbing; I suspect that it is largely due to what I would describe as “cyclical disappointment” on the part of players.  Attracted by the latest and greatest MMO to hit the market, they play for a few months before finally facing up to the fact that what they are playing is basically the same as the last game they played (and the one before that) albeit with different graphics.

Given this state of affairs, however, it does make sense to shift away from a subscription model, particularly if you are a smaller game (don’t wait for WoW to go F2P any time soon!).  If players weren’t at some level worried about “wasting” their subscription (and, again, it’s a totally ridiculous worry given how little they are paying, but there you go, that’s human nature for you), it would be much easier for them not to feel they needed to be slavishly devoted to one game.  It would be entirely possible for someone to be a dedicated Guild Wars player who occasionally popped over to the 18th century Caribbean for a bit of naval mayhem.  More importantly–since playing with a group of friends and guild mates is such an important driver of MMORPG participation–having MMOs that are F2P creates a much lower barrier for an entire guild to decide that it wants to take one night a week where they abandon their assaults on Isengard and instead raid a pirate hideout.  You could imagine societies taking advantage of F2P games in order to build alliances across games and to advertise their presence in ways that are a lot easier than at present.

On the one hand, therefore, the move by FLS promises good things for POTBS.  It will almost certainly bring an influx of new and returning players, returning a welcome bustle to the Caribbean.  In particular it should encourage a lot of new players to check out what is a well-designed, well-implemented, distinctive and challenging game.  It still isn’t the game for everyone; if you are the kind of player who insists that you have to play a healer or there is no point in playing at all, then don’t even bother.  But there are pleasures in the game even for players weaned on the more traditional orcs and goblins model.  (I confess that the game has brought out an inner clothes horse in me that I didn’t know existed; the role-players gathered for a ball some time ago and I spent an entire day designing my outfit).

But there are some dangers here as well.  There are a wide variety of F2P models out there, and many games are implementing them for a variety of reasons.  Only Guild Wars among the very larges MMOs has had this business model from the beginning.  With other games it is often seen as a mechanism for reviving an older, flagging title (this is the rationale behind Lord of the Rings Online‘s recent shift to F2P, a move that seems, initially at least, to have been very successful).  Sometimes it is seen as a move to rescue a game that is failing completely (apparently Star Trek Online is already mulling the possibility of a F2P model).  It may be that the subscription model simply doesn’t work for games that are too “niche” for the mainstream (although how “niche” you have to be is an interesting question; EVE shows no signs of shifting away from its subscription model, while Guild Wars, as mentioned, is a behemoth that adopted a F2P strategy early on).

But many existing players of POTBS are right to be cautious and a little concerned about this shift.  F2P has effectively destroyed any number of games by making them “pay to win” experiences, where the kind of weaponry or skills needed to be successful in the player versus player competition or even sometimes in PvE play have to be purchased.  FLS have steadily maintained that they don’t want that kind of game.  But it is a tough balancing act at the best of times.  The fact that FLS is independent of the demands of a publisher may give it a secure footing on what can be a very slippery slope; at the same time, the niche status of the title may prove as inexorable as gravity.