on_the_brink

When an MMO launches, it does so trumpeting the boldest of intentions for its continuing evolution and development. That’s especially true for a game launched with a subscription model, like The Secret World. Sure enough, when Funcom released the game 16 months ago, Game Director Ragnar Tornquist bravely predicted monthly content updates would follow.

You could almost see the disaster coming here. An ill-advised publishing deal with EA produced no significant pre-release marketing, but may have contributed to the game being rushed to launch. As released, The Secret World was plagued by frustrating bugs to fundamental things like quests and chat that the Funcom team struggled to fix over a six week span of time. Sales were awful, large-scale layoffs at Funcom ensued, and when Tornquist abruptly “stepped aside” a year ago, I’d have laid even money that The Secret World wouldn’t live to see 2013.

After the jump, it’s not a bad little tree at all, Charlie Brown. Maybe it just needs a little love.

When The Secret World and its subscription model launched in July of 2012, it was already clear that the funding landscape for MMO’s had changed dramatically. Two high profile 2011 releases with the same payment infrastructure — Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic — were hemorrhaging players and likely already looking at alternative models. Guild Wars 2 was 6 weeks from launching with its robust game world and the “Buy To Play” model that ArenaNet had pioneered already in place. Funcom’s little game didn’t stand a chance.

It is to their credit that they realized this and moved aggressively. Unfortunately, in the gaming development business “aggressive” usually is a code word for “a bunch of people lost their jobs”, which happened here, sadly. However, Funcom did promote Lead Content Designer Joel Bylos to be the Game Director of TSW when Tornquist was (perhaps mutually, perhaps not) ushered to the door. With Bylos running the show, the scope and focus of the game seemed to change.

Firstly, Bylos announced that with a much smaller team now working on TSW, the free content additions promised for the game wouldn’t be a monthly thing, but would come out when they were ready. He turned his team to fixing many of the nagging bugs in the game and also tooling it for a radical shift in funding models. In late November of last year, Funcom made the announcement that their game, formerly requiring a monthly subscription, would be going to a “Buy To Play” model similar to that of Guild Wars 2. Anyone who’d ever bought the original game would be able to play all the content available at launch plus the first four content updates with no restrictions. The game would fund itself by charging a price for future content updates and then relying on real-world purchases of cosmetic items, pets, and boosters in the game’s store.

That restructuring likely saved The Secret World. While Funcom has been reticent about giving out details on the financial health of the game, the fact that it and the company still exist–which was no sure thing a year ago–along with increased player populations–is testament to the success this overhaul accomplished.

The question for players, though, is always how the new model is integrated onto a framework that was designed for a different one. The first major MMO I can remember switching over from a subscription to a different way of doing things was Dungeons and Dragons Online. When Turbine made that free to play, it shocked a lot of folks by making a dying game profitable, populated, and vibrant. Wasn’t long thereafter that Lord Of The Rings Online made the switch as well. It also became a profitable venture for Turbine.

The problem from a player’s perspective, though, is how visible the new payment system is, and a bad one can destroy my interest in a game. For instance, while I’m glad LOTRO is doing well for Turbine, the paywall is so obnoxious and shoved in my face that it simply has killed most of my desire to go back and play more. This was a game I loved dearly. The Shire as created by Turbine was one of the most amazing virtual places you could visit in a game. Now I’m afraid I’ll log in and see enhanced movement packs being advertised on a billboard outside Bag End.

Funcom seems to have negotiated the transition to new monetization well. The quests that have to be paid for are largely well-hidden–you can’t even highlight the inconspicuous environment piece until you’ve bought one of the game’s newer “Issues” (Funcom packages new content drops like pulp comics). There’s no in-game advertising for the real-money shop. It’s there, and if you want it, you can shop there. The importance of hiding the paywall couldn’t be greater for a game like The Secret World. It is an MMO that requires a player to suspend disbelief in massive ways, and if the monetization cues were more obvious the whole thing would come crashing down.

If there’s one thing missing from Secret World’s version of buy to play that I wish existed, it would be the presence of a way to exchange piles of game-earned currency to spend on items in their store. I think Guild Wars 2 does this excellently through their gold and gems exchange program that functions as a sort of virtual world currency system. Without something like this in Secret World, I’m afraid I’ll soon be piling up the base currency with nothing really to spend it on.

4 stars
PC

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