Taking a break from building his Armageddon-proof bunker, game director Joel Bylos tells us why The Secret World's new approach is best for players.
Other people reckon it’ll be zombies, but I’ve always thought that the Earth would be swallowed in a fiery nova, leaving nothing behind but a lifeless husk. I’m not sure why, it just seemed neater than hordes of brain-hunting undead shambling through the decaying hallmarks of our civilization. Besides, a global inferno that tears the land asunder has a kind of glorious finality to it.
Either way, for Funcom game director Joel Bylos, the argument has been won. Starting today, The Secret World no longer requires a subscription. Just pick up a copy and you can experience the entire game until the Mayan Calendar runs out, or even longer if the predictions of doomsday turn out to be inaccurate.
We asked Bylos if he’d take a break from building his apocalypse-proof bunker to tell us more about his decision to drop the subscription. During the interview, he explained why having no restrictions is the best for gamers, and what the future holds should we survive beyond the 21st.
ZAM: What led to your decision to switch away from a subscription-based model?
Bylos: There has obviously been an ongoing internal discussion about the best direction to take the game going forward. We have always focused on being a responsible developer with a subscription model, delivering people updates every month to justify their subscription, which is in my opinion more than a lot of subscription based games manage to do.
I think, in many ways, the momentum in the industry has been against subscription, and we feel it has had a negative impact on the number of people willing to give us a chance. There could be many reasons for that – after all we released in a very crowded launch window and it’s also a new IP that is very different from other MMOs out there.
So we have decided to let go of the required subscription in order to lower the entry threshold, and hopefully bring even more players into the game. This business model shift is a way to encourage growth and acquisition in the game, without punishing our loyal community. We definitely think The Secret World is a game worth playing!
To me, personally, it’s also important that as many people as possible get to try the amazing game that is The Secret World as soon as possible, especially considering the world is about to come to an end on December 21st. Being able to discover and enjoy The Secret World in your final days on this earth, I think is a great way to meet one’s doom.
ZAM: The new approach is very bold, in that it carries very few restrictions. What encouraged you to choose this particular model?
Bylos: First and foremost, I need to represent what I feel is the best route for the players, both current and future. I feel like the business model we have landed upon is a great platform for anybody even remotely interested in the game. I don’t want to treat *anybody* who plays The Secret World as a second class citizen and I think that this business model allows everyone to play the game without any sort of restriction.
ZAM: Is there anything from your experience with Age of Conan that influenced your decision?
Bylos: Age of Conan was in a very different place in its lifecycle when it transitioned to free-to-play. It was coming off the back of a large (and well-reviewed) expansion pack and it was able to capitalize on the new cash shop, a feature which it had never had. It also had sold 1.2 million copies and had a large pool of customers to pull back into the fray.
On the flip side, The Secret World didn’t have as many players join at launch as Age of Conan did. It’s a new license and a very different approach to MMOs, both which might have kept some people away. There has also been a cash shop since launch and it launched among the fiercest MMO competition in history. Generally speaking, people who play The Secret World like it. It’s getting people to jump in which has been the problem.
So I would say that, while we generally have a lot of data about price points and what sells and does not sell in a store, Age of Conan was in a very different place than The Secret World and the two setups are not particularly comparable.
ZAM: Why did you decide to stick with requiring players to buy the base game? Is this to provide a barrier to farmers and spammers, or was there another reason?
Bylos: There are multiple reasons. Firstly, there is absolutely a barrier to keep out gold farmers, spammers and trolls. But more importantly, I think people are more willing to buy the client if they know that they are getting the full experience.
Gamers don’t appreciate being hustled during their play experience – they want to enjoy the game. I feel like taking away glaringly obvious functionality and forcing people to pay for it is exactly the wrong way to make your game appealing. I’d prefer to be up front and ask people to pay for the client (and at $30 it is incredibly cheap) to get the full experience without compromise.
ZAM: Does it matter where gamers decide to buy The Secret World?
Bylos: Not at all. We won’t discriminate between the people who get a box from Amazon or the people who buy it digitally on Steam or our own site.
ZAM: Is there a difference between Funcom Points and Bonus Points. Will I be able to gift them to others, or sell them on the Tradepost? Alternatively, will I be able to sell or gift items I’ve bought from the store?
Bylos: Funcom Points are the points players purchase directly from Funcom, whereas bonus points are those rewarded to players with memberships or via in-game competitions. Funcom Points can be used in all Funcom games whereas the bonus points are only valid in The Secret World. Finally Funcom Points never expire, whereas bonus points have a 6 month expiry date, to encourage usage.
Gifting is functionality we are looking into, but won’t be available immediately. We are currently working on improving the in-game economy, and therefore we won’t allow points to be exchanged on the Tradepost just yet.
Gifting items from the store is a part of the functionality that we are looking into; again it won’t be available immediately. We won’t allow you to sell store bought items in the Tradepost.
ZAM: Is the direction of The Secret World going to change, or are you still looking at your popular Issues and Seasons format? Is the content or style of these updates likely to change?
Bylos: We will be keeping the Issues and Seasons format. We have already been moving a little away from the “shotgun” scattering of missions across the game – we feel it is better to put more focus into a longer and more involving story chain. In Issue #5, people will be able to experience the first example of this, The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn, which is a series of missions that follows the disappearance of a conspiracy blogger on Solomon Island.
Going forward the updates will include a mix of both free and paid content. Free content will be things like PvP updates, features and some content additions. As optional paid DLC, we would offer content and storylines like the Tyler Freeborn mission pack.
ZAM: Is converting to this model likely to delay future content updates, or do you think you’ll be able to take it in your stride?
Bylos: We’ll have to see how it goes, of course, but we will be doing our best to maintain regular updates. Due to some of the backend changes we have already rolled parts of what was planned to be in Issue #6 into Issue #5 (the event that is happening in-game). We remain fully committed to delivering regular content updates, and our hope is that the shift in business model will give us even more freedom to build great content going forward.
Of course, the above is assuming we survive the coming apocalypse; which is highly doubtful. So come December 21st, all of this might not even be relevant anymore. We’ll all probably be dead.
ZAM: The Item Store has been a great way to individualize our characters. Are there any new items or categories that will be introduced with this change? Can you give us a tease of the kind of gifted items Members will receive?
Bylos: We aim to update the store inventory more regularly as a part of the change. The biggest eyebrow raisers, I suspect, will be the speed upgrades becoming available in the store (though they are in the game as well) and the XP boosts (which were available as a part of packs, earlier, but not in the store). We will definitely make sure there is tons of good stuff in the store in the months to come!
ZAM: Do you think that the subscription MMO has had its day? Will subscription-free gaming become the norm?
Bylos: I doubt the subscription MMO has had its day and I think Blizzard would probably agree with me (from atop their throne of money ;)).
I think that subscription based games have a lot of negative momentum to overcome in the current climate, and I maintain that smaller companies will become unable to compete if the expectations of players are that products must be free before people will give them a chance.
However, we delivered a value based subscription model, with regular updates for subscribers and while we see that our subscribers are generally happy, we have not been able to entice enough new people to try the game.
I think overcoming the stigma attached to a subscription is very important, and so I do imagine that for a period games will definitely need to be free to play or freemium in order to achieve a sustainable player base.
ZAM: How do you (and the rest of the development team) feel about the conversion? What excites you most about this new direction?
Bylos: I don’t think that for the development team the conversion has caused much of a change in feeling as we are still maintaining the same sort of development structure. Gaming teams need to be focused around designing great gaming experiences, rather than worrying about the business structure and this team believes in the experiences that they are creating.
We have something that feels fairly unique in the MMO genre, both in terms of setting and mechanics and we have some of the best storytelling in gaming. None of that will change going forward, and my hope with the business model change is that it will encourage even more people to join our amazing community. That is, after all, the primary goal. We think we have a diamond in the rough and we want more people to have a chance to stumble upon it.
Of course, keep in mind that none of this will matter once the world ends of December 21st. Unless the post-apocalyptic world will allow us to maintain The Secret World, that is.
We’d like to thank Joel Bylos for taking the time to answer our questions, and wish him the very best until Armageddon consumes us all.