Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lord of Ultima and the slow death of Free to Play

Darkness has fallen on Caledonia and once powerful empires have met their oblivion by no fault of their own.
Lord of Ultima is dead, killed by a revenue model incompatible with its keeper.

Those looking for someone to blame need look no further than Electronic Arts (EA.) 
It appears that EA sees no value in what has been described as "niche" gaming.  "Niche" in this case applies to gaming titles that weren't designed to leverage the online cash cow that premium memberships and endless DLC offer in more recent titles.

Lord of Ultima's shutdown is just another casualty of the ongoing implosion of online gaming. 
It's a growing trend following on the heels of a bomb dropped by Gamespy in April when they announced that their longtime gaming services would cease on May 31st.  Even if you've never heard of them before, chances are you've used their services at one point.  Gamespy provided the online middleware for games on platforms from PC to Android.

More recently, EA announced it was dropping online support for many popular older games on June 30th.  A few notable examples include Crysis 2, Battlefield Vietnam and Need For Speed hot Pursuit 2

Yes, most of the games getting the cut are a bit long in the tooth but a pattern's been developing .  It wasn't so long ago that online gaming was a choice not a requirement.  Multiplayer games only needed to involve as many people as you could gather at a LAN party and it didn't matter if your Internet connection was down.

As game development has moved from a few hotly anticipated titles to annual installments of varying quality it seems it's less about the game than the franchise it spawns.

Producing a sub-par game is irrelevant if you can prime the hype pump with the promise of a seemingly never-ending stream of content. 

For a price...

With that has come "always-on" requirements for single player games, frequent server outages, half-baked triple-A titles and increasing prices to cover "development costs" even as publishers shut down their development studios by the dozens.

I guess all that bandwidth is expensive...

It's a model incompatible with games that are truly "Free to Play" and in its wake has come an avalanche of titles that may start out to be free to play but are almost always "Pay to Win."

Lord of Ultima was somewhere in the middle.  There were ever more intrusive opportunities to purchase upgrades and buffs to improve the experience but if you were willing to suffer a little more inconvenience than your well heeled competition you could  still do well.

That option runs contrary to a model dependent on the cash value of players.  After all, they're a discerning bunch and won't tolerate banner ads and endless spam flooding the email accounts they registered with.
They say nothing in life is free and it's a fair enough cliche'.  Servers and bandwidth aren't free and the "Free to Play" model is built on the assumption that dedicated players will gladly loosen the purse strings every once in awhile to improve their experience. 

But "once in awhile" isn't good enough anymore and more often than not "Free to Play" isn't free at all.
The model has been perverted.  The experience has become more about the store page than the game itself leading to a score of me-too clones and one-offs looking to cash in.  Some are even blatant about it but they're the exception not the rule.

The practice of "Pay to Win" frequently hides behind the mask of "Free to Play" which  is nothing less than "Bait and Switch" and it's killing the gaming industry.  It's bad faith and that's not a sustainable business model.

Spend a little time reading the Wall Street Journal and you'll find out that companies often receive a valuation based more on their "good will" than the products they produce. 

In that kind of scenario, EA's value is heading over a cliff...