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Q&A: The nitty gritty of TERA's move to free-to-play

Switching a subscription MMO to free-to-play can prolong its life -- if you do it right. We talked to En Masse Entertainment COO Soo Min Park to see how TERA: Rising's recent switch was going.

Patrick Miller, Blogger

March 21, 2013

8 Min Read

Switching a subscription-based MMORPG over to a free-to-play model can be an effective way to prolong the life of your game – but it's hard to find the sweet spot between encouraging players to pay and making them feel nickel-and-dimed at every turn. En Masse's TERA: Rising recently made the switch. We spoke with COO Soo Min Park to see how that's going. Subscription-based business models have been on the downswing recently. Was this what prompted the switch to free-to-play? Was this switch on your radar at all before TERA launched, or did this all come afterwards? Even before we launched TERA in May 2012, we were discussing a potential transition from a subscription-only model. We chose to launch TERA as subscription-only because it was designed around this model, and we were confident we could deliver a great game experience. We also wanted to better understand what our players valued most in terms of game content. For example, even though our players were paying for a subscription, they were also interested in purchasing additional cosmetic items through our web store. The strong performance of these item sales helped support our belief that TERA could succeed under a microtransaction model. By taking a staged approach and analyzing our player behavior, we were able to implement a free model that I believe achieved a good balance for the needs of core players while also appealing to newer gamers. Many free-to-play developers talk about how the not-paying players function as additional content for the paying customers -- more people to play with, more people to buy/sell items, and so on. Was this part of the reason you decided to make TERA free-to-play? In other words, was your userbase too small as a paid subscription game to sustain a quality MMO experience? I agree that a strong player base is part of the overall game content and experience for online games. Subscription-only titles usually get much more experienced and hardcore players than free titles which makes it challenging to acquire non-hardcore players as paid subscribers. TERA actually had a strong paying subscriber base, but we believed the gameplay and content could appeal to a broader audience if we removed the monthly subscription requirement. Walk me through a bit of the design philosophy involved in switching to free-to-play. Is TERA primarily driven by microtransactions, now? Or is the goal simply to draw players in and encourage them to convert to an Elite subscription? The core philosophy of the TERA: Rising transition was: “Free players shouldn’t feel penalized for being free.” Our standard players (free) have full access to all game content, while previous TERA subscribers were awarded a host of special benefits as Founders. TERA: Rising is now primarily driven by microtransactions, but players can also purchase an optional Elite Status. Elite Status is a group of premium benefits with a monthly recurring option, and many of these benefits also available individually from the in-game store. Elite benefits are designed primarily around providing convenience for advanced players who spend a lot of time in the game. It is not meant to be a gate for exclusive access to game content. Once a player starts a free account, what strategies do you have in place to encourage them to become a paying customer? What has worked out best for you so far? Are there any specific monetization design hooks that have worked significantly better than you expected (or not as well as you had expected)? With the TERA: Rising transition, we have run several promotions, such as providing existing subscribers with 30 days of Elite Status, giving an in-game Halo item when players first purchase EMP (En Masse Points), providing free EMPs to Founders (previous subscribers) to help them experience the new item-buying process, running weekend discounts and so on. So far every promotion has worked well, but the discount promotions and free EMP giveaway for Founders have been the strongest. We also added ‘Strongboxes’ into the game which contain a variety of special items to help players. These randomly dropped boxes require a Strongbox key to open. Players can acquire keys for free in the game, but they also buy them from the store to save time. Instant gratification and the random aspect of Strongbox rewards has been a powerful draw to our players and is performing above my expectations. Recently, Star Wars: The Old Republic took a lot of flak for implementing a free-to-play mode which seemed to go out of its way to create a rather unfriendly user experience for free players. Was this on your radar as you engineered the switch to free-to-play? Even before we decided to change the TERA subscription business to a free model, there were many examples of subscription-to-F2P titles we could draw upon. One thing we saw was that although many of these titles claimed they were “Free to Play,” some of their features and content were inaccessible to players who didn’t pay for some form of subscription tier. We felt that this was not the direction we wanted to take with TERA: Rising. As I mentioned above, the core philosophy of the TERA: Rising transition was “free players shouldn’t feel penalized by being free.” It was something I learned from other F2P titles as well as other business model transition cases. The MMO business is a long-term business, potentially longer than 10 years for a strong brand. For a long-term relationship with our customers, I want them to feel “free” to play TERA: Rising even if they don’t pay for anything. If the game is strong enough and players are willing to invest their time into it, there is a good chance they will eventually turn into paying players. Regarding your recent announcement about your maximum concurrent user increase: I often hear that subscription-based games have a hard time retaining a player's interest long enough to justify a long-term subscription. How much of the new user influx is coming from former subscribers who let their accounts lapse vs. completely new players? It’s been less than two months since our transition and maybe it's too early to say, but we have definitely been getting great feedback from our previous subscribers, lapsed players, and new players. We have seen strong player retention from our previous subscribers as well as an influx of returning users, but the strongest signups have come from new players. After the TERA launch last year, many MMO players wanted to play TERA, but the subscription model was a barrier to many potential customers. Since we removed the barrier, we began to see a huge new user influx starting with our Jan 9th announcement of the TERA: Rising transition. The positive feedback from the existing players after the transition definitely helped to bring their social circles into TERA as well. By how much did you anticipate your active userbase to increase after the free-to-play transition? Were there any unexpected issues with scaling your server needs accordingly? We researched many F2P transition cases before we forecasted our own performance and we determined our user base could increase by 3 to 7 times, but it really depended on different transition strategies, the length of service and so on. We can’t disclose a specific number of DAU/MAU but our belief is that TERA: Rising outperformed most major MMORPG F2P transitions by far. We did have a few server instability issues due to the huge influx of players, but we have reacted quickly to address these issues. Going F2P means that your concurrent user count is no longer directly connected to revenue. What kind of other metrics have you been tracking (DAU/MAU? ARPU/ARPPU?), and how has your increased user count translated into revenue? Even though TERA is new to the F2P market, the En Masse staff is not. We know what we have to track and we know what success looks like. Successful monetization and our overall service is largely influenced by our analytics and business intelligence. All of our decisions are based on a combination of player feedback and data-driven analysis. The core numbers we have been tracking are new registrations, DAU/WAU/MAU, ARPU/ARRPU, PU (Paying Rate), MCU (Max CCU), ACU (Average CCU), DT (duration/playing time) and as well as game-specific numbers such as paying rate by level, ARPPU by user status, and so on. For example, it is very important for us to understand the player behavior between both our Standard users as well as our premium Elite Status users. After the F2P transition, our huge increase of players translated into an overall revenue increase. We are also seeing a significant increase in the rate of new subscriber acquisitions, paying user rate, and ARPPU. Monthly revenue is over three times higher than our last month of subscription revenue and our peak CCU is roughly 10 times prior to F2P. While we are always looking for ways to make our service better, we are happy with the results so far. Has TERA's performance thus far put you off of doing subscription-based games in the future? I was fortunate to lead the world’s first online F2P transition 12 years ago, and I instantly became a huge believer of the business model. Over the past few years, the US market has seen a shift towards more games running in a F2P model as players become more comfortable with a new way to play games. But at the same time, I realize that not every game can be successful as a free title. Some games might work better with a one-time fee or perhaps even a form of subscription model but I see the biggest opportunity in finding games that can blend gameplay freedom with microtransactions. I also am a proponent of providing optional recurring premium services such as TERA’s Elite Status. If done right, it’s a great ongoing revenue source for the publisher and a way for customers to pay for the things that matter most to them.

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