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Aion Lead Producer: To Charge, Or Not To Charge?

Chris Hager, lead producer on NCsoft's MMORPG Aion tells Gamasutra about the "free expansion" Assault on Balaurea, the rise of microtransactions and why giving stuff away for free can be a good business move.
For game makers, deciding whether to charge for certain content in online games can be a tricky balance between fostering player loyalty and making some quick revenue. To charge or not to charge is something that the Aion team at NCsoft was recently pondering. The MMORPG, released in September 2009, is due for a substantial expansion in September 2010 with Aion 2.0, now known formally as Aion: Assault on Balaurea. The game's lead producer Chris Hager said that NC West -- the Western division of the South Korean company -- discussed charging extra for the expansion, which raises the game's level cap, adds new instances and zones, weapons, items, skills, pets and other features. But in the end, the company thought that giving the expansion for free to paying subscribers would be beneficial in the long run. "There was discussion about whether to charge or not," Hager told Gamasutra. "I think what it came down to was that we felt it offered good player value, to give it to players for free, and we just wanted to make sure that if in the future we ever do charge for anything, we make sure it's a good amount of content. We don't want to nickel and dime players." He said he hopes the "free expansion," as NCsoft calls it, will build up loyalty among subscribers, and show newcomers that there is a lot to do in Aion. "Any time you get something for free, you should be more willing to go back to that person or company or product. ... In the end, we are a service industry, and our players are our customers. We need to make sure that they are as happy as we can make them." Hager may want to avoid "nickel and diming" customers, but if a price tag is closely aligned with players' expectations of that content, is customer goodwill really at risk? Earlier this year, World of Warcraft developer Blizzard charged $10 and $25 for two different in-game mounts, and generated a dollar amount estimated to be in the millions. It may have been a turn-off to certain players, but many others happily queued up to buy these virtual items on top of monthly subscription fees. "Blizzard has a large install base," said Hager, "and I think that especially the one pet [the Pandaren Monk] where they took the proceeds and gave them to charity, I think that's awesome. I'd love to be able to charge $10 and give half of whatever we make to a charity, because I think that's a worthwhile cause." He added, "But where ... WoW is as a game, it's different than where Aion is as a game. Getting into the whole microtransaction thing, that's something we do here at NCsoft. ... I think that's something that's value-added for the customer. I think it's a matter if they have disposable income. If there's a way to get pets of some nature in-game, then I think it's okay to charge for something that's a little bit extra." Introducing game-changing components as in Aion: Assault on Balaurea and offering a WoW mount that makes the player travel faster are two different things, though. By making sure all players have access to all of Assault on Balaurea's content, NCsoft makes sure that it doesn't fragment its userbase between two versions of the game, and giving away the content for free could be best in the long run, so to an extent game design may play a factor in decisions that on the surface appear strictly business. The Aion team has dabbled in microtransactions with paid booster packs and a Valentine's Day pack. Hager said that microtransactions must be handled carefully depending on whether or not a game requires a monthly fee. "The free-to-play model is good, it's something that's coming up," said Hager. "I still think that there are people that think that paying $15 a month and getting everything you want is good. Momentum is gaining for microtransactions both in free-to-play and pay-to-play, but I think the difference is the range of what you offer." He said in free-to-play microtransactions, it might be more common to charge for additional items that are "game-changing," like a more powerful sword. "[But] with pay-to-play, you have to be much more selective in what you offer. You have to make sure you're not giving someone with more disposable real-world income the advantage over someone with just more time and less money." A big free update might seem like a last-ditch way to retain players or grab new ones, but an NCsoft PR rep claimed Aion's subscriber base is healthy and the studio would "love to report the numbers." He said that a lack of standardization in the reporting of subscriber figures leads to hesitation of revealing Aion's numbers, as companies can so readily spin stats to make them seem better than they really are. "We'd love to share our numbers, because we think everyone out there would be extremely, pleasantly surprised with our current userbase," he said.

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