It’s getting rarer and rarer these days to find an MMO that gates its content entirely behind a monthly subscription fee. World of Warcraft, of course, still does (and probably always will), but other popular MMOs have lately adopted a hybrid subscription/free business model. Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Ring Online were among the first of the big MMOs to offer free play options. Perfect World Entertainment’s Champions Online has been this way for awhile now, while another of their games, Star Trek Online, will be very soon. DC Universe Online will also soon be moving to a hybrid business model.
The grandfather of superhero MMOs, Paragon Studios’ seven-year-old City of Heroes, recently switched to a hybrid model. While theirs is similar to those of the other games mentioned above, Paragon Studios seems dedicated to giving both their subscribers (aka VIP Players) and free players much more value than most MMOs out there.
Announced in June, City of Heroes: Freedom (as the game is now called) moved quickly through a closed and then open beta before offering a headstart for current subscribers. The free-to-play floodgates then opened up on September 27th, and the game, as they say, would never be the same.
Unlike most games that have or are implementing hybrid business models, City of Heroes actually rewards former subscribers and other players who make even a small monetary investment in the game. This is accomplished through a three-tiered player structure.
Free Players are those who have never maintained a subscription to City of Heroes and haven’t made a purchase from the new in-game Paragon Market. While Free Players can created a highly customizable character and experience most game content (even leveling all the way to the level cap), they are extremely restricted when compared to the other player tiers. For example, Free Players cannot use most of the game’s chat channels, enter Mission Architect missions, or take part in the Inventions System.
Premium Players are former subscribers or new players who make even a single purchase from the Paragon Market. Several of the restrictions that Free Players have are lifted for Premium Players, depending on where they fall on the Paragon Rewards ladder, a system that replaced the old Veteran Rewards.
VIP Players are those who maintain current subscriptions to the game, and have none of the restrictions that the lower tiers have. VIP Players also have free access to the Going Rogue expansion content, even if they didn’t previously purchase it, as well as some (but not all) new powersets, and special content such as the new Signature Story Arcs (released monthly).
To generate revenue, even from “free” players, Paragon Studios has created the Paragon Market, which can be accessed from within the game. The intention is that there will be new items added to the Market each week, and so far they’ve kept to that. In addition to the exciting new melee powerset Street Justice (which must be purchased even by VIP Players), they’ve added costume pieces like the Circle of Thorns set, firefighter hats, and a spooky Halloween costume bundle.
So is going free-to-play good for the game, or bad? When it was first announced, some players expressed misgivings, but it seems like most of those concerns have fallen by the wayside. City of Heroes is more accessible than ever before, and player excitement over the “extras” from the Paragon Market would seem to indicate that the Market is a great moneymaker for Paragon Studios. I think the move to Freedom will end up being very good for City of Heroes.