TUAW: Ultima Forever Preview, Freemium Concerns

If you are a user of Apple devices of any stripe, The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) is almost a must-read for all manner of information about the OS X and iOS platforms. And it would seem that the people at TUAW recently got a bit of a look at Ultima Forever, and have posted their thoughts about it.

They have some good things to say:

…it’s still kind of tough to put down exactly how this game is related to Ultima IV and the rest of the series. There are some quests and storylines from the old game, and the graphics are related. But some of the quests are set years in the future, as if it’s a sequel to the old title. And some of the gameplay ideas are taken directly from the old game (it’s a fantasy action RPG that has to do with you as a character questing up to try and become the Avatar while honing your various values like Honesty and Honor), but others are very new: There are some freemium elements to this title, and it’s an MMO, so you’ll see other players questing around you as you play, and you’ll be able to team up with friends while taking down dungeons.

In other words, Ultima Forever is a weird one. It is fun — the game offers up a lot of really interesting content, and while the combat is tight and fun, there’s also some interesting questlines to follow, and stories to discover around the world that should appeal to both old and new Ultima players. There’s a nice amount of complexity in the leveling as well, with new gear to discover and equip and plenty of reputations and attributes to grind out and grow more powerful in.

But they also express a concern about the game’s free-to-play model:

As you play through the dungeon, you earn keys, which can then be used at various points to open chests and give you a random chance at some loot. The lowest quality keys can be easy to find, and they will award you some (relatively cheap) loot. But higher quality keys are rarer, and some will need to be purchased with real money, and then used to unlock ability slots or better gear.

Even in the few minutes I had to play through the game at GDC, dealing with the keys was an annoying pain, and it’s frustrating that EA here isn’t willing to just let players play with the game directly, instead inserting this currency mechanic at every turn. It’s still too early to pass judgment on the finished title, but the keys seem like a bad mark on an otherwise very impressive game. Older Ultima players, especially, might be really disappointed to see their old memories tarnished with constant, cheap attempts to sell in-app currency.

Perhaps that’s too harsh, though — the game’s not done yet, and it’s going to go through a thorough beta period before it finally arrives worldwide later on this summer. Hopefully, EA will tune it right, so that those who fondly remember Ultima can enjoy this celebration of it without being constantly pestered with freemium nonsense.

I’m not sure how much I can say wihtout violating one NDA or another. I will say that I don’t agree or disagree with TUAW’s assessment 100%, because they’re both right and wrong. In the various development builds of the game I was able to play whilst visiting Mythic’s offices in February, I observed the bronze/silver/gold keys mechanic in action. And I think I can get away with saying that where and when you encounter the mechanic is going to be heavily influenced by your play style.

As TUAW notes, it’s mostly in the dungeons that keys come into play; keys open chests, which in turn give loot. Bronze keys give standard-grade loot, and can in fact be found laying about in dungeons (and I think Mythic explained at one point that you’ll also get a daily ration of bronze keys as you play the game). So if you play the game more for its social elements, and/or spend your time wandering around cities and the overland, it can be assumed that you won’t chew up keys very quickly at all. If, on the other hand, you intend to grind through ten dungeons per play session, it can be assumed that you may find yourself using up keys rather quickly.

That’s just bronze keys, mind. Silver keys, we have been told, can either be purchased or crafted from a handful of bronze keys, whereas gold keys can only be purchased. Higher-grade keys mean that chests will yield higher-grade loot…although it’s worth noting that the game is still entirely playable with the standard-grade loot.

It might be nice if Mythic were to offer an option to just pay a fixed price and thereby dispense with the keys mechanic altogether, but it would seem that EA are pushing the “freemium” model for all their mobile titles now, with some EA executives even going so far as to say that it’s a model that players favour. Which statement, mind you, not everyone agrees with.

Just on a whim, I took a look at the iTunes App Store before writing this article. Here are the top ten “top grossing” games on the App Store at present (split between two pictures, because my iPhone could only fit five entries on the screen at once):

It’s worth noting that only one of those games, The Simpsons: Tapped Out (currently #5 on the list), is an EA title. It’s also worth noting that the only game that does not list “FREE” as its initial price is Minecraft Pocket Edition, currently occupying the #10 slot.

And here’s a comparison of the in-app purchases that Clash of Clans (by Supercell, and currently in the #1 slot) offers versus what The Simpsons offers:

Notice the similarities; The Simpsons offers a couple more options in terms of doughnut packages, but the main tiers are priced identically. Whether they give an identical amount of gems/doughnuts is uncertain; I’ve no idea how many gems are in a chest, per Clash of Clans. Heck…I have no idea how gems are consumed in Clash of Clans, nor do I have any clue about how doughnuts are consumed on The Simpsons, although obviously some progression mechanic in each game is tied to each respective virtual currency. Still, both games are currently raking in more money than Minecraft (which made Mojang a boatload of money last year, and still does), and in fact there have been very few occasions where at least the top four “top grossing” games on the App Store have not been free-to-play titles. The exact order of which games is grossing more than which other games changes from week to week, and sometimes games like DragonVale percolate up from further down the list…but it would appear that for mobile games, free-to-play is huge.

That’s not to say that EA’s sentiments are right, strictly speaking, nor is it to say that Jim Sterling (at Destructoid, linked above) is wrong in some of his criticisms of the freemium model. It’s an observation about what the market — that is, the people who play games on the iOS platform (the game is a bit different for Android, and perhaps even more heavily in favour of freemium) — is saying by means of where money is spent.

I’ve played games with bad freemium implementations; they were off my iPhone in fairly short order. I’ve also played games with quite decent freemium implementations. It’s a model that hasn’t yet been perfected. Ultima Forever probably won’t get it exactly right, and TUAW’s concerns aren’t invalid…but Mythic are still tuning gameplay elements, and the system overall is…decent, at least based on what I saw a couple months ago.

But in the end, the game’s starting price is indeed “FREE”, and the nice thing about any freemium model is that you’ll figure out rather quickly whether or not it has been implemented in a way that you, the player, personally think is fair and worth your consideration (whether or not you partake of it). And should it fail that test, it only takes a few seconds to delete an app.

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