This week’s issue of our development log will be slightly different from our usual ones. Obviously, everyone on the team has been super busy with the ramp-up to our free-to-play release on Friday. If you missed it, here’s our release trailer once more:
But instead of talking about all the tasks involved in getting this release out the door, I thought it would be more interesting to write a few words about what free-to-play means to us and why we are doing it in the first place, especially because the term itself comes with a lot of baggage.
Consequently, the first and most important bit of information is that in the case of Prosperous Universe, free-to-play means just that: You can play the game for free. What it does not mean is that we litter the game with micro-transactions or that we add pay-to-win features that give you a massive edge over non-paying users (more on that below). It also doesn’t mean that you should play it for free (more on that below as well).
With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about why we are doing this and why we are doing it now. To be honest, we weren’t to keen on going free-to-play just yet. We quite enjoyed working on the game with our small and personal community of dedicated players. Developing in the knowledge that your players understand that things could go wrong at any time, or that the server might need a reset to implement a big new feature, is a great thing. We also didn’t have to deal with much in terms of cheating, abuse and general community management just yet, simply because the numbers aren’t anywhere near where this becomes a concern.
But that’s exactly the problem: Prosperous Universe is an MMO. The overall experience and economy relies on the markets being liquid and the companies interacting. While we can see desirable developments at the hotspots around big markets in the game, the few hundred active players we have at the moment just aren’t enough to bootstrap the kind of economy we have envisioned.
To solve this problem, there really is only one solution: We need to get more players into the game. Julian can do a lot to generate exposure and to bring more people to our website. But for anyone who’s not a hardcore fan willing to pay for a support tier without ever having tried the game before, so far the Prosperous Universe experience typically ended right after sign-up and before the payment screen. It became painfully obvious that our semi-private alpha test would have to come to an end.
Which brings us to the next problem: The intricacies of designing a fair payment model that’s not pay-to-win.
For a short while we considered going with a demo system similar to what we use over at AirlineSim, meaning that you could try the game for free for a certain amount of time but had to pay or leave after that time passed. While this would have been fair and transparent, it would still have denied access to the game to anyone who isn’t willing or able to pay for whatever reason. Since there are little truly limited resources in PrUn (unlike in AirlineSim), we decided that this approach wasn’t worth the effort, especially because we would still have to implement measures against misuse of trial accounts.
This only left a true free-to-play approach in which anyone could play for free forever. And the question: What would make people pay for the game anyway? We knew that pay-to-win was off the table, so it had to be mostly quality-of-life features that made playing the game more enjoyable, but not necessarily easier. But we also had to keep in mind the potential misuse of trial accounts mentioned above which are less of an issue when everyone always has to pay.
With these considerations in mind, we settled on a kind of hybrid between a restricted demo mode and classic freemium: While purchasing a PRO license for APEX will grant you access to QoL features (especially in the future), it will also grant you access to actual gameplay features that are generally off limits to non-PRO users. The features in question are typically ones that are easily exploitable using multi-accounts, so having to pay for them introduces a natural (albeit not impenetrable) barrier to misuse.
One could argue that this gives a considerable advantage to PRO players, simply because non-PRO players don’t even have access to all the markets the game has to offer. But at the same time, we are convinced that this solution strikes a good balance between fairness and earning money. We don’t do micro-transactions, we don’t “hunt whales”, we don’t have anything in the game that allows players to throw endless amounts of money at us. We feel like that’s a good thing, but it means that at the end of the day, we need a higher percentage of paying players than other free-to-play titles might.
So can you play Prosperous Universe for free? Absolutely! If you stick to the major markets and don’t care about getting involved with politics and private trade too much, I’m convinced you can have a great time despite the limitations of a trial account. But should you play without a PRO license forever? I would argue the answer is no: You are missing out on some great stuff :-)
I hope these ramblings provided a bit of insight into our thought process that lead to Friday’s release. Do you think our approach is fair? Do you have questions, suggestions or comments? Then please feel free to join us on Discord or the forums and let us know!