by NorseGamer, HSM Editor-in-Chief
There’s a Deep Space Nine episode, “Battle Lines,” in which warring factions are condemned to forever kill each other, resurrect, and start the whole process over. No one ever truly wins; every victory is pyrrhic, because your felled enemy is simply going to wake up in a little while and come at you again.
It was just…pointless.
In Cutthroats, once you’ve maxed out your levels and won all the rewards, the same problem emerges: there’s very little incentive to keep playing, because no matter what you do, there’s very little that can be done to extend the length of each round of battle. It becomes a monotonous grind of taking turns with invincibility.
Now, granted, all games are repetitive. That’s the nature of games. The question is how well you can disguise it. Some games disguise the monotony by scaling up the difficulty, in order to create a sense of progression. Others create plots that unfold as you achieve certain goals. Anything to give you a sense of forward progress.
And, to be fair, Cutthroats does have for-purchase commodities which make this feasible. You can buy all sorts of limited-use upgrades for your ship. Here’s the problem, though: while the game itself is brilliant, the freemium model being used to try to drive sales absolutely kills it.
What it comes down to is pricing, and the free-to-play model being used.
It’s a joke. And a bad one, at that.
If you’ve followed HomeStation for any length of time, then you know that I’m not averse to Sony price experimentation in Home — a position which certainly hasn’t endeared me to some people in the community. Even if I occasionally disagree with the tactics, I get the strategy (with the exception of x7 as a loyalty program initiative, which I truly don’t understand). In the case of Cutthroats, though, I can only sum it up thus: this was a golden goose that somebody killed with greed and ignorance.
I don’t say that lightly. I’m a huge fan of this game and I want to see it succeed. But I can’t ignore how the business model looks to be its downfall. Which begs the question of who thought it was a good idea to begin with, and how the hell it got approved.
I really, really hate criticizing game developers — particularly for Home, where people are asked to build compelling experiences that need to be fun for years, on a budget that’s less than what I spend on cat food — but Cutthroats’ e-commerce model just isn’t structured very well, and it’s bugging me. A lot.
Last night, I spent another ten dollars on coins for ammunition and ship repairs. This brings my running total up to somewhere north of thirty bucks. For ten bucks, I acquired roughly two hours’ worth of fireball cannon shot (and that’s with rather conservative use) and three ship-repair items — which, given the average length of a typical round of combat, are worth maybe half an hour.
I’m sorry, but that’s a crap value proposition. Whether it was precipitated by greed or incompetence, the value-to-cost ratio is worse than Herman Cain’s tax plan. And the problem with this is that it actually creates an economic incentive not to invest. Why bother?
Let’s use SodiumOne as an example. In SodiumOne, I get to play five levels for free. If I invest five dollars in a piece of virtual clothing (which promptly goes into my storage), I get permanent access to forty-five more levels. If I invest another ten dollars, I get two permanent upgrades to my hovertank’s firepower which I can enhance through in-game experience acquisition.
Contrast that now to Cutthroats. I’ve blown at least thirty bucks on limited-commodity items. And I have nothing to show for it that’s tied specifically to investing in those power-ups. At this point I’m halfway to a disc-based title. Where the hell is my roped-off club for conspicuous consumption? For thirty dollars, I’d expect unlimited fireball ammo, permanent upgrades to my ship’s speed and damage output, longer invulnerability windows and a hell of a lot of cannon and ship repairs. If the repetitiveness of being sunk is the game’s achilles heel, then the goal should be to lengthen the average round. This creates an incentive to actually play more skillfully, rather than simply bash into every hull out there.
Are there freemium games in Home which offer limited-use power-ups? Sure. Sodium2 has rocket boosters, and Novus Prime has nebulon boosters. In both cases, though, the cost-to-value proposition is a hell of a lot better than it is in Cutthroats. And as a result I don’t feel ripped off about investing in them.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about this. Sony could be making a fortune with this game. We won’t know for another week or so, once we see SCEA’s top-ten items (by volume of units sold) for the month of April. But I’ll wager I’m not wrong, via two circumstantial pieces of evidence:
1. I’ve rarely observed someone using specialty ammo that has to be purchased.
2. The last few play sessions I’ve been in have had so few people that only about half of the ships were deployed.
This is not good. I have this horrible feeling that Sony’s making a lot less money on this game than they’d projected, and while they have no one but themselves to blame if I’m right, it may create an incentive for them to not develop games like this in the future. And that bothers me, because I’ve done my best to evangelize what I think is inherently a fantastically fun game undermined by a disaster of a microtransaction business model. Sony’s had the benefit of studying the freemium models used by Lockwood, nDreams and Hellfire Games; I frankly expected a lot more competency.
Here’s how it should have been structured:
A. Players would be restricted to five levels of experience if they played for free, and would be restricted to playing as gunners. They could play as much as they wanted, but could not progress beyond level five. This would allow those who wanted to play for free all the fun they wanted as gunners, blowing stuff up to their hearts’ content. The only access to a captaincy would be if the entire boat was crewed by players below level five.
B. Players who purchase a pirate outfit for $4.99 gain access to the other twenty-six experience levels, which they can play as gunners indefinitely.
C. At level ten, players who purchase a virtual companion (such as a parrot) for $1.99 open up skipper-level access, and can now captain a ship at will or via mutiny.
D. At level fifteen, gunners would now have the ability to mutiny. Gunners below level fifteen can support a mutiny, but cannot themselves mutiny and become captain. However, gunners who previously purchased captain-level access at level ten or higher will have the ability to lead a mutiny from that point forward.
E. Treasure chests collected from sunken vessels would have coins in them as well as experience points. This would allow people to acquire power-ups strictly from grinding, without having to spend a dime. (Why this wasn’t included in the game truly is beyond me.)
F. Permanent power-ups could be purchased, starting at level ten. $9.99 for unlimited fireball ammunition. $4.99 for permanent ship speed bonuses. $4.99 for permanent bonuses to damage, defense and maneuverability. These bonuses would increase as the player’s level escalated. Permanent power-ups could only be purchased via cash, and not game coins.
G. Players who reached the top level and had invested in captaincy would receive the grand prize of a free personal estate which included the ability to run a private three-ship version of the game (think of Novus Prime’s hangar and officer’s quarters).
Now, hey. I’m not a game designer. So maybe what I’ve just outlined is completely unworkable and the product of a disordered mind. I’m just a resort developer who’s spent the last ten years studying behavioral economics and successfully figuring out ways to get people to spend $40,000 on a $4,000 problem. So if you’re a game designer and you think that proposal was utter horse-puckey, I bow to your superior knowledge.
Besides, since Cutthroats is already live in Home, it’s not like any of that could be implemented anyway. So here’s what I’d recommend they do right now, with what they actually have:
1. Add coins to the treasure chests. Seriously. You want people getting power-ups. It’s something to strive for even after hitting the level cap.
2. Raise the level cap. People were maxing out within a single day of playing. It’s got to scale in such a way that it takes time to reach the top.
3. Deploy the ships farther apart from each other. This will cut down on the rather frustrating clusters of invincible ships sinking each other in wars of attrition. The whole point of this game is to reward strategic gameplay.
4. Real naval combat of the era had some pretty gnarly fog of war because of the cannonfire. I can’t imagine it’s that hard to program into the game, and it would add another strategic element.
5. Restrict mutiny to at least level ten. Give people something to strive for.
6. The setting itself should be more interactive. The warp zone is a great touch, but what about some of the great cliches of the sailing era? Random whirlpool warps? Storms which damage ships? That sort of thing.
7. Offer permanent upgrades which can be purchased either with a set number of coins or strictly through hard dollars.
8. Either offer a larger repair bonus upon a sinking a ship and collecting its treasure chest, or offer the ability (perhaps above level twenty) to careen the ship and repair a percentage of it without using a power-up.
9. Want to sell some of those outfits that were developed? Give them in-game bonuses. Skeleton gunners get a bonus to cannon damage, for instance.
I’m in the odd position of hoping that my instincts are dead wrong; I hope that Sony’s making a fortune off Cutthroats, because it’s a wonderful multiplayer game that lets people interact cooperatively and competitively without lag. I genuinely hope that the people who conceptualized this game’s e-commerce model and look at the sales volume printouts are laughing at me right now. But I can’t help shake this feeling that Cutthroats’ freemium model is inherently flawed, and Sony’s losing money on this thing as a result.
God, I hope I’m wrong.