From the Depths: ‘Free-to-play’ World of Warships is an expensive journey

    
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When I first started playing MMO’s back in 2012, the hot debate of the time was subscription vs. free-to-play business models. Over the last 10 years, however, that conversation has mostly disappeared as subscriptions have become – for the most part – a way to get extras like experience and credit-making boosts. Game studios have found other ways to either support the development of the product or milk the customer, depending on their level of greed and desperation.

At the moment, I play one free-to-play title that has found numerous ways to monetize its content: World of Warships. On the one hand, I’ve long been a fan of allowing players to choose how they engage with a game financially. However, upon Wargaming’s recent implementation of the battle pass within Warships, I began to count the various ways players could (sometimes thoughtlessly) spend money on the game. How many straws can the camel carry, anyway?

Let’s first examine this newest revenue stream: the battle pass.

The battle pass in Warships replaces the daily and weekly missions that were designed to encourage daily match participation. Functionally, not very much changed at all. Under the old model, players would complete a daily mission chain and receive rewards immediately upon completion. With the battle pass system, daily and weekly missions still exist, but the reward is “battle pass points” that foster progress through the battle pass rewards. The big change is that there are three levels of the battle pass: 1) the free version, with rewards roughly comparable to the old repeatable mission system; 2) a paid tier, which costs $10 US and includes an increased number of rewards; and 3) a higher paid tier for $25 US, and it includes all the free and enhanced rewards plus several in-game boosts and perks. The third tier is more like a modern-day subscription in an MMO.

The strange thing is, Warships already had a subscription of sorts in the form of premium time, and Wargaming has unequivocally stated that the battle pass is not a replacement for that system. For $10 US per 30 days, premium time in World of Warships boosts earnings for ship experience, free experience, commander experience and credit earning. Personally, I’ve always viewed premium time as a requirement for anyone seriously playing the game as the tech tree grinding is simply too arduous without it. Adding up premium time plus the top-tier battle pass, I find that a “subscription” to this free-to-play game would cost the player $35 per month.

What about the a la carte menu? Well, there are currently 97 premium ships available for real-money purchase in the Warships in-game store, some of which are also available via in-game resources. They range in price from $8 US for the tier 2 Tachibana all the way up to $77 for a Tier 9 battleship.

Contrary to some player claims, most premium ships are not a pay-to-win button in the form of a boat that is objectively better than others of the same tier. There have been some overpowered ships in the past, but most of these beasts have been removed from sale and are available now only via special auctions or seasonal random containers. Wargaming has attempted to better balance the game while also taking advantage of the scarcity of such vessels to bleed longtime players of their overabundance of currencies. The advantage of premium ships in 2022 is a unique playstyle, a permanent bonus package for (once again) boosting resource earnings, and the ability to freely move captains to and from the ship without a skill retraining penalty.

Speaking of seasonal events, Black Friday is one such occasion that Warships uses to sell “black” versions of current and discontinued ships. The black ships sport an admittedly great-looking black camo and are discounted slightly from the non-black versions of the ships. Confusingly, the black ships are also completely separate ships from the originals, making it possible for a player to have both a normal and black version of the same ship in port or – even more disappointingly for a player who has purchased the normal version of a ship – to win the black version of the same ship in a container drop. If this happens, Wargaming attempts to console the player (and perhaps even coax some to purchase both versions of the same ship) with a special mission chain that awards a small number of doubloons when completed.

In the past 18 months, Wargaming has leaned heavily into selling early access to tech tree ships. Tech trees are typically earned via grinding through the tiers of ships available in a nation’s tech tree, not purchased with real currency. When releasing new tech tree lines, Warships holds an early access event that allows players to complete a mission chain to unlock some of the lower tier ships “early” (before they can be earned by grinding).

But that the mission chain can be unlocked only to a certain tier with in-game achievements. The final few missions in the chain must be unlocked with event tokens that cannot be earned by playing the game. In essence, players are paying to get their hands on a high-tier ship before anybody else will be able to obtain it for free. For the current Japanese light cruiser event, a player would have to complete all of the free chain missions, spend some amount of money (although it’s difficult to calculate how much because event currency is available via exchange for several in-game resources and paid random bundle chains) to unlock the four chain bundles that are unattainable for free, and then buy the tier 10 ship at the end of the chain for a mere $80 US – all for a ship that could be obtained for free in a matter of days.

I’ve previously written about dockyard events in Warships, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about the mechanics here. I do enjoy the dockyards and treat them as a way to get a premium ship at a discounted price.

But I think it’s important to point out that it’s impossible to finish the event for free. In each event, two or three stages are unobtainable by in-game missions and must be purchased in order to be finished. Wargaming allows everybody to complete a certain number of stages, all the while watching the construction of the special ship occur via snazzy drydock animations. I can attest that it might be very tempting for a player who has previously decided not to spend money on the event to abandon these intentions when staring at a ship that is oh-so-close to being completed. The amount charged to complete the ship varies depending on the ship tier but normally falls somewhere between $20 and $35 US.

World of Warships dockyard event

The Christmas sale event has also become a big revenue generator for World of Warships. As mentioned earlier, some ships have been removed from sale over the years, so the only way to obtain these ships is by winning them in a random container. Since the Santa containers have some of the highest chances to drop a ship, players have been known to spend hundreds and possibly even thousands of dollars on container bundles to either accumulate premium ships, round out their port collection, or try for that one special ship they’ve never been able to obtain.

It should be noted, however, that even though they have the highest chance for a drop, the best containers still have only a 16% chance to drop a ship, with only a 1% chance to drop a special or tier 10 ship like Missouri. There is also a pity mechanic to the containers: If a player opens so many without getting a ship, he is guaranteed one on the next container, though if it comes to that, the amount spent on containers has already eclipsed the amount that could have been spent on a premium ship directly from the store.

Orca camo for the Huron

Strangely, one of the most underpromoted methods of monetization in Warships is cosmetics. With the recent economic rework, ship camouflages no longer come with bonuses that affect ship performance. They hold no purpose other than cosmetic appeal. One would think this would be a prime way to monetize the game while avoiding any criticism surrounding gambling or pay-to-win schemes as many other games have done.

However, it seems Wargaming has chosen instead to lean into the previously mentioned cash-generating tactics. A permanent camouflage for a ship can be purchased for just over $1.50 US for the first camo on a ship and $12 US for any subsequent camo for that same ship. While these pixelated paint jobs offer no gameplay advantage, they are possibly the best value in the game. I’ve often wondered why Wargaming doesn’t move away from some of the scarcity tactics, currency conversion games, FOMO, and random mechanics in favor of cosmetic monetization. After all, the art department carries.

While the game purports to be free-to-play, World of Warships has a staggering array of ways to part players from their money, and in significant amounts. While the era of subscriptions may be dead, studios have invented several mechanics to ensure “free” is exceedingly profitable.

Whether you’re the captain of a historical battleship or a feisty pirate queen on the deck of a smuggling vessel, the high seas are the final frontier of many MMOs! Join the MOP team here in From the Depths for occasional voyages into all the ocean-going MMOs of the moment. Just don’t sink our boat!
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