Free-to-play (F2P) MMO monetization: World of Tanks

Free-to-play F2P MMO monetization - World of TanksOnline games have largely moved to a free-to-play model where the monetization is achieved through microtransactions instead of traditional box sales or subscription fees. According to data from Superdataresearch, the worldwide MMO games market was split between $7.5 billion for free-to-play games and $2.8 billion for pay-to-play games in 2014 with free-to-play on the rise and pay-to-play on the decline.

Within this market, World of Tanks is a particularly interesting title. According to data from Superdataresearch, the average monthly revenue per user (ARPU) of World of Tanks is the best in the world at $4.51. World of Tanks also sports a superb conversion rate (share of users who pay) of over 25%, which is also sky-high in this industry. Together, these figures amount to over $500 million of annual revenue for Wargaming, the creator of World of Tanks.

Therefore, taking a look at what Wargaming has done with World of Tanks is of particular interest.

World of Tanks as a game

First, a few words about World of Tanks as a game. After all, you cannot monetize something that people are not interested in in the first place, so there have to be some things done right within the game itself.

One thing that immediately stands out is that World of Tanks is an odd one out in its genre of team-based first-person shooters. The gameplay features two teams of 15 tanks, each one controlled by a player, fighting for victory in a match that lasts on average around 7-8 minutes with a 15-minute maximum time. The gameplay is slower and more tactical than Counter Strike and other FPS games. A famous Youtuber, Jingles, once commented that he plays World of Tanks because he is too old to play a proper FPS.

Therefore, one element of the game that may support better monetization is the target audience, as older players generally have more disposable income and thus more potential to pay.

The overall progression loop in the game is based on opening new tanks to play with (there are hundreds of them). Tanks are split into 10 tiers and the progression through tiers is further divided into several tech trees as well as improvement modules unique to each tank. New modules and new tanks are unlocked by gaining experience points within the game, most of which are specific to the tank you are playing, but some of which come as free XP that can be spent to speed up your progression in any tech tree. Playing battles also awards credits, which are used to buy the new tanks and resupply tanks after battles.

Progression through the game starts out smooth and becomes increasingly difficult as the player progresses through the tiers. Furthermore, many tanks are not competitive when first acquired, resulting in a period of more or less frustrating “stock grind” to unlock effective modules for the tank. This aspect of the game becomes more pronounced later on, when a player has already played hundreds or even thousands of battles.

At the very top tiers, an additional factor is that playing a battle will not actually result in net credit gain, but a net credit loss, at least for the great majority of players. This results in a need for players to regularly play tier 5-6 battles (peak of net credit gain) in order to fund their tier 8-10 gameplay.

As you may guess from the above, the monetization model of World of Tanks is deeply embedded into the core of the game, and not an ad hoc addition on top.

World of Tanks monetization elements

World of Tanks is relatively gentle with its monetization: Wargaming is quite vocal about its free-to-win philosophy, which means that there are no paywalls within the game and a free-to-play player can, given enough time and skill, achieve everything in the game.

That said, there are several monetization elements within the game (in order of importance according to Teut Widemann’s analysis on World of Tanks monetization):

  • Premium account (subscription): Earn additional 50% XP and credits from battles.
  • XP to free XP conversion: XP cannot be bought, but XP earned with a single tank can be converted to free XP with real money and thus used to speed up progress on other tech trees, even skipping entire tanks.
  • Premium tanks: Tanks that can be purchased with real money and give extra credits from battles (up to tier 8 only).
  • Credit conversion: Credits can be bought with real money.
  • Consumables: Some consumable items can be bought with real money. They can all also be bought with in-game credits.
  • Crew training: Tank crews can be trained faster with real money.
  • Garage slots: The amount of garage space in the game is limited, more space can be bought with real money.
  • Crew renaming: Tank crews can be renamed with real money.
  • Camouflage patterns: Tanks can be given permanent camouflage patterns with real money (mostly just a visual, slight in-game effect on spotting; temporary camouflage can be bought with credits)

The first four are the really important ones, so let’s focus on them a bit more.

Premium account

Premium account sounds rather straightforward at 50% additional XP and credits earned, but there is a catch. For XP, it really is straightforward, but for credits it is not. This is because the +50% applies to gross credits earned, and after a battle the tank needs to be resupplied, and the cost of repairs and ammunition rises with the tier of the tank.

Therefore, what starts out as +50% in the low tiers becomes a difference between, for example, 20.000 credits lost or 10.000 credits earned in higher tiers. Players with a premium account can more easily keep playing high tier tanks without the need to go back to mid-tiers in order to earn credits. The genius in this is that the real effect only kicks in once the player has already spent a considerable amount of time playing the game – and if you’ve already played 200 hours, is it really that big a deal to subscribe? Weidemann describes this as World of Tanks’ mass monetizer – low income per paying user, but high reach.

XP to free XP conversion

You cannot buy your way through the tech trees in World of Tanks. However, what you can do is convert XP you have earned with a tank to free XP that you can use to unlock any tech tree with real money. This allows you to play your favorite tanks, skip any tanks you do not like, and skip the “stock grind” of playing a tank with sub-par modules. However, this also rapidly becomes very expensive, so Weidemann describes this as World of Tanks’ whale monetizer – high income per paying user, but small reach.

There have been various in-game events in World of Tanks over the past year and a half that have clearly been designed to encourage people to convert XP to free XP. The events give players some temporary vehicles and once the event ends, all the XP earned by playing in the event is transferred to the initial tier 1 tanks that the players start the game with. As there is nothing you can do with XP on those tanks beyond opening the (cheap) tier 2 tanks, the only possible use of the XP is to use real money to convert it into free XP.

Premium tanks

Premium tanks are one-off purchases that give the player a special tank that is not available in the normal tech tree. These tanks earn more credits per battle than regular tanks. What has traditionally kept things balanced is that premium tanks are designed to be quite average – definitely not the best tanks of their tier. Thus, a player can choose to play a premium tank to earn more credits (and XP to the tank – which can be converted to free XP with real money), but playing a premium tank also means that the player will not have the best tank in any given battle.

Over the past year, premium tanks are the aspect of monetization Wargaming has experimented with the most. While it is unclear what the results of this experimentation are, the basic principles of premium tank design have been thrown by the wayside occasionally.

Premium tanks are collector’s items, so Wargaming regularly features limited edition tanks at high prices. Well, according to their marketing, those tanks are technically free, as they come in bundles that contain €100 worth of gold (in-game real money currency) and a rare tier 3 tank as a free bonus.

Wargaming has also started to regularly withdraw premium tanks from the shop to increase scarcity. This too creates demand from people who want to collect the items.

Wargaming also features premium tanks that are available for a limited period of time. One example of this is Fury, a tank that was a copy of the tank driven by Brad Pitt in the movie that goes by the same name – Wargaming partnered with the studio to bring the movie also to the game.

A more concerning example of limited edition tanks appeared in May 2015 with the introduction of the “Berlin trio” to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Berlin. The tanks in this trio, in particular the tier 6 medium tank Cromwell B, were copies of existing regular tanks that were actually superior to fully upgraded regular versions. So far, this experiment has not been repeated.

Credit conversion

While you cannot buy your way through the tech tree in World of Tanks, you can fund your gameplay on any tier, regardless of your skill (even a premium account does not ensure net profits on high tiers, especially if you shoot a lot of premium ammunition, which is a more expensive, more effective ammunition). All you need to do is buy some credits with real money.

Premium ammunition is an interesting story. This more effective ammunition (generally: higher penetration, but same damage when a hit penetrates the armor of the target) was originally only available for in-game gold (the premium currency bought with real money), but as Wargaming adopted a free-to-win philosophy quite early in the game’s lifespan, premium ammunition became available also for in-game credits, although at high prices. With real money, it is possible to shoot exclusively premium ammunition, whereas doing so is not possible without real money. (You do not need to shoot exclusively premium ammunition, but not doing so brings another decision to make – optimizing the type of ammunition to shoot)

Premium ammunition, or “gold ammo” as it is widely known in-game, is the most controversial aspect of the monetization of World of Tanks, and the part where it is most clearly possible to buy skill with real money. There are lots of negative emotions attached to shooting gold, and this is one part where it might be worthwhile to re-examine the game design to see whether premium ammunition really is necessary. However, its removal would affect more than just the credit conversion monetization elements, as it would also shift the balance of the game more in favor of highly armored tanks instead of the current meta that favors agile tanks with good firepower but not much armor.

Conclusions on monetization elements

The monetization elements in World of Tanks are deeply embedded into the game. That is perhaps the most important takeaway. Monetization is not designed post-launch or as an addendum.

Premium account has stayed the same for a long time, so Wargaming seems satisfied with it. XP to free XP conversion basically works the same, but various events have given players excess XP on useless tanks in order to nudge them towards spending some money to convert it, so Wargaming wants to lure more players to this monetization element. Finally, premium tanks have undergone a lot of experimentation lately, so Wargaming is clearly trying to find better answers on how to monetize them.

Sneak peek at the competition: Armored Warfare

World of Tanks is about to get its first major competitor, as Armored Warfare is getting closer to open beta (in practice a soft launch). War Thunder Ground Forces has so far been the only contender, but its approach is less arcade-like and generally not as likely to appeal to mass market.

News on Armored Warfare monetization model have been published in Armored Talk recently. Basically, they will also copy the monetization model from World of Tanks: premium accounts, free reputation to global reputation conversion, credit purchases, and premium tanks are all part of the plan. As these seem to form the four core monetization elements in World of Tanks, the Armored Warfare team have clearly done their homework.

Notably, Armored Warfare does not feature premium ammunition, even though they have credit conversion as a monetization element. Clearly, they think they do not need the additional demand from high-price ammunition to entice players to buy credits with real money. This is one of the more interesting philosophical differences between the two games, and an interesting aspect to watch as the story proceeds.

However, Armored Warfare will lack some monetization elements, such as garage slots and crew renaming. This is an interesting decision, as it is unclear how much these cash-flow-wise largely insignificant elements actually contribute to the monetization of World of Tanks. On one hand, life will be more convenient for players when these elements are not monetized, but on the other hand, spending a little money to open a few garage slots can make a player more inclined to later on subscribe or buy a premium tank as well.

 

Picture: My garage in World of Tanks

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Tornio, Finland, but work globally. Google+