Now we know what WildStar’s business model is, and it’s not any of the options I had predicted. That’s to be expected, but it also means that we have to evaluate it very differently than if it had fallen into a tried-and-true pattern. You don’t know how a new business model will work until you see it in action, and we haven’t seen this in action yet.

The reality is that WildStar is a buy-to-play, subscription, and free-to-play title all at the same time, and that’s without even dipping our toes into the muddy water of microtransactions. There’s exactly one item to be bought in the cash shop, and it serves exactly one purpose, but it also opens up a complicated economic interplay that we’ve seen in only one other game. And I don’t think we can just draw on that one game for comparison because they’re just not the same.

Not available at retail!  MISB!EVE Online has been offering PLEX as a subscription option for a while now. You can buy PLEX, store them in-game, and trade them for money in the game or use them to increase your subscription time. The exchange rate of real money to the game world is entirely a function of the PLEX value on the open market. At a glance it seems like the same business model that WildStar is using, but there are a couple of key differences.

First of all, WildStar is a very different game from EVE Online. If you’re getting into EVE, you’re probably doing so because you know that it’s a hardcore economic simulator that happens to involve spaceships. The same is not true in the case of WildStar. More to the point, PLEX are more of a kludge than anything, one tied to microtransactions as well, and a PLEX’s value is determined by players rather than a specific supply-and-demand equation. Technically, there’s nothing stopping one group from buying up the majority of the PLEX market and setting its price ridiculously high or low.

CREDD, on the other hand, is entirely based on actual in-game supply and demand along the lines of Guild Wars 2’s Gem Exchange. The difference is that you are buying subscription time every time you pick up a new CREDD, not trinkets. It’s far more vital in several ways.

Of course, the obvious question is why the game didn’t go the Guild Wars 2 route of buy-to-play with microtransactions. I don’t think it’s as simple as that model not working; it might simply be a reaction to player reactions regarding the Gem Store, or it might just be an experiment to see if it works this way. Changing the game to a straight buy-to-play model if this model doesn’t work would be much simpler.

It’s certainly not free-to-play, though, which is the first point of interest. If you don’t pay your subscription, you don’t get to play any longer. In fact, I think this aims the retention crosshairs on a certain group of players who play constantly for three months, then decide there’s nothing more worth doing in the game and unsubscribe rather than paying money to farm and so on.

These aren’t people who leave because they dislike the game; they leave because they don’t like the game enough to justify $15 a month. As it stands, they’ve probably got buckets of money lying around from consuming most of the game’s content in a handful of months… money enough to drop on some CREDD to keep playing for a bit. If you can just pay for your subscription with in-game money until the next major content patch, you’re more likely to stick around and experience the patch rather than look at the feature list and decide it’s not worth re-subscribing.

All sales are final.  No warranties are stated or implied.Of course, a lot depends on the actual supply and demand. If no one buys CREDD, the system falls apart. I imagine that prices will be quite favorable for buyers early on, as many people are still in the free month and aren’t yet looking into one method or the other. That might turn off some early speculators, which would be bad, as the market needs to establish itself in order to ensure that supply and demand are actually matching and the system remains viable.

One of the biggest takeways, though, is that this is a stab in a different direction. I’ve said before that one of the big problems MMOs have is a barrier to entry; no one wants to pay full price for a game and then pay more money for a game that might not be fun later. But as Jeremy Gaffney pointed out, that $60 early barrier to entry really isn’t a problem for many people. Warhammer Online launched with over a million players, Star Wars: The Old Republic launched with two, and so forth. What caused problems was retention.

And that’s valid, too. If you’re really enjoying a game, paying some in-game money to keep playing might not be that much of a deal, but paying real money makes your continued play a bit more tenuous. No one balks at a $60 for a new game, but when you realize that the subscription keeps going and the total investment keeps piling up, suddenly the idea of just playing forever with that $60 investment gets a lot more appealing.

But will it work? Will the people who don’t want to pay money every month have enough in-game money to make up the difference? Will people who do have the funds be able and willing to buy CREDD? Can the game really support more retention by holding itself hostage for those who’d prefer not to play?

I don’t know. We haven’t seen it in action. But it’ll be neat to watch it play out.