With Firefall, Kern wants to concentrate on offering a mix of convenience and aesthetic items for sale, while staying away from "power items" that give temporary boosts. As anyone who plays an MMO can tell you, the most precious commodity in the game is time. Offering a way for people with full time jobs and more disposable income a way to concentrate on the parts of the game that are fun is what "convenience items" like expedited travel through the game world are all about. Aesthetic items that let you customize how your character looks can, as Valve's Team Fortress 2 hats and WoW's minipets have proved, sell like freaking hotcakes.
Kern doesn't want Firefall to be a game where those who spend gobs of money are uber-powerful
It's important to note that Kern doesn't want Firefall to be a game where those who spend gobs of money are uber-powerful while the more frugally minded are second-class citizens. "We are much more about letting you obtain more opportunities to acquire power, but you still have to go out and earn it," he said. "We think of it as sending your children to a good school: You may have paid more for a better education, but it is still up to your child to make the most of it."
Firefall is still a bit away from release, and only its launch will prove whether Kern's insistence on the free-to-play model was justified. But even if Firefall fails, Kern is still right in surmising that the most successful business model for selling videogames is shifting away from expensive pre-packaged goods to a more fluid distribution of bite-sized chunks. The rise of free-to-play MMOs is only part of a sea change in the gaming industry that includes EA's Project Ten Dollar, the rise of GOG, Steam, PSN, XBLA, and $15 map packs for Modern Warfare 2.
"How many times have we seen this before?" Kern asked before listing similar scenarios in other industries. "IBM's mainframe business dragging down their PC business. The music industry and downloadable music. Blockbuster vs. Netflix and digital distribution. Large established [game] publishers are at a huge disadvantage during this period due to immense inner drag. Even as they take tentative steps, will that be enough? Or will it be too little, too late?"
Greg Tito's subscription for WoW has lapsed for the first time since launch and he doesn't think he's going to resub anytime soon.