I’ll have one of everything

There have been several posts floating around about MMOs’ current payment models and whether subscription beats pay-as-you-go beats free to play but pay for expansions/goodies/whatever. (Yeah, I tried to find a couple of the recent ones, but I’m going to be lazy. If you want to come wade through my 90+ feeds, go ahead.)

I just missed the pay-for-usage ISP model that CompuServe (I think) was so fond of, back in the day — also, it was never particularly popular in the UK, where I lived at the time and where most people had the sense to go “WTF? You want to charge me how much by the minute? No thanks, I’m going to Demon.” (Note that at that time, we paid for even local calls in the UK, so you’d have a time-used charge and a call charge. Also, Demon were handing out static IP addresses back then, which was geek-attracting.) To me, the monthly sub to play a game made as much sense as my monthly sub to my ISP or my gas company or whatever, so I paid it and forgot about it. As a result, I’ve always been slightly mystified by the stance that games should be free. Why? They’re providing a service. They’ve got infrastructure to maintain to provide that service. They have staff to pay. And most cogent of all — they’re not bloody charities. If you want FREE games, go play chequers.

So I’m going from the starting point that something needs to be paid, somehow, for the games I play where I expect a reasonable amount of company communication, a reasonable amount of customer service, near 24/7 server uptime, and relatively frequent updates. Ah yes, I’m also a child of Asheron’s Call which, unlike EQ, did not make you pay through the nose every time they added content. Turbine had monthly content updates; granted not all of them were earth-shattering and sometimes there was very little in them other than bug fixes, but the basic intent was there: every month, we’ll give you something new. Now while I’m perfectly happy paying my monthly sub, it would have driven me away in a second to be told that ON TOP of that sub, I’d have to pay for extra content — certainly not every month. There were larger expansions that you did have to pay for if you wanted them, but they were few and far between and added a great deal more than a single month’s patch ever could (housing was in the first expansion, among other things).

Now, however, as gaming reaches a larger market, people are apparently scared of the subscription model. Which puzzles me, since we pay on that model for all sorts of things that get piped into our house — telephone, TV, electricity, all of which have a flat “service” (read: subscription) fee over and above any consumption costs like calling Antarctica a lot or watching pay-per-view.

Outgrowing the subscription model I can understand. Being worried about the format itself, though, seems pretty disingenuous to me.

That said, there’s definitely a case to be made against games that happily take our subs and give nothing but a static game in return. (I’m sure Blizzard’s US subs people would disagree.) I’m okay with subs because I got monthly goodies for them and because… that’s what I’ve always done. Apathy and habit are a large part of why the model hasn’t changed — that and the fact that it has worked pretty well for games companies over the last decade.

But it’s not the only model, as Guild Wars, Wizard 101 and a host of other games have proved. Wizard 101, in fact, has several different payment methods — you can play in certain areas for free, you can subscribe and have access to everything, or you can buy in-game “crowns” for real money and use those crowns to unlock areas as you go. It’s also noteworthy that W101 offers discounts on subs after the first one, which encourages families to play together — and for W101 it’s perfectly sensible, since it’s a game parents are likely to at least want to try with their children, or whose children may want to play together. It’s strange that it should seem so revolutionary when it’s exactly what cellphone companies are doing here in the States; a new customer who pays a little less because they’re associated with an existing customer is better than no new customer at all.

Another point that’s been made and that’s very relevant to me in my older, game-hoppier, more time-constrained days is the fact that while I’m happy to pay for one or two subs (maybe three), I certainly won’t pay for 5 or 6, so I’m restricted in terms of how many subscription-model games I can play at once, especially since any subscription I get we also get for the spousal unit — so two accounts for me means four accounts being paid for in the household. That stuff adds up, especially these days. So, I end up playing whatever I’m playing and my friends, that I’ve made in half a dozen different games, usually end up playing something else. Absent some cross-game client-amenable chat platform, we only really communicate outside of games now even though we met within them. If subs were lower, of if there were other payment models available, playing half a dozen games at once (or at least being paid up to play those games, time permitting) would be a lot easier.

It’s a tough call, at least for me. On the one hand, you generally get more for your money up front with a subscription system (access to the whole, usually pretty large, world and all of its content, etc.), but less and less for your money as time goes by. I may be soft on patch days, but even I don’t consider a few balance changes and bug fixes “worthwhile” content as far as getting value for my subscription goes. In that sense, a scaled, tiered, or any other non-sub model would probably give me much more bang for my buck in the long term, because I could pay for stuff as it came out or as I needed it.

What I don’t ever want to see, and you can call me old-fashioned, is a “free” game that isn’t, in fact, free, because it shoves adverts in my face every time I turn around, or because there’s some other pernicious method for parting me from my cash (like making me pay for basic things — if I’m at a disadvantage because I’m not buying items or skills, I’ll exercise my option to choose by choosing my ass right out of there; don’t pretend something is a choice when it’s not).

One other thing I wonder about is this: the time-sink design paradigm is often said to be rooted in the subscription payment model, since the basic aim is to keep your players paying for another month. If games move away from the subs model, do you really think a generation of designers is going to move away from the time-sink design model? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. Sadly. I think it’ll take more than payment changes to alter what has become the standard way of designing things for mainstream MMOs. Which is another reason up-and-coming, smaller (i.e. non-WoW) MMOs might want to consider a different payment model — if you’re trying to do something innovative like get rid of timesinks, don’t force people to a) buy a box and b) buy a subscription just so they can see what it’s all about. It takes more than a free month to really get to know a game, and that’s possibly the biggest argument against the subs model I can think of.

11 thoughts on “I’ll have one of everything

  1. I believe LOTRO, and possibly some other games, offered a set number of “lifetime” memberships, i.e. you paid a whopping sum upfront, but after that you never needed to pay again (although I suspect that you had to pay extra for the Mines of Moria expansion, which is only fair).

    I think I’d be amenable to such models so long as the initial investment wasn’t too excessive.

  2. It takes more than a free month to really get to know a game, and that’s possibly the biggest argument against the subs model I can think of.

    That’s part and parcel of the time-sink. However, I believe most studies say a consumer gives a new game no more than 10 minutes (and I fit firmly within that category) to decide whether or not he LIKES the game and wants to continue and “get to know it” better.

    I didn’t do CompuServe but I did have GEnie for a few years (same thing, different company) and we paid hourly. GEnie is also where I had my first MMOG experience with Air Warrior. There was no such phrase as “MMO” back then, but it was (compared to today even) a “massively multiplayer” WWII aerial combat simulator. Pretty much a sandbox situation — login, fly, dogfight, bomb… Squadrons (guilds) were formed and monthly (or was it weekly?) Kesmai would allow player-hosted Scenarios where someone would re-create an actual WWII battle in-game.

    The only time-sink was addiction… and paying hourly was costly! I think I went upwards of $200 or possibly even $300 once when I was new and didn’t realize how long I’d actually been playing nor bothered to do the math on how much I was going to pay! But AW wasn’t an RPG either. Look how much play-time games like say Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike (original and Source) get consistently; also not RPGs but trying to monetize them would fail.

    Even though with MMOGs the subscription is for the service, not the product, if we’re paying for the privilege of playing a game it has to be bigger and offer “more” (of many things) than you can ever get in the play-for-free scene.

  3. Re: LOTRO — It was $199 for the Lifestime sub at launch, I think its $299 now. And yes, you still had to buy Moria. It was a risk, but for me it paid off.

    But interestingly, I play LOTRO differently because of it. I feel no pressure to play — I just play it when I want to play it. I feel no pressure to level, either. I have all the time in the world to get to cap.

    Of course, as much as I love it, I couldn’t very well go out and plunk down $200 on every MMO that comes along.

    My opinion on this topic goes in circles until even I don’t know what I think about it. I was a proponent of a tiered system for a while (e.g. $5/month for 20 hours, $10/month for 40 hours, $15/month unlimited) but the more I thought about that, the less I liked it. Can you imagine how impatient some folks would get if you knew that meter was running all the time? “Bio-break…I’m logging off. Be back in 5 minutes!” 🙂

    I’m good with RMT for “fluff” items, for sure. Social clothing, housing items, that kind of thing. I’m ambivalent on RMT for things like experience buff potions… I don’t like them on principal but I’m not sure if the reality of them is really that bad. And like Ysh, I’d hate to be ‘forced’ to buy gear or whatever, unless that was all spelled out up front and I knew what the costs were going to be.

    Wizard101 with its “subscribe *or* buy access to areas” system seems pretty smart from the outside, but I haven’t lived with it yet…

  4. Hey Scott, you were on GEnie? Me too. And CIS before. My first “MOG” was Megawars III on CIS, also by Kesmai. And I did hit that $300 mark more often than I care to admit. They’d lock your account at $300 if you paid by “Checkfree” which I did, so I had a 2nd account for trolling message boards and stuff.

    I played a bit of Air Warrior but had a huge argument with Jonathon “Blue” Baron that drove me off that game. I can’t even remember what it was about, but I still clench my jaw just typing his name. Not that I hold grudges or anything. LOL. What was the game with the game with the bi-pedal pods? I played that a bit, too.

    And back then, the idea of a “all you can eat” price for games was… wow, the devs chewed my head off when I asked about the possibility of it!! To them, back then, it made no sense because it would encourage people to spend time in-game but not really playing it. Hmm, that sounds like a time-sink. They were against them then!

    How times have changed!

  5. @Pete S

    Part of that is fundamental differences in how server and network architecture works. A persistent idle connection on GEnie would probably of had the effect of blocking other customers from even connecting. Actually, this can happen on any of the modern systems as well, but generally we have such wide bandwidth and smooth enough shift over between servers that it almost never happens after the first couple days of launch.

    There has been so many fundamental changes in server hardware and tech, it’s hard to think that problems we’re used to be being solvable with enough cash would have been entirely unsolvable. Even stranger is that most of the software work that allows it was done for free…

  6. I’m a straight up subs supporter with minor support for real money transactions, unless they affect game play.

    Subs level the playing field, bottom line. I’ve been in games where people bought…not earned…the equipment they were using/wearing. In a couple games, I even spent the money to get the “best” stuff. I have to say, I didn’t have quite the sense of accomplishment as when I earned stuff through playing.

    I don’t have a problem with someone wanting to invest in the start up of a game and paying a one-time sub fee. I think it’s great and gives companies a mechanism to get some up front cash. The only benefit, usually, the player gets is they may still be playing the game when they break even or go beyond.

    Free games? Never free. They sell ads or make you vote for them on MMO listings or whatever else. There are tons of them out there. Some of them are good. A majority of them you get what you pay for.

  7. All I can say is that Blizzard’s strategy sucks. My wife and RL friends still play it. I quit a couple months before BC. I played BC for a while then quit. I came back for Sunwell, then quit. I went back for LK but I think I’ve finally had enough. The whole “release an expansion every other year and release one raid on the odd years” feels like a slap to the face. I’m paying $15 a month. This goes to server fees and maintenance but I want fresh content. It doesn’t even have to be epic, just something new. EVE online releases an expansion every 6 or so months for free and it makes the game feel like it has a fast pace. You don’t have time to get stuck in a lull. With Blizzard, you get six months of a lull while waiting for the next expansion. I just pray Mythic doesn’t go down that same path. I realize the Call to Arms is still finishing up stuff that didn’t make the initial launch of the game, but we are going to have chunks thrown at us for the next 5-6 months and I think thats awesome.

  8. Here’s one of the downsides with subs:

    I say “hey, I haven’t seen Vanguard or WAR or AoC in forever, I’ll go check them out.” But to do that, I have to pony up the full $15. I’m also running a fairly high risk that in under one hour I’ll realize the game still hasn’t come along far enough to keep me. So I move to the next. Another $15 down the drain if the same thing happens.

    Or for that matter I could just get bored and want to play some other game. Either way I’m shelling out $15 just to have a peek. I don’t think I can do a “free trial” if I already had an account and have the full retail game installed and patched can I?

    Subs level the playing field, bottom line. I’ve been in games where people bought…not earned…the equipment they were using/wearing.

    What playing field? If other people buy their gear and you “earn” yours, explain to me exactly how that effects your gaming experience? You’d never know unless they told you. Someone could just as easily play every waking moment and “earn” that gear way faster than you. Does that also effect your game?

    The ONLY thing buying gear (and games that actually sell gear are quite rare from what I’ve seen so far) would effect is PvP. There is no competition in PvE so the why’s where’s when’s and how’s anyone else got their gear has ZERO effect on anyone else’s PvE game.

  9. “Subs level the playing field, bottom line.”

    They level the monetary playing field, but are very heavily slanted to those with more time to play per month. Since the vast majority of progress metrics in modern MMO design rely on time rather than skill, the sub model benefits those most who treat the game like a job (part time or full time).

    In other words, it’s absolutely not a level playing field by any metric other than the access fee.

    Also, as Scott rightly notes, the “level field” metric only really matters in PvP. When some basement dweller with sixty hours a week to play ganks my poor little low level character with his endcapped character, yet we’ve each only been playing for a month, there’s nothing level about it.

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