There seem to be few hotter points of contention in the MMO community these days than the free-to-play vs. subscription MMO debate. Despite the objections of many, though, it seems more and more games in North America have begun to adopt, at the very least, hybrid business models that incorporate at least some micro-transactions. This week, I am going to flip the issue and look at ways that MMO companies can reinvigorate the subscription model.
The beauty of micro-transaction games for developers and publishers is the sheer flexibility they offer. They can create content that is easily monetized and constantly develop new ways to make money. To some, this is nickel and diming people to death, but to a corporate board room, the ability to estimate a real return on that artist you’re paying $60,000 / year to make hair styles for avatars is an attractive thing.
The fact is, so called free-to-play games also offer consumers far more flexibility. They’re more accessible to the average player, since there is absolutely no up-front commitment. Whether or not they’re really free, they promote that idea that “Hey, I can just play this a bit and it won’t cost me anything.” Fast forward two months, and that person might be regularly making “just one more buy.”
Subscriptions are daunting. Even if a game has a totally risk-free trial, people still see that monthly fee on the horizon. They know that if they get hooked, this will cost them $14.99 a month and they’re constantly able to reevaluate their decision with a simple question: “Is this worth $14.99?”
Free-to-play games have no comparable. Whether you play the game without spending a cent, or you put in $50.00 each month, odds are that the average player really doesn’t have a firm grasp of what their monthly investment boils down to. This makes it hard for players to reevaluate their purchasing decision, and more likely to continue to sink money into the game.
So, what can developers do with the subscription model to bring it into the modern era and maintain it as a viable alternative to traditional subscription games, the free-to-play crowd and hybrid titles?
The first thing is flexibility. For some reason, subscription MMOs have always had standard pricing. It used to be $9.99 then over time it moved slowly up to $14.99. Inflation happens and the cost of production and maintenance of these titles has skyrocketed. That was likely necessary, but it remains absolutely silly that there is a one size fits all approach to MMO monthly fees.
World of Warcraft is the gold-standard of subscription MMOs and it charges $14.99. I hate to break it to anyone running a competitor, or developing “the next big thing,” but your game is likely not in the same field as WoW. So, I ask, why the heck do you insist on charging the same price?
There are hundreds of employees at Blizzard on that project, WoW costs much more to make than the average game and they need to recoup that. I have no objections to what they charge, based on what they put in.
Too often, I hear industry people bemoan that everyone holds their game up against WoW and that just isn’t fair given the resources Blizzard puts into it. Yet, those same people have identical pricing.
If you walk into a shoe store and see a pair of Nike sneakers for $80.00 and a pair of NoName Shoes for $80.00, which will you buy? The Nike, because you recognize them and know their shoes usually are of a certain quality. Now, in that same situation, if the NoName Shoes are $30.00, you might be more likely to take a flier on them, and definitely won’t complain if they don’t last as long as the Nikes. Why not? Because people understand that they get what they pay for.
The same applies to games. If you don’t want people to hold your indie title up against WoW, don’t charge what they charge.
And yes, I know how expensive these games are to make and maintain, but the fact is, Blizzard has hundreds of developers living and working in a large office complex in one of the most expensive cities in North America (Irvine, CA, aka Orange County). If your next great MMO is made by 30 guys crammed into a townhouse in a small European country, you don’t have the same overhead or investment.
Granted, big companies save money in many other ways. It helps to not have to buy your servers on someone’s credit card and to have the other resources to support your own project, which many tiny companies do not, but facts remain facts. Those 30 people will not make the same quality as 200.
The first key, then, to saving the subscription MMO genre is simple: be flexible. I want discount games. Some games do this to some extent already. Take Runescape. It doesn’t require the $14.99 and provides a service that is extraordinarily popular. I think a big part of the reason it’s done so well, for so long is that they never tried to pretend it was in the same league as larger, fancier competitors.
Games can also get cute with multiple tiers of subscriptions. Why not provide players with options, not unlike ordering cable. When I play MMOs, I don’t raid. I don’t like raids, I don’t want to do raids and I don’t care about raids. Yet, I pay the same fee as people who raid. Why not let more casual players subscribe at lower rates, but without certain kinds of content. When you order digital cable, if you don’t want the Cooking Network, you don’t order it. Provide packages that gate content and let people trim down that monthly fee by lopping off kinds of content that they know they’ll never use. I am not saying raiders deserve to pay more, this is just an example. If the content were assemble into value packs, though, people could trim back in lean months, yet stay involved, and not have to pay for full access to a game if they don’t intend to use it all. This also gives players options. Right now the choice is simple: subscribe or not. If players could scale back, they might be more inclined to keep that account open.
And, if people start making discount MMOs, it stands to reason that eventually, the other side of the coin would come up. What about a luxury MMO? Really want a game with a full time staff of 30 writers creating fresh story? How about a Mercedes of MMOs?
At a monthly fee of $30.00, a premium MMO would assuredly not bring in millions of players, but it really wouldn’t need to. This would allow for highly specialized niche games that appeal to a hardcore audience and thrive off it. Sure, that mystery MMO I threw around last week wouldn’t be for everyone, but if those playing it were paying more, it might just make someone a lot of money.
Free-to-play games are in vogue because they provide companies and users with more flexibility and options than a pure subscription model. The truth is, though, that micro-transactions are just one approach and with a little creativity, game companies could have just as much flexibility with subscriptions, and cater to people who really prefer a bit of cost certainty in their gaming experience.