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The Free Zone: Two More Problems No One's Talking About

Column By Richard Aihoshi on November 06, 2012

By coincidence, when I read Bill Murphy's column The Problem No One’s Talking About last Friday, I was already thinking about the possibility of discussing some things that can be described this way. After seeing what he wrote and ruminating on his thoughts, I decided to add two takes of my own, not directly in response to anything he said, but still kind of related in a broad, under the same heading-like way.

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The single solution syndrome

We see it all the time - people champion a particular revenue model as the best, and imply or even state outright that the entire industry should adopt it. Despite the existence of a small group of people who seem to take some bizarre delight in positioning me as a fervent promoter of free to play, I've never been sold on any single “one size fits all” approach. What's more, I've never seen anyone present a case even remotely close to solid enough to make me think otherwise.

For the sake of argument, let's make the assumption that as an entire category, MMOGs are mass market. Call them products or services, whichever you prefer. In either case, how many prominent examples can you think of that don't offer consumers an array of choices in terms of what and how much we can purchase?  At most, I suspect there may be a few. But off the top of my head, I can't come up with any.

So why should MMOGs be different? As a former corporate marketing and strategic planning manager as well as a long-time industry observer, I can't make even a half-decent case that they should. Even when I try to play devil's advocate, I always end up concluding there are more viable possibilities, and that offering at least some of them might well help bring in and retain more users.

From a business standpoint, the critical consideration is that all consumers are not the same. So why try to shoehorn everyone into buying in one way? Or even just a couple. For instance, hybrid models tend to offer two choices. I can take the monthly package and also purchase various amounts of game currency to spend in the item shop, so let's list that as a third option. But still, that's basically it.

Contrast this with a familiar mass market product, the hamburger. No matter which chain I go to, I can choose from a range of different base ones, and if I want to, I can change the combination of toppings and condiments to fit what I'd like. And if I don't want it exactly the same way next time? No problem.

So it's clear, I'm not advocating a reductio ad absurdum approach where individual games offer thousands or even hundreds of pick and choose possibilities. What I am saying is that within reason, selectively offering more well thought out options would be more beneficial than harmful.

Yes, I've thought about ideas that would be viable in the current market and competitive environment. And no, I'm not about to lay them out here and now. But maybe - just maybe - some of them will start to appear before too much longer.

The changing nature of the MMOG player base

In a related vein, we see little talk among readers about how the MMOG audience has shifted away from what it was years ago and is continuing to. It seems as if certain people want things to be the way they were, and just refuse to recognize that those days are gone, never to return. The problem isn't the change itself; it's not being fully open to seeing it and to adapting accordingly.

It was inevitable that as more and more people got into MMOGs, they wouldn't all be the same. As a basic example, it appears the average playing time is down perhaps a third or more from a decade ago when it was in the range of 20 hours per week. Sure, quite a few still play that much, but proportionally, more new users put in less time, which has caused the average to drop.

This is an issue because it's not just some readers who haven't adapted. As noted, I think most if not all marketing departments are playing catch-up. In addition, it's natural to put your faith in what has worked for you in the past. But if you're a designer, you need to focus more on what the MMOG audience will be in a few years when your title launches, not on what it was like when your last title went live.

The usual justification is that it's safer to go with an adapted version of what has worked before. But this certainly isn't a formula for innovation or leaps forward. And that's a problem that doesn't seem likely to be fixed any time soon. 


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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