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How Can MMOs Be Monetized Fairly?

Lewis Burnell Posted:
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Over the last two weeks I’ve discussed Black Desert Online and its “new” payment model at length. For a game that’s buy to play to then introduce further options to monetize its playerbase doesn’t leave me entirely comfortable. The massively multiplayer genre, despite having millions of players, has a reputation issue. Whether it’s buy to play, free to play, subscription or a blend of them all, the myriad of options when it comes to spending your money feels as though players are being squeezed, rather than presented with fair choices on how to spend their hard earned cash.

There was a time when MMO’s felt ‘fair’. You’d hand over $15 a month, have access to everything and be safe in the knowledge that the game made no effort to manipulate your playtime. As it stands now, even subscription games are attempting to nickle-and-dime players with cosmetic items or character enhancements; free to play and buy to play are just as guilty. While I fully understand the cost of developing content for an MMO is expensive and developers inevitably have to answer to those who pull the purse string, there surely has to be a better way of pleasing players. I suppose the question that needs answering is how can MMO’s be monetized fairly?

Guild Wars 2 is often praised for its buy to play model and yet despite reasonable store prices for a variety of items and cosmetics, most of the game and its mechanics feel contrived to push a player towards purchasing Gems. With no ability to reliably farm items due to its lack of loot tables, shared resource nodes, a Trading Post that’s cross server and relatively stingy monetary rewards for just about everything (ArenaNet don’t want rich players, they want poor players who need to buy Gems) its model doesn’t begin to seem ideal. In contrast, we have Black Desert Online that adopts a reasonably fair buy to play model in terms of in-game systems, but with ridiculously expensive store prices and a late-in-arriving conversion system (to the dismay of many).

The genre staple, World of Warcraft, has a subscription system and a collection of services and items you can purchase alongside it. Some of these are incredibly expensive (£22 for a race change!) but all are complementary rather than mandatory. The major downside to World of Warcraft’s model, as with any subscription title, is the fact you feel under pressure to play just because you’ve throw £10 at the game, just to be able to login.

Finally, we’re left with free to play titles that as far as I’m concerned are the worst of them all. Titles such as Star Wars the Old Republic or WildStar place so many restrictions on new players that they’re effectively forced to part with their money anyway if they want to maintain some parity with others around them. In this muddle, what’s the the solution?

For me and perhaps it’s because I’m of a generation that is used to the subscription model, it is still, unquestionably, the fairest of them all. The development team is guaranteed income, all players are equal on arrival and game systems don’t have to be manipulated in order to nudge players into buying from any in-game store. Unfortunately, overcoming the barrier of entry is the greatest obstacle and considering many players are now accustomed to free to play or buy to play, handing over £10 every month - on top of possible in-store purchases - can soon become costly.

Lowering the cost of a monthly subscription to, say, $5, with no box cost, and a store that only offers the fundamentals of what people might want (name change contracts, for example) might entice many.

The problem you’re then left with is the constant need to draw enormous profits for shareholders. Would this alone - when cheaper than the competition - yield enough income? I’d argue that it might as long as any new MMO concentrates on retention rather than attempting to extract as much cash from its playerbase as possible. Guild Wars 2 is a prime example (again): if ArenaNet placed as much effort into their cosmetic items that are available in the store, as those available through actually playing the game (i.e dropped from enemies or dungeon loot) more people might spend time, well, enjoying the game (just a suggestion!).

So before I continue to prattle on, I want to know what your preferred payment model is for the genre. Do you think a hybrid approach that places players first is the answer? Do you think World of Warcraft already does things right or should more companies adopt ArenaNet’s approach with Guild Wars 2? Let me know as I’m keen to hear your thoughts.   


Lewis Burnell

Lewis has played MMOs since Ultima Online launched, and written about them for far too long.