As far as free-to-play monetization models go, there are a couple of different overarching strategies that dominate today’s market. On one side, you have games like ArcheAge, which offers convenience bonuses like elevated experience gain, increased labor points, and priority queuing for shelling out real cash. On the other, you can see titles like The Lord of the Rings Online steadily offering some convenience and cosmetic items in their cash shops but doing a great deal of business selling content through quests and expansions.
Without having side-by-side financial numbers for comparison, it’s difficult to say which model is more “successful,” but I have seen a number of arguments for and against the viability of each strategy. There are those who think that you simply shouldn’t gate content behind a paywall of any kind, and should instead focus on always incentivizing players to stay in your game world by playing new things and hopefully, buying things from your cash shop. Conversely, the argument exists that unlocking content such as zones, quests, storylines, and arenas through a tried and true method such as expansions is the best way to encourage a steady revenue stream and bring back former or casual players.
Most free-to-play MMOs, and even some subscription-based ones, opt for a kind of hybrid approach in selling content and convenience. With free-to-play titles, it only makes sense to give your audience as many ways to pay you as is possible, and in today’s saturated market, you’d better believe having multiple revenue streams is of utmost importance. Subscription-based MMOs that sell content expansions and also offer items through a cash shop are a bit too eager for my taste. I can’t get behind paying a box price, monthly fee, and then nickels and dimes to get a special mount or XP boost. It’s just too much double dipping.
I’ll also be the first to say that my personal preference is for buying content over cash shop items. I don’t care a jot for costumes or special cosmetic items, which I know is weird coming from someone who appreciates space for RPers in online communities (and who spent an inordinate amount of money on virtual cards in Magic Online). I also can’t be bothered with convenience items - not so much because I don’t find them useful, but more due to the fact that they’re usually way overpriced for what you’re getting. Still, I appreciate paying for goods tendered and services rendered, and am always eager to support the development process by paying for content. Let me pay once for a good chunk of zones, races, classes, what have you, and convince me that your post-launch update schedule is worth a subscription fee. I’ll be more than happy to play my part.
I’d be intrigued to see how a “season pass” style monetization model could work for an MMORPG. Some games have tried variations on this theme, essentially requiring you to pay upfront for upcoming content, but not with the same all-in mentality as single and multiplayer games such as Borderlands 2. Taking, say, The Elder Scrolls Online as an example, Zenimax Online Studios could have come out the gate with a box price and no subscription, while also selling the first four (or however many) content updates in a season pass. You’d have to buy into the idea that content should be sold, but you’d also have the flexibility to purchase the updates ad hoc or bundled for a discount price.
It looks like Destiny is taking such a route, and I’m interested to see how Guild Wars 2 handles any forthcoming expansions, based on the precedent with the original Guild Wars for selling content. It’s true that forgoing the subscription fee necessarily removes players from a much needed payment cycle, but single-player and multiplayer games have been proving time and again that people are willing to pay up front for future content. A Kickstarted indie MMO might have to prove its worth first, but an industry leader like ArenaNet should have no problem banking on its name.
Where do you stand on selling convenience and cosmetic items versus content? And what other types of monetization models would you like to see MMO developers give a shake?
Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.