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The Best MMO Business Models

Michael Bitton Posted:
Columns The List 0

It’s true; the MMORPG.com community is a decidedly subscription-based crowd. But with the advent of many different MMO business models appearing in mainstream titles these days, we thought it’d be prudent to round up some of the more prevalent types and break down our favorites in this week’s The List.

5. Lifetime Subscriptions

This isn’t a business model per se, as it falls under the subscription model, but it’s a unique consumer decision all on its own. It’s one thing for gamers to have to decide whether they want to go month-to-month, three months, six months, or even up to a year with subscription based MMOs, but to pay a lump sum and gain access for life? The lifetime subscription has really gained popularity over the last couple of years, ironically, as the subscription model appears to be fading out almost altogether.

I’m going to guess there’s actually a strong correlation between these two events. MMO developers are realizing that there is in fact tons of churn with the standard subscription these days and have been looking to get as much cash out of their customers upfront before attrition takes its toll on subscription numbers. Maybe that’s a pessimistic point of view, but I’m sure many of us would have killed for lifetime subs back in the days of Ultima Online and EverQuest.

Typically, the lifetime subscription will run you $199, which breaks down to around 13 months of subscription time at your standard $14.99/month rate. This can be an attractive option for those who are absolutely certain they will be playing this long, but these days I’d almost instantly feel buyer’s remorse no matter what the game was. The precedent set so far by games that offered lifetime subs, such as LOTRO, Champions Online, Star Trek Online, etc. is that they eventually go free-to-play. Sure, in practice, all these games have offered lifetimers considerable bonuses once they made the switchover, but this is by no means guaranteed.

4. Free-to-Play


To clarify, in this section I’ll be speaking about strictly free-to-play games; so no hybrids, nor buy-to-play. The strictly free-to-play model is great in that it directly addresses the high barrier to entry that the subscription model has created for MMOs since, well, forever! Most of us that accept the subscription model even do so with much consideration over their $15/month. There’s an even larger group that just won’t play MMOs due to the subscription model, and outside of the Eastern market, the advent of free-to-play has attracted many non-MMO types to the genre.

Unfortunately, it’s not all peaches with free-to-play. Where MMO developers have focused on addictive qualities to keep gamers playing subscription based games (often to the games’ detriment) in order to maintain those subscriptions, strictly free-to-play games tend to over-integrate their item shops into the game to the point where it becomes obtrusive, if not outright obnoxious. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule, but the stigma these games have earned, especially the familiar “Pay-to-Win” moniker, isn’t entirely exaggerated.

It’s fine if you want to sell convenience items and the like in order to make up for not having a subscription. However, when you set the XP/currency earning curve such that it feels like purchasing an XP booster is necessary if you want to avoid grinding your eyes out to keep up with other players, at that point I’d rather drop my $15. 

3. Subscriptions

The classic tried-and-true subscription model is a great fire-and-forget model for most MMO players. If you’re enjoying what you’re playing you simply have to drop your monthly fee and you’re given full access to the game for the duration of your subscription. Great! This is my preferred method as it’s the most hassle-free and I don’t tend to agonize over my $15. There are far more expensive activities one can get involved with. $15 for a whole month of gameplay whenever I want it is almost always a great deal to me.

This isn’t true for everyone, however. For many of those who do play subscription-based games, they often spend a lot of time considering not just whether the game is good, but whether it’s worth paying for every month. The reasons can range anywhere from being too busy one month to any number of distractions. The problem arises in that many MMO gamers tend to cool off on an MMO almost forever once they’ve broken free of its spell, whatever the cause. World of Warcraft is, of course, uniquely different here. Most MMOs get that one chance to hook you and keep you hooked when they have that subscription barrier and it can and has been truly problematic for the genre on the whole for some time now.

2. Buy-to-Play

Not many games employ this model, but it’s an attractive middle ground between subscriptions and outright free-to-play. The price of the box, especially at launch, ensures that the developer receives some guaranteed return on its investment and the production schedule for future content can be determined based on how well the game actually sells. This is sort of the basic game development model on the other side of the fence. If X game sells Y units, well, we can justify doing an expansion or a sequel or more DLC. ArenaNet expertly applied this to the original Guild Wars and it worked out pretty handsomely for them. All three campaigns and Eye of the North have been wildly successful for the developer and have given players tons of content to play through over the years.

Of course, this model also enabled ArenaNet to go ahead and green light the hotly anticipated sequel, which coincidentally is also using the buy-to-play model. It’s important to note that the original Guild Wars does feature an item shop of sorts on the NC Store, but it’s not as tightly integrated into the game as the item shop of Guild Wars 2 will be.

Ultimately, buy-to-play is great for both developers and players. Gamers are used to paying for the game software and don’t mind it for a good game, it was always the subscription that was the issue, and this model addresses that issue while also ensuring the developer can count on some sort of profit. The gameplay doesn’t have to suffer to ensure that players are using the item shop enough to warrant the game being completely free.

1.  Hybrid

Options, options, options! Who doesn’t like options?! It took a while for free-to-play to break through in the mainstream Western market and it was really the hybrid model that made it palatable for most MMO gamers in the west. Beginning with the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Online, MMO gamers were able to choose to pay their subscription, just as they always have, and retain access to all of the game’s content (along with a monthly stipend of in-game store currency) or they could choose to go free-to-play and only purchase the content or features they were interested in. Best of all? One can easily switch between the two.

If you don’t think you’ll be playing enough one month to justify the $15 fee you can let your subscription lapse and play with a couple of restrictions. Perhaps you’ll decide to unlock a few things permanently so that when you do have these lapses a number of features will be always available to you regardless of your subscription status.

Additionally, most of the item shops launched in these games have been fairly unobtrusive and offer, in large part, desirable services and additions to players. There have been a few missteps here and there, but this has been by and large the most successful model we’ve seen over the past few years.

What do you prefer and why? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB