When a game’s payment model shifts, as happened last week with The Elder Scrolls Online becoming the latest game to undergo such a change, there’s always a pattern. The conversation almost always turns to the concept of value in comments flung around the internet like “That game wasn’t worth $15 a month” and “The game wasn’t worth a subscription”. After we see these announcements, there’s an overwhelming load of “I told you so” and a number of players who pronounce themselves more knowledgeable than everyone else in “knowing” that a subscription game couldn’t or wouldn’t last. While things have indeed changed, and the number of subscription-only games has gone down in favor of hybrid models for multiple reasons, this discussion over value is often the same. Why don’t we value MMOs?
For players that feel that a subscription or subscription on top of a box price is too much financial commitment to make to just one game, but without subs, the odds of trying a game are greater. That’s one of the selling points you’ll hear developers and publishers make when selling free and buy to play too. Marketing buzzwords like “accessible” and “no barrier to entry” do have meaning on their own, but in the past few years they frequently point to games without required subscriptions. It’s good to have people in the “well, now I can try the game” camp, but it doesn’t really solve the lower value MMOs have for many players today. MMOs are a victim of their own success, since many discovered the genre, shaped it, and then, in a world of seemingly endless cheap entertainment options, many of them instant, and a stagnation in the genre that has followed, MMOs lost their value to many in the gaming community.
With all of the options that people can and do pay for these days, compared to 5 or 10 years ago, another expense, especially for one game (I can pay Xbox Live and play multiple games online with friends), the MMO fees just look more and more expendable.
Social media, multiple entertainment options, players’ experiences with jerks online, and fewer games that emphasize interdependence have created a sort of insular genre where many play something, talk to only their friends or guildmates, speed through the content (which is sometimes unavoidable), and then are either entertained or done for a while, or forever. The 30 days of included subscription time isn’t enough of an enticement, and for some players, 30 days is enough in their minds, and they plan the base game purchase out as a finite thing. Going buy to play hybrid can be a smart deal since the base game retains a stable value.
One of the things that have long complained about when it comes to subscription MMOs, is when your subscription ends, so does your access. The old game disc as coaster joke comes to mind (2015 - game discs?). This increases the value for those whose subscriptions have ended, because they now have a playable product. The studios can entice some population back and hope that some will pay at least sometimes. Maybe they won’t pay $15, but maybe they’ll spend $5, and it was more than a canceled sub and inactive account was making before. If nothing, there are more virtual bodies for population, though on megaserver games, that has less of an impact.
Paying for monthly digital subscriptions for entertainment services is much more common now, and most of these are lower cost than a traditional MMO. Netflix, Spotify, book subscriptions, and other services can give you more entertainment hours, can be shared with others, and cost less than paying double the cost of a sub to one company for access to one game. The sub fees of today are still relatively cheaper in total dollar value than they were in 2005. In 2005, a $14.99 subscription would cost you over $18 today and a $12.99 sub fee would cost $15.75. Yet, if more games offered subs at the sweet spot for digital subscriptions that is $9.99, might this help or hurt? Both.
While a lower price could attract some more players, the idea that a company is discounting or lowering the price on something comes with the notion it’s a concession that the product is of lower quality. That perception, that a game is somehow an inferior product if a subscription is $9.99 instead of a standard $15, would hurt the idea of value for the subscription stalwarts. The all or nothing, black and white thinking is a problem. Players who feel tired of everything being piecemeal don’t like it and call for subs, while those who prefer no barriers and to be able to play the game they purchased at any time might prefer hybrids. Would you think positively about a $5 a month subscription game (without a cash shop)? Or would you presume it’s low quality? Ask yourself why/why not?
There’s a lot of skepticism in the words of those who say “Finally, [game] is going free/buy to play”, and while much of that is rooted in the overall stagnation and formula we’ve seen, there’s still so much more available to most players that it can be difficult to justify this gate for one game, especially to younger generations. That leaves us at a point where the genre continues to exist and offer lots of games. Some might say too many, which only adds to the problem - that we’re at a point where many simply don’t value MMOs in the same way they once might have, partly since the genre feels diluted and similar. And in a crowded entertainment field, different things must be tried. The variety out there now, your sub MMOs (WoW, EVE, FFXIV), buy to play (GW2), hybrids (SWTOR, LOTRO, The Secret World, soon ESO) reflects our collective, shifting idea of the value of an MMO to us, the players, as much as anything else. It might not be so bad after all, and there’s still room to try more different approaches.