World of Warcraft has been compared to a theme park before. The static world, colorful presentation and “gaming on rails” all lead to easy comparisons. I won’t belabor those elements, since it’s enough for the sake of this article to frame the game in a theme park comparison.
No, what’s important to me at this point is the cost to the patron, and how the analogy can be used to illustrate the concept of microtransactions.
A quick look at Disneyland prices shows gradated prices that give discounts to multi-day passes. There are actually two parks at the site, sort of a Siamese twin of theme parks. Entry to one is possible, but if you buy access to both, you get another “bulk” discount where, in effect, the second park’s access is cheaper than the first. Interestingly, the multi-day pass is only sold as a “two park hopper” pass; you cannot buy a (theoretically cheaper) multiday pass for one park.
So far, so good. This roughly correlates to the monthly fee of a subscription game, complete with discounts for purchasing in bulk ahead of time. The multiple park aspect is even echoed in SOE’s “station pass” that allows access to multiple MMOs.
Let’s turn it the other way, looking into the park itself, rather than at the front gates.
Much-maligned “F2P” MMOs (Free to Play) who monetize via microtransactions have effectively built a competitor to Disneyland, but throw the gates open to anyone who wants to visit. They make money in a few different ways.
Some use a dual currency*** system where patrons buy “tickets” with cash and then spend these tickets to ride the rides, but anyone can wander the park and see if there’s anything interesting. Some let anyone ride the kiddy rides, but the marquee rides require a pass (effectively making a sort of “dual park” where there are free rides and Disneyland-style access rides). Some literally divide the park into pieces with different costs to access. Sometimes each ride has its own price, with varying ticket or cash costs.
There are many ways to slice these parks and their monetization, but they share the ability to let patrons make more granular choices regarding what they actually want to do in the park, and how much they want to spend.
That’s the heart of a microtransaction system. It gives patrons more choices and more control over how they pay for their game. I’ve already made it clear (I hope) that I lean heavily on the side of giving players choices, even in the monetization of the game. This produces some interesting effects.
Most revolve around the fact that the clientele is different. The wider spectrum of players who visit the F2P parks does bring its own pros and cons, with a higher number of people that any one patron might not necessarily get along with, for any reason. At the same time, if an MMO has game design that lives or dies on a critical mass of players, getting more warm bodies in the door might just be a Good Thing. *coughWarhammercough*
More warm bodies (or eyeballs, whatever) means more chances to sell stuff. That’s roughly the principle that advertising runs on, and why we still get junk mail every retail season. (We use it at tinder, actually, since most of the best deals are online, but I digress.)
The wider spectrum of players and free access to some elements of the park means that there will be “freeloaders” who just do the free stuff, but ultimately, even these people (lower caste citizens though they may be) are adding to the game community simply by being there. That’s important in something like an MMO, where community is one of the main selling points. The Puzzle Pirates forums are actively championed by the game’s GMs (there called Ocean Masters, or OMs), and there are plenty of players who spend more time in conversation with friends on the forums than actually playing the game. Players enter and run contests, and there’s almost always something interesting going on in the forums. This is healthy, as it keeps these people interested in the game, and keeps their wallet potentially unlocked. It also creates and fosters brand and company loyalty, which is something that money can’t buy.
Yes, a wider clientele will mean there are some real idiots and jerks in the fold, but looking at the WoW forums, I’d say that’s more or less inevitable. I might even argue that WoW’s elitist entitlement mentality is actively fostered by the subscription model, since there’s a subtle undercurrent of bigotry and superiority that sub players display towards F2P games and their patrons. It may be a bit of a chicken and egg psychology, but it’s definitely a negative feedback loop.
Beyond park access schemes, both types of parks typically have concession stands.
WoW has charged for conveniences (concessions) like server shuffles or name adjustments, and now charges for an extended suite of changes. (Again going with the “big charge, many options” model rather than charging per changeable option.) In-game, there are many little concessions like mounts, pets and clothing. Some have manufactured costs, like respec pricing, but most aren’t necessary to actually play the game. (A tangent could be run here about clothing and the currency sink it could be if gear weren’t tied to performance, and if clothing were customizable, but I’ve covered that before.)
Puzzle Pirates has a dual currency model that requires some “tickets” (there called doubloons) to access certain privileges like controlling a crew (guild), playing certain minigames at any time (rather than on the free access days), or sailing your own ship (an Officer Badge or higher). That said, the vast majority of the game is free to play, and the “concessions” of fancy clothing, pets, portraits, furniture and other frippery (things that are completely irrelevant to gameplay) are where a fair dose of money (via doubloon charges) goes.
Concessions are great money makers for Disneyland. They have a huge Disney Stuff shop just in side the front gates. They have food and *stuff* all over the park, including several themed restaurants. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that they make more money on concessions and *stuff* than on entry fees.
Microtransaction systems are notoriously bad for those with no self control. The park could impose a limit on things, to keep abuses down. One thought that Chris has mentioned before is an hourly charge with a monthly cost cap beyond which play is free (and the cap is set above the sub price to give an incentive to sub). Similarly, there could be a concession charge with a daily cap in our park analogy. Though, really, how responsible is the company to tell people “stop giving us money”? When the company provides something that could lead to liability, like something that causes health risk, I can see a good reason for a limit, but who draws that line, and what part does litigation or the threat thereof take?
Chinese players are technically limited in how many hours they can play per month, even in WoW. Is that a health thing, considering the well-publicized deaths of Asian gamers? Is that limitation intimately tied to their reduced monthly fees for WoW? Again, when do companies have to say “stop paying me money”? Do bars limit the alcohol intake of their patrons? I don’t know, I haven’t visited one, but aren’t there limits on what the human body can take? What responsibility to barkeepers have to their patrons beyond fair prices for products and services tendered?
Microtransaction games assume a greater personal level of fiscal responsibilty, time management and self control on the part of the player. With choice comes consequence, and with power comes responsibility and all that. Microtransactions or dual currency models will not be the best thing for all audiences.
My main point is merely that sub models are also not appropriate for all audiences, and that MMOs in particular can benefit from the alternates offered by microtransactions.
Ultimately, I think that both business models are appropriate for different reasons. Some people will always get more out of the buffet style “all day pass” subscription model. Some will always get more out of a more granular approach. I don’t think that either should die out. That said, there are real benefits to each, and a game’s business should be designed around what it wants to provide for its players. MMOs in particular live or die on critical masses of players, and even something like Warhammer could benefit greatly from getting more people playing, even if they have to slaughter the sacred cow of the subscription model.
In closing, I offer this link to an article I found a while back that suggests that the subscription model promotes good design. I offered a rebuttal to that article in the comments, but I’m not so naive to think that either model is the One True Way for all game designs. That said, I do think that the level of blind prejudice and inanity that is demonstrated by many people when microtransactions are mentioned is very detrimental to the MMO genre as a whole.
There’s also this interesting Warcry article that leads to the suggestion that the current economic situation does not support the “subscriptions are the only way” argument.
***Tangent: the dual currency model is also how many arcades work, perhaps the most famous being Chuck E Cheese or a variant thereof, where patrons buy “tokens” to play the games. The token/cash exchange is set by the arcade, and may change over time (and between competitors), but whatever the exchange rate, the point is to change cash into a currency that can only be used at that arcade. There are larger discussions that could be had at this point regarding currencies in the real world, but that’s a tangent too far for the moment.***