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Posts Tagged ‘monetization’

This is an addendum for my original Making it Real article, but I think it deserved more than a comment in the thread with a few links.

Hat tip to Shamus for this one:

Johanna Blakely: Lessons From Fashion’s Free Culture

TED talks are all over the place in quality, but this one does point out some interesting thoughts on IP protection and innovation.

I have to wonder if the same spirit behind Linux might be moving things like Psychochild’s article on Elemental Advancement.  He could have tried to keep that under wraps as a trade secret, but sharing it lets the blogging hivemind make the concepts better.  It’s then on his head (or someone else’s!) to execute the ideas in a commercially viable way, for which he could and should be rightfully recompensed.  It’s the work of execution that would be rewarded, not really the idea.  This is also why you will never sell an idea to a game company.  Go ahead and try; they will laugh in your face or outright ignore you.  Ideas are cheap. (To be clear, Ixobelle wasn’t selling ideas there, he was selling himself, but the Blizzard response is standard; game companies will not buy ideas.)

The talk’s argument roughly suggests that ideas should be cheap, free and unfettered, and that execution is really what matters.  When ideas can be free, innovation has fewer limitations.  Her list of industries with different IP laws and lack of copyright is especially enlightening.

To reiterate on what I was writing about in the last article, then, if you make your game idea into reality and sell it as such, as a physical game, you are effectively monetizing the actual production and materials, not so much the idea.  The idea can be taken and molded by house rules or knockoff products, but if you maintain quality, you’ll still be the standard of comparison.

Taken another way, you can make your own Magic cards and play with them.  Sure, Wizards owns copyrights on their particular game art and the “tap” icon, but you can take a sharpie to blank cards and play all day long.  You’ll never get them into a sanctioned tournament, but if you’re happy playing with friends at home, who cares?  If you do want to play “for real”, though, you pony up and buy the cards.  If you want the prestige of “real” cards and the option of playing in official venues, you go through the gates.  If you just want to play with the cool ideas, you can do so at home with homemade cards and homebrew ideas.

The WoW TCG has a set of free PDFs that comes directly from the devs, allowing you to print out some game cards and play the game.  It’s just a small slice of what the game ultimately has to offer, but it’s a way to get people playing.  My Alpha Hex paper beta runs along the same lines, though I’m also using it to get playtest feedback.  In either case, the “real” game has more to offer, and can be monetized as such.

IP laws can be weird and wild animals, as Scrusi rightly notes.  I’m not sure that a totally anarchic society of free ideas would function as well as the idealists would suggest, but then, the Big Brother draconian DRM direction doesn’t seem to be paying off with much more than ill will and sequelitis with a nice side dish of piracy.  We don’t make clothes (utilitarian tangible things) in video game design… but offline tangible variations might just be a nice avenue to explore sometimes.

In the meantime, throwing a few game design ideas out there into the wild just may be a good idea.

!!!

UPDATE! Scott Adams of Dilbert fame weighs in on ideas… quite coincidentally.  I like his take on it, though, and his closing line is one that Ed Catmull echoed as well:  “Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.”

In a creative industry, like the one I work in, we’re paid for getting things done.  Ideas are valuable inasmuch as they help get things done, but at the end of the day, if the work hasn’t been completed, and especially if there’s no product to sell, no number of ideas will make the guys writing the checks happy.

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The Play This Thing article on Mythoria questions the value of games, specifically a video game that would work well as a physical game.

The notion of making money by selling real, tangible stuff is one that I’ve toyed with, and it’s interesting to see it noted elsewhere.  I still need to finish Alpha Hex‘s video game iteration, but I’ve long had ideas for making it a physical card game as well.  I printed up some cards to playtest it during design, and it proved to be very helpful… and it plays fairly well in tangible form.  I’d love to use the Game Crafter to sell a base Alpha Hex set and expansions if occasion permits, but leave the digital version free and open source (if they ever support hexagonal cards, I’ll jump on it).  I’ve even made card designs for both formats, and written some story and lore with an eye to making physical card-specific art, not unlike that MTG thing.  It might even be a “wheel within a wheel” for some other game designs I have in mind.

To me, having a physical game, ready to play if the digital world goes offline, is a valuable thing that I’m willing to pay for.  There’s a retro appeal to buying stuff with my money, instead of… digital, ephemeral… nonstuff.  (Especially when draconian DRM means the providers can deny me the privilege of playing at a whim.)

My wife and I have collected many board and card games, and many times, they are more fun to play than popping in another video game.  We don’t need electricity or a connection to the internet, just some light, a level surface and somewhere dry to play.  There are no patches, no permissions, no waiting for the Dungeon Finder to work its magic. That freedom can be good for the soul, even if it’s just a periodic thing, another tool in the toolbox of the larger world of “gaming”.

I’ve designed three board games and two card games in the last year or so, and I’d love to get them out there and make a bit of money from them.  There’s even a place for making one of my board games into a nice hardwood coffee table offering… even if it’s just something I do for Christmas gifts.  (Though it would be great if they were commercially viable.)

These video game things can be good fun, to be sure, but sometimes, it really is great to hold game cards in your hands, to move pieces on a board, and to play with people face to face, rather than through anonymous filters, monitors and cables.  It can even be instructive when trying to design games for the digital realm.  Offline games have been designed and played for thousands of years; there’s a lot of good data there to sift through with an eye to why games work.

Paper Dragon Games has a tangential take on things; their headline offering, Constellation, is a game that is designed to have a “board game” feel, but is entirely digital.  We can certainly automate setup and some mechanics digitally, making some game mechanics easier.  The digital version of Alpha Hex benefits from automated ownership tracking and attack resolution, for instance, and the XBox Live version of Settlers of Catan is far easier to set up than the board game.

It can be very useful to make a game digital… and it can be useful to go the other way, too.  It’s harder to pirate a card game, for one.  Sure, photocopiers work, and I’ve even offered a PDF version of Alpha Hex, but if the cards offered for sale are of sufficient quality and the game is good, there will still be a market for the “real thing”.  I probably won’t ever make a living purely on card game sales, but it’s worth offering the option to anyone interested in the game.

There is certainly room in the “game tent” for both digital and physical games, sometimes even different iterations of the same game, as with MTG.  When I look at monetizing my game design hobby, though, I can’t help but think that it might be a good outlet for me to take some of my game designs that could work in either format (or both!) and offer a physical version.  It’s one more way to break up the demand curve and reach out to different people.

Parallel product lines can also help build a brand, which can be useful for indies.  We even see things like the merchandising efforts of the Blizzard WoW team, what with the card game and the miniatures game.  They didn’t pan out to be as popular as their parent game, but they are solid offerings, and likely at least partially profitable for Blizzard.

Sometimes, it pays to make the game real.

…even if it’s only because you get to use house rules…

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OK, so $10 for a horse is apparently the harbinger of the apocalypse.  If Blizzard gives it wings, what then?

Is it OK when Blizzard, the holiest of the holy subscription games, dips its toes into mount sales?  Are they an Item Shop game now, further tainted by that pesky capitalism stuff?  *cue rabid fanboy ranting*

Does anyone think that Blizzard isn’t going to make money with this?

Much as I think fussing about this sort of thing is spitting into the commercial winds, I’m with Darren on this in one way; I’ll spend that $25 on a complete game, thankyouverymuch, and play it forever.  I can probably pick up Lost Odyssey for that on sale somewhere, or a few more Steam sales…

I don’t mind that this pretty, pretty horse exists, not at all, I just won’t be getting one.  Ripples of the commercial Cataclysm I keep suggesting, perhaps?

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Ostensibly, “F2P” is an acronym for “Free to Play”.

In practice, the term can cover a couple of different types of MMOs that don’t monetize via subscriptions.

On one hand are the Item Shop games, say, Runes of Magic, Allods Online or Puzzle Pirates.  RoM and AO are post-WoW DIKUMMOs (PWDMMORPGs?), but Puzzle Pirates is an entirely different animal that uses a microtransaction dual currency system.  RoM and AO have taken heat for goofy pricing and design that spurs purchases, some of it rightly so, some of it ill-informed and incompetently reasoned.  Noting that Puzzle Pirates functions quite nicely as an Item Shop game, might I take another moment to note that while business and game design are inextricably linked, incompetence in one need not mean the other is equally busted?

On the other hand, there are Subscriptionless games that monetize by selling content and convenience.  Look to Guild Wars, DDO and Wizard 101 for this sort of game design.  Content is sold with perpetual access, and players need not continue to pay a subscription.  These games tend to be constructed differently from the Item Shop games, earning money most like offline games of yore, by providing a valuable experience out of the box.

Also of note are the hybrid games.

Wizard 101 allows for subscriptions, content purchases and item shop purchases.  It monetizes all sorts of demand and lets all sorts of players play together, hopping servers willy-nilly almost at will.  It’s a beautiful game that plays extremely well, carving out its own identity with unique game mechanics and quirky writing.  The Harry Potterish feel is almost certainly part of the appeal, but it really is a solid game under the hood.

Puzzle Pirates has microtransaction servers and subscription servers.  Players cannot change server, and their economies are largely unique.  Doubloons (the microtransaction currency in their brilliant dual currency system) are tied to the account, not a server, and so may be spent on any “green” (microtransaction) server, but “blue” (sub) and “green” servers are isolated.  Still, players can play on any server, and can find one to suit their finances.

I think there is a critical distinction to be drawn between Item Shop games and Subscriptionless games.  I’ve argued for selling content instead of time for a while now, and I firmly come down in the Subscriptionless camp.  Whether this is sold in large bites like Guild Wars or smaller bites like Wizard 101 or DDO, it doesn’t matter much, but there is a clear difference between this model and the Item Shop model.  RoM and AO and their kind walk a line between selling stuff that’s useful and selling stuff that breaks the game, between impulse purchases and wallet-busting stupidity.

Both games can rightfully be presented as “Free to Play”, inasmuch as the acronym itself really only suggests that there is no subscription.  (Though it is a curious thing when a product is defined by what it lacks rather than what it has or is…)  We really have misnomers on top of misnomers abound in the MMO market, so this is no surprise, but it isn’t useful to take something like Allods Online’s messed up Item Shop (or your favorite game used as an example of the apocalypse) and paint an entire swath of games with a disdainful “F2P” epithet.  Games need to be taken on their own merits, balanced against their monetary and time costs, and evaluated for fun.  Blind prejudice against games roughly defined by a marketing acronym that doesn’t have consistent meaning doesn’t really help anything.

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It seems to me that Shamus of Twenty Sided and I share many tastes when it comes to games, especially MMOs.  His latest Escapist article neatly summarizes many things that I’ve written about more than once:

Experienced Points:  The Playground Model

Twenty Sided blog mention of the same

In short, he notes that “grind” can broadly be thought of as anything that the player has to do before getting to the “good part”.  Devs seem to want to steer players through game elements with their own assumption of what “the good part” is, which leads to some conflicts of interest.

As I note in my comment over at his blog, I lay a lot of blame for this sort of design on the business model.  When you directly monetize time to access and play the game (not even time played, though that also leads to the same conclusion), the design impetus is to include things that take a lot of time.  Players spending time directly translates to them spending more money.

It’s the dark, stinky underbelly of the subscription model, something those who constantly complain about the Item Shop model conveniently ignore in their headlong rush to condemn design decisions those games make to monetize players.  True, many of those decisions are also stupid, but sub games are not saints.  In all cases, the business model affects game design; you just have to pick your poison.

I find it interesting that consumer patterns track well across different purchases, too.  I don’t rent cars, I buy used ones, paid in full, no financing.  I don’t rent movies, I borrow or buy.  Ditto for games, though I’ll usually buy when there’s a sale or used.

So I’m cheap.  I call it thrifty.

Borrowing from Shamus’ playground analogy, I either take my kids to the local public parks or maybe buy a swingset.  (We’re looking for one on sale.)  We don’t go to the local theme park (Lagoon, in this case) to blow $70 or more on a single day of waiting in lines for a few minutes of fun.  We certainly don’t buy season tickets.

To be sure, those offer great value to some people, but not to everyone.  That’s what I keep trying to illustrate.

When those value equations sort out differently for different people, the game design itself is naturally pulled in different directions.  The playground just doesn’t work the same for everyone… and that’s OK.  There’s a natural tension between that variability and the “one size fits all” monetization schemes, though, and when the game is trying to appeal to all sorts of different players, well, it’s only natural that there will be tensions on the business side, too.

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In Soviet Russia, item shop pwns you.

…and yes, I’ve read reports that the prices for Russians are an order of magnitude cheaper.  Funny, that.  One for the home team, I guess.

Guys, this is not how you monetize a microtransaction game.  I know capitalism is hard, just like math, but this… is an order of magnitude beyond ill-advised.  I thought it was an honest if spectacularly embarrassing mistake, but as it turns out, it’s more like a faceplant.

Ah, well.  I hear WoW is still a good game, for a subscription game.  (Imagine the italics there dripping with disdain.)  All those who have been whining about AO either in-game or on blogs will surely find Blizzard waiting with open arms.

In the meantime, I maintain that the art direction of Allods Online is solid, the core game is fun (if nothing revolutionary in the DIKU mainstream), and the ships and their mechanics look awesome.  The game is good, even great in places.  The business plan… not so much.  (Curiously, my precise reaction to WoW, come to think of it…)

Oh, and I can get a six-man (actually seven-man) ship in Puzzle Pirates for $5, and I can solo it.  Guess who gets my money?

—————————–

Postscript:  I’m not trying to be snarky about those who, like BBB, tried Allods Online and found their interest waning.  It really just won’t scratch the same itch as WoW, especially for someone who is used to the endgame and doesn’t want to drag a character up through the leveling grind again.  That’s more a function of the age of games and how we get used to things, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My ire here is mostly with the businesswonks of Allods Online, with a small slice reserved by those who are cheering for the game’s failure, including those who are blindly prejudiced against the business model.  This is a failure of execution, not concept.  DDO, W101 and Puzzle Pirates do it right.

The actual game devs have crafted some great work, for which I applaud them.

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…and now I can’t get Y2K or YMCA out of my mind.  Bleh.

Anyway, Gamasutra has a pair of articles up that piqued my interest:

Puzzle Pirates Revenue Specifics

and

Dungeons and Dragons Online goes Free to Play

I’m sure that proponents and detractors can make up their own arguments at this point, but I’ll chime in and note that Puzzle Pirates is one of only three MMOs that I’ve spent money on (the others being Wizard 101 and Guild Wars), and that this move for DDO might just mean I go check it out.  If they have a reasonable scheme on the back end to capture some revenue, they might just be the fourth.

(And if SWTOR and Jumpgate Evolution have non-sub options, they might be fifth and sixth…)

Updated:  Raph Koster has a blurb up on another Gamasutra article here:

Free to Play MMOs

Good stuff.  Raph actually is neck deep in this sort of thing, what with Metaplace and all.  It’s a good read.

Update 2, more data from a War Cry interview:

More on DDO F2P

Update 3, more from the devs on why they are changing things up.  Notable among reasons cited are the changing demographics, and the need for shorter session gaming, and the restrictive binary system of subscriptions (in or out).  Someone gets it, and this is heartening to hear from the devs, since it’s part of what I’ve argued for a while now:

Why DDO went F2P

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Shamus hits the pricing issue with a side dish addressing the shelf life of games.

The Price of Fun

It’s a good article, and well worth reading.  Shamus is also hosting comments over on his site:

Twenty Sided

I’ll just sign off here by noting that I’ve purchased two games on Steam in the last 10 days, both on sale.  That’s more money than they would have got from me otherwise, even for good games like World of Goo and AudioSurf.  There’s a recession on, and people are paying attention to these things.

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29 Options

According to this fellow, there are 29 business models for games.

29 Business Models for Games

Interesting.  It’s nice to know that at least one industry vet isn’t stuck thinking that the Blizzard way is the only way.

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…in the which Tesh realizes that there actually is a price point on the demand curve where he would only very slightly grudgingly buy into the subscription model.  (Hint:  it’s an unholy intersection of microtransactions and subscriptions.  Also, I’ll always prefer the idea of buying content over buying time, so this isn’t a radical shift in my mindset, just a way to find middle ground.)

*gasp*!!!

The discussion over at the Elder Game blog has gotten a bit long and winded, and a bit off topic, but it’s my experience that the best discussions often wind up running such tangents.  It might be best to wander over there for reference, despite Eric (the original post’s author) having somewhat disavowed the discussion at this point.

To set the stage for those coming to this blog late (this is a review for veteran readers), I have a handful of problems with the sub model.

First and foremost, the flat $15/month rate doesn’t offer enough value to me, since I have a life, a job and a family, meaning severely constrained gaming time.  I’ve always recognized that there are those who play 40 hours a week or more to whom the $15 is a pittance for the value derived, but my max 8 hrs./month doesn’t offer nearly the same cost/benefit yield.  This is purely a number analysis, and this is the core of where I’m willing to compromise.

Second, I don’t like buffet style monetization when MMOs offer such a wide variety of play options.  A well designed MMO will allow for players to play in completely different ways, so to my mind, it makes sense to offer more granular and customizable monetization.  There’s definitely an argument to be made for the “club” mentality where everyone just pays the same and it’s up to them what they do (it’s easier bookkeeping, for one), but I do think that going forward, smart shoppers will want more control over what they are spending their money on.  If I never raid, for instance, I don’t want to pay for that content.  Likewise, a raider may not want to pay for the crafting suite because they never touch it.

Third, this is all assuming that the “service” sales is the way to go.  I’m not convinced of that.  Far more honest to me is the company that sells content, and who tries to maintain a good player/dev relationship by continually providing top notch content, not selling access to existing content.  Then again, I’m the sort that buys a stationary bike rather than a gym membership, because I like actually having something as a result of spending money, rather than just having had access to something.  Thing is, there are different customer mentalities, so there should be different monetization options.  MMO games don’t provide me with a useful service like phone service providers, so I’m not inclined to pay for access each month.  I can buy games that I have perpetual access to for the same money.

Fourth, I’m convinced that the subscription model has deleterious effects on game design.  The monetization model will inevitably have an effect on any product, and subs are designed to hook people and keep them playing.  This leads directly to grind in modern DIKU MMO design.  To be fair, I’m a fan of the Final Fantasy games, where grind is also overemployed, but the difference there is that I can grind on my own time, since there is no charge per unit of time that I play the game.  I have paid for the content, and I can play through it at my leisure.  That’s a critical distinction.  Subs don’t necessarily “cause” grind (Atlantica Online has it too; grindy DIKU design is just in some devs’ DNA, apparently), but they certainly have a terribly self-reinforcing relationship with it, and it has and will continue to warp expectations and design for the MMO genre.

As much as I dislike the sub-grind reinforcement death spiral, I can admit that I do like some Zen mindless grinding now and then.  That’s why I can tolerate stretches in any FF game where I need to grind to take care of a particularly nasty boss.  (And I like the option to do so, honestly.  I loved the intelligent pacing in Chrono Cross that eliminated such a metagaming impulse, but most RPG games aren’t designed nearly so well-balanced, so grind becomes a great fudge factor when the devs can’t or won’t balance the challenge and pacing well.)  It’s why I love Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean games.  They are just fun to play, even if it might be considered “grinding”.

It’s that admission that I can tolerate grind (cleverly disguised as fun gameplay), combined with the idea that came up in the Elder Game thread that gave the maligned subscription model an inroad to my wallet.  It’s still a very constrained chink in the armor, but it’s there.  In a more demanding economy, with Blizzard squashing the genre, it’s a chink that a savvy company could take advantage of, much in the same spirit that Chris over on ihaspc has admitted that private server rental might be a way for Blizzard into his wallet.

And that’s ultimately the point.  A wider potential customer base will inevitably mean that the flat $15 isn’t good enough to satisfy all of the demand that’s out there.  That’s the heart of market segmentation; different people have different needs and wants, and a company that tries to shoehorn everyone into the same “one size fits all” sales will inevitably be leaving money on the table.

So, with that lengthy prelude, what’s the magic key to my wallet for the sub model?

Microsubscriptions.

Give me the ability to tailor my subscription.  Let me reduce the price by voluntarily reducing options.  This is already the case in the “free trial” that most companies offer.  They let players play for a short amount of time, with a constrained feature set.  Microsubs are somewhere between a free trial and a full subscription, and most of all, they are customizable.  Again, that’s the heart of market segmentation; let the customer determine the price point by tailoring their experience, and they are a LOT more willing to pony up the cash.

We see it all the time in other service industries.  Cell phone plans offer a wide variety of usage options, and the mix and match plans are even better.  Cable TV is packaged in bundles with optional riders.  Car leases can even offer options sometimes.

Bottom line, when the customer feels that they are in control, the provider/customer relationship is much stronger, and that wallet opens up a lot easier.  The provider still sets the price for the services, but doing so in a granular fashion allows not only for greater customer control, but better feedback for what options are well-received and more valuable.  (This means better focus for further development.)

These are much the same arguements for a microtransaction model, honestly, just framed in a slightly different light.  The Puzzle Pirates MT model sells access to certain elements of the game.  Some are based on calendar time, some are based on usage time.  (Like the difference between buying a “month” of cell phone service or buying a “1000 minutes card”.)  Those are still time based, and the granularity in PP is based on “days”, not minutes, but again, they give a lot more control to the player.

Specifically with a World of Warcraft model, a “microsub suite” of options would go a long way to prying open my wallet.  To wit:

Flatline $15/month:  Everything and everything unlocked, experience is solely based on player’s time commitment per month.

$5/month:  You may play any class (or any race), but only that class (or race).  (Either Hunters only or Tauren Only, for example.)  $10/month would mean access to two classes (or races), in other words.  (And $15/month for three would be the same cost as access to all, so you may as well do a full sub at that point.)

$5/month:  Full and complete access to all content, classes and races contained only in Vanilla WoW. (No expansions.)

Do you see what I’m getting at there?  Gradate the access, gradate the price.  It’s a little blurry around the edges when expansions come into play, since expansion-based things like Inscription get pushed through the whole game.  A new game trying to take advantage of this sort of granularity would need to decide what things get pushed into live use throughout the whole game, and which things get isolated in expansions, but if it’s known ahead of time, it should be easy enough to compartmentalize.  Those aspects can even be introduced as teasers to upsell players on the bigger service package.

You can also add riders, like remote browser-based access to the Auction House, or remote access to the chat system (apparently EQ did something like this with an instant messenging service, so the tech is there, but it could be monetized as a rider).  Some of these could even be standalone modules, say for a businessman who loves the AH, but doesn’t have time to play the full browser.  He could buy the AH module and wheel and deal from his Blackberry, and then jump back into the game at a later date if he felt like raiding with friends.

Speaking of raiding, if I never wanted to raid, perhaps I’d not have to pay for that content.  That’s another level of granularity that could be shuffled into the options package.

This, of course, could also allow for prepaid minutes or days, like the Puzzle Pirates model.  A 30-day “license” for WoW could be sold that could still monetize time, but at a much more user-friendly pace.  A savvy customer could only play on Saturdays, for example, and stretch a 30-day license for 7 months or so.  They aren’t using the system during the week, so why pay for it?  This is exactly what I’ve done in Puzzle Pirates, as my Captain’s Badge only lasts for 30 days, but I’ve stretched it over more than a year by only playing when I have time to make it worth the investment.  Three Rings got the same amount of money from me as from a player who uses their Captain’s Badge over thirty consecutive days.  Yes, it’s spread out and makes their bookkeeping a bit more to keep track of, but ultimately, they at least got money from me, where Blizzard still hasn’t.

This model won’t be the best for some players, no.  Of course not.  The flat rate isn’t best for me.  That’s the whole point; different service monetization for different demand.

Put in clear terms, I’d happily pay for a perpetual license to play WoW offline.  I’d pay $5/month for access to Vanilla WoW alone, or access to all expansions with a Druid only limitation.  I might even pay $1/month as a rider for remote access AH access, or $2/month for that module alone.

Argue the price points a little if you feel so inclined, but the heart of this microsub idea is that giving the customer choices, even if you’re going to stay completely subscription (or time-based, going with the “minute card/PP badge” model) geared, giving the customer options will break up that price curve and segment your market.  Do that carefully, and you can be making MORE money than with a flat $15 sub price.  You’ll also be making players happier since they have one more way that they are in charge, and the greater number of (happy) players will make for a stronger community.  And again, the feedback that comes from players voting with their wallets can also be valuable for future development and budget planning.

The economy is busted, and the market is maturing.  It’s time for MMO publishers and devs to get their act together and keep pace.

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