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Posts Tagged ‘subscription’

A couple of thoughts on subs and F2P business and MMOs, today guest starring Tobold, Spinks and Raph Koster.

Tobold’s I Would be Happier with Free2Play

Spinks’ WoW Thought for the Day

Raph Koster’s F2P vs. Subs

I’ve long been a proponent of making WoW F2P and even offline or in W/JRPG format simply because subscriptions never offer me enough value for me to bother with them.

…and yet, I have a 60-day time card that I’ve had for almost a year and a half and a handful of 30-day time codes from the WoW VISA card I use for big purchases and emergencies.  I have the time codes (and one unscratched card), ready to use, already paid for, but the flubbernuggin’ time-limited monetization scheme still doesn’t feel like good value to me.  I don’t want to use those codes since I have too much going on to devote sufficient time to playing to get good value out of them.  Similarly, I have a Steam code for 30 days each of FFXI and RIFT, but I haven’t activated either of them.  They are paid for, ready to go, but I hate the idea of locking myself into a monogamous game experience just so I can squeeze the most out of it as I can before the time stops ticking.

I hate gaming on the clock.

…and on the other hand, I’ll happily sink a little time into the newly F2P Star Trek Online every morning sending my Duty Officers off on missions and maybe run a story arc mission in the evening.  The cost of activation is really low, so I go play when I feel like it.  I’m considering spending $15 or so to get a new ship that I would then be able to use whenever I darn well please for as long as the servers are live.  That’s value I’ll pay for.  That’s how I approach Wizard 101, too; I bought Crowns to unlock areas that I’ll get to someday, and in the meantime, I’ll play when I feel like it.  I’ve spent money on Puzzle Pirates for the same reason; I bought a ship that I can sail around and pirate with, but I don’t have to keep paying just to play on the occasions when I make the time for it.  I’d readily pay for a single purchase SWTOR.

Would that translate to WoW?  In my case, absolutely.  I’d log in and do a few quests here and there, and toss them money to unlock a dungeon or the ability to make a Dwarf Druid or make my own guild comprised entirely of my own characters without the need to recruit other players or some sort of service that lets me bypass some of the extremely poorly paced crafting curve.  I’m definitely not averse to giving Blizzard money, I just want to pay for things that offer me good value.  WoW is still a fun game to play, even with all its warts and weirdness.  As it stands, though, I can’t exactly send them a financial message about the parts that I care about, which is one of the weaknesses of the subscription model.

…I can, however, offer to sell my time codes.  Anyone?  Maybe trade for some titles on my Steam Wish List?  Oh, and I still have some coupons and COGS and World of Goo if anyone wants them.  Nobody took me up on the snowflake contest, so I’ll just throw them to the winds.  (Another interesting take on value, perhaps…)

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I’ve never been a fan of the subscription model.  I find it to be abusive and detrimental to game design, even though I can technically afford a sub these days.  What’s more baffling to me are those who reflexively defend the sub model as being the One True Path to gaming goodness in the MMO sphere.  It seems to me that these poor souls suffer from a sort of Stockholm Subscription Syndrome.

In short form, Stockholm Syndrome is where prisoners start to sympathize with their captors, usually because said captors aren’t worse than they presently are, no matter how bad that is.  It’s a weird bit of cognitive dissonance that involves a lot of rationalization and psychological trauma, even abuse.  Maybe the huge time sinks and grinds in modern MMO design aren’t technically abuse, but they sure skirt the edge of psychological manipulation sometimes.  (I think there’s an argument that games embrace it fully sometimes, too, but interestingly, even designers might not notice that, positioned as they are, deep in the bowels of the game industry, suffering their own psychological maladies and warped frame of reference.)

To be sure, each MMO business model has pros and cons.  Subs are good for some things, Free 2 Play is good for others, and Single Sale (the Old School model of buying a game once and playing it forever, like Guild Wars… sometimes with expansion packs also sold in single sale chunks) is good for others.  Each has good effects on players and game design, each has bad effects.  Honest commentators see the differences.

It’s those who blindly suggest that subs are the only way to go that I’m talking about here.  (It should be noted that F2P and Single Sale doctrines have their blind acolytes, too, but they seem far fewer in number, and they function differently as they argue for different priorities.)  Sub devotees seem to love their grind.  There’s also a bit of that old “Sunk Cost” thinking going on as well:  players who have sunk time and money into something want to keep up with it to mentally validate what they have done already.  When you pay for time to play, you’ve already acquiesced to the premise that you’re paying for access, not content.  That’s a significant mental shift that changes the value calculations in game purchasing… and once you’re hooked, it’s hard to make the mental shift back.

Businesscritters naturally exploit this tendency, though they tend to be careful not to draw too much attention to the persistent blood loss, lest they draw too much attention and trigger a response.  It’s up to the players to pay attention, but far too many just cruise on and get used to things, then turn to defend the status quo.  (This happens in design, too, to both players and designers.  Don’t do something just because “That’s Just the Way It’s Done”, pay attention to the “why” underlying design choices.  The collapse of the MMO genre’s design potential into DIKU clones is one example of this blinkered thinking… thankfully, one that’s changing, if ever so slowly.)

The simple reality is that more and more people are playing games as time goes on.  The bulk of the audience is shifting to those who have grown up a bit (incidentally, not the same as aging), and have different priorities in life, as Chris eloquently notes thisaway (edited to add: or as Syp notes thisaway, with changing priorities leading to different notions of sociality, which is one of the pillars of a good MMO).  Games and businesses that rely on a captive audience to defend their unchanging ways will naturally be left with that part of the audience that won’t move on.  That’s neither good nor bad, really, just a reality that game devs and businessmen need to be aware of.

Players, for their part, need to watch out for their own needs and pocketbooks.  The businesscritters certainly aren’t interested in our welfare.  Smart parasites don’t kill their hosts, but if there’s an endless stream of new hosts, that changes the dynamic a bit.  We can’t let ourselves get used to the little costs (in time or money) and annoyances that shift our perception.  That “Overton Window” paradigm shift almost never works to our benefit as the consumer.

Edited to add:  More food for thought from Scott Jennings over at Broken Toys… SOE’s John Smedley: Subscription Model Dead

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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Apparently raiding is fun.  But only some players can do it, despite efforts to open the raid gates to the unwashed masses.  Even though “accessibility” is a swear word for some, and the true Achilles Heel of World of Warcraft, if hyperbole is to be believed.  (Never mind the newbie hose, newbies don’t want to raid.  They would probably do it wrong, too, or maybe they just don’t care about the endgame that they either haven’t heard about or have no hope of ever seeing.)

My solution is simple:

Make raids soloable

Yup, soloable.  If Blizzard is so concerned with getting players to see their content, let them see it already.  (Tangentially, they really aren’t selling content, they are selling access.  If content is important, they should sell content like Guild Wars does and drop the subscriptions, but I digress.)  DDO lets players solo almost every dungeon, and GW does something similar by letting players have computer-controlled associates.  (Notably, both of those games sell content, but I digress again.)

Maybe this means “Battle for the Undercity” buffs.  Maybe it means NPCs shepherding players.  Maybe it means no experience gain or loot drops from these soloable raids, so they are truly just content tourism.  (Speaking as a soloist interested in content, I wouldn’t mind losing the XP potential or loot, since that’s not why I play.)

Of course, I’d also make raids at all levels, not just five man dungeons.

If raids are so important that the game is designed around driving players into them, let’s put players in raids already and stop making it an elite activity that you have to play for months and find a bunch of other players to get into.

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One of the arguments I see often in favor of the subscription model is that it’s “affordable”.  This is often paired with an argument that a movie and a dinner is more expensive, or that a $50 game has a mere six hours of gameplay, and that MMOs offer more than either of those options for a lesser price.

That may be true for some, but not as a universal constant.

The trouble is that “value” is a variable.  More than that, it’s a derived variable, a function of cost, time and personal preference.

See, I can afford 15 dollars a month for gaming on the whole.  I’m not rich by American standards (though by worldwide standards I’m most certainly above the median), but I am blessed sufficiently to make enough to take care of my family, prepare for the future and have a little left over.  Some in my position spend that money on fishing or hunting or some other hobby, some spend it on booze, I choose to spend it on games.  A bit of discretionary spending is a luxury I’m grateful for… though it might be noted that I have enough games to keep me entertained for a lifetime already, given the replayability of many games, both digital and traditional.  I need not spend more money on games, and indeed, as I spend more and more time creating games, the balance shifts further.

However, according to some loan sharks, I can also afford a new car and a $300,000 house.  Though I can afford those luxuries according to some calculations, there is little wisdom in making purchasing decisions based on what I can afford.  That’s a rather nasty trend that has had significantly negative repercussions for the national and world economy.  I prefer to look at value.

I happily pay for things I can use when I please, for as long as I please.  I’ll even pay a premium for that right.  It’s why I bought my car outright (used, of course) rather than lease.  Yes, it cost me $3200 up front, which might be a year or so worth of a lease on a comparable (if newer) vehicle, but I own that car.  I need not finance it further (other than feeding and care, of course).  I intend to drive it to the ground, and in the long run, I will get a great deal of value out of that purchase.  Even counting inevitable repairs (and ignoring feeding costs since a new or leased car would eat just as much), that car will cost me less than purchasing a new car or leasing a car for the duration of time that I’ll be using it.

…and that’s the key behind why MMO subscriptions are of very low value to me.  They are a price for access granted for a chunk of time.  I do not get many hours of MMO play in a month.  Some do, and for them, certainly, the price per unit of play approaches nicely low numbers to give a sense of value for their purchase.  For me, however, when I can spend $15 on something like Recettear that gives me easily 40 solid hours of play or more, which is naturally spread out over perhaps six months, a subscription doesn’t even come close to comparing.  World of Goo, a game I purchased on sale for $5, has given me and my family hundreds of hours of play over more than a year.

Yes, it could easily be argued that those are different games, but then I look at Guild Wars, also purchased for $5 on sale, and note that I have gotten dozens of MMO-ish gaming hours over a year, and at no further recurring cost.  In many ways, I even consider Guild Wars to be a superior game when compared to something like WoW or LOTRO.

So while I can technically afford a subscription to something like WoW, LOTRO or EVE (the three most likely games I’d sub to), such a purchase would not give me good value for my money.  Undoubtedly some do get good value out of a sub, but I do not.

I believe that the further splintering of the MMO industry into various business models is a Good Thing for the continued health of these games, as the demand curve is padded out and more customers bring in revenue that would not be captured at a single price point.  The business model inevitably affects the game, and just as item shop games have warts, sub games have warts… they are just different ones.  No game will be a perfect fit for everyone, but if the market on the whole has sufficient variety, nearly everyone can find something they like and are willing to pay for.  Smart devs will find niches that aren’t served well and make a fair living.  That’s a healthy market.  A smart game will diversify itself across that demand curve, like Puzzle Pirates or Wizard 101 do.

I think that the MMO industry cannot afford not to diversify.  We’re seeing it already.  Doubtless we’ll see more. Just as the actual game design has to keep changing, the business has to keep changing.  It has to reach out to the spectrum of valuation and affordability, rather than try to shoehorn everyone into the same mold.  Individual games would also be well served by spreading out across the demand curve.  Arguably, that’s what DDO did, and did well with, and LOTRO and EQ2X are angling for the same dynamic.

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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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Larisa has a great post up on making your own Cataclysm while you wait for Blizzard to release the real thing.  I highly recommend it, found thisaway. Her bonus link to Ixobelle’s PvP adventures is worth following as well.

Commenting on her post, I noted that I would love to see Blizzard really shake things up in the industry by changing business models.

With Guild Wars as a spiritual model, Blizzard should:

1.  Instead of consigning the Old World of WoW to the digital scrap heap, slice it off into its own phased existence and sell it as a standalone subscriptionless product.  Call it “PreCataclysm Azeroth” and watch it sell like hotcakes and introduce a new batch of newbies.  It’s like a free trial on steroids… that you can charge for.  Forget a piddling $1 for a week, try $30 for a lifetime sub, a direct stab at the market that GW has had mostly to itself, and a kick in the teeth to those other guys who sell lifer passes.

2.  Watch the rest of the industry scurry about trying to reconcile the notion of the biggest sub MMO in the lake stomp through the F2P shallows.  (Note, there are Subscriptionless games and Item Shop games, both possibly referred to as F2P… here, I’m talking more about Subscriptionless games.  Marketing matters.)

3.  …

4.  Profit.

OK, OK, I’ve written about this before, and I doubt that they will follow my admittedly selfish wishes on this, but I’m really very curious as to whether they might have some sort of long-term plans along these lines.  Not that I’d mind, mind you… Still, with a new MMO in the pipes that may well cannibalize their WoW base, it’s a good time to start tinkering.  The natural split of “old Azeroth” and “Cataclysmic Azeroth” is a perfect vehicle to segment the market a bit and diversify their death grip on the industry.

Whether or not that‘s a good idea is up for consideration, perhaps… especially since what’s good for Blizzard need not necessarily be what’s best for gamers.  It’s not like WoW is the root of all evil and the herald of doom and all that, after all.  (Please read that whole article.  Ferrel is having a bit of fun, but voices some legitimate concerns.)

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