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Archive for March 6th, 2009

…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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