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.