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