Saturday, May 28, 2011

Alternatives to Monthly Subscriptions

In the last few posts I have been rather destructive. I gave reasons for why I dislike f2p games. This post will be constructive. There is a need of such a thing, because the old status quo of box sells plus subscription fees isn't optimal, either.

The problem with subscription fees is that every player pays the same amount. No matter whether he has a lot of fun or just a little. No matter whether he plays for hours on end or just a few hours every month.

This is a problem, because it holds the genre back. MMORPGs stay behind their potential if the companies cannot profit from the fun the consumer has. Take me, for example. Obviously, I like MMORPGs a lot. (At least I used to. Since about 2006, AAA-MMORPGs are becoming less and less immersive. It's really a problem by now).
But there's no MMORPG out there that asks for a money-equivalent of the fun I have and supplies me with an expensive MMORPG. I can buy a Porsche instead of a VW if I want, but I cannot buy access to a fully-grown virtual fantasy world instead of lobby-based minigames.

We need a business model that does three things:
First, it needs to allow companies to extract a fair amount of money from consumers based on how much they like their product. Second, it must not diminish the value of the virtual world itself, as îtemshops do in my opinion. Third, it must not involve strong incentives for the company's management that are detrimental to the quality of the game.

Here are a few brainstormed ideas:

1) If your game is class-based, sell access to the classes. One class of the player's choice is part of the initial download/box or just free. Access to any additional class costs. This way, consumers who access more of the game, pay more. This does not diminish the immersion into the game's world, as the purchase happens outside of the context of the game. It is also a very transparent transaction.

The cost can either be a one-time payment or a recurring subscription. A recurring subscription would be advantageous, in so far as it allows players to switch back to another class at no cost. This way, there is no pressure to stick with a class after you have chosen it and people wouldn't automatically quit when they don't like their selected class. Alternatively, you could buy concurrent access to a number of classes and change these classes for free every month.

Unfortunately this business model can lead to the management directing the developers to add much more classes than reasonable. So, it's not perfect.

2) Another idea is to sell a certain amount of play time. For example, one could sell a certain amount of free hours per week and demand a price for every additional hour played. These additional hours played and the additional costs would, of course, be shown on the UI and there would be a limit in how much extra costs can occur. This business model isn't exactly new. Mobile phone companies do it for years now and it works.
This idea encourages companies to make players play as much and as excessive as possible. So it's still worse than a flat rate. But if you cut off the amount of free hours at 30 a week and just offer a flat rate (normal monthly sub) for players who want to play more, this should work rather well.

3) Do you have any creative ideas?


  1. I think a daily rate with an unlimited $15 per month plan and $5/10 per month plans for set numbers of discounted days would be nice. I don't really like the content walls that you see in most f2p games, but I don't usually play often enough to justify paying $15 per month. This would be a nice middle ground for me and players like me.

  2. "If your game is class-based, sell access to the classes."

    I think the difficulty with this is that the devs *really* want you to make alts, since that can multiply by many times how long you play the game and consequently how long you are a target for subscriptions and/or additional sales.

    Initially I had rather expected that Guild Wars 2 would tightly limit the number of character slots and then charge a substantial amount to open up new ones. However, recently Eric Flannum mentioned that this would not be the case - no doubt for the above reason.

  3. "Third, it must not involve strong incentives for the company's management that are detrimental to the quality of the game."

    To which I would add - fourth, it must not involve strong incentives for the players that are detrimental to the quality of the game. Which is the downfall of the pay for gametime approach. If Players are being billed for their gaming time, that creates a strong pressure towards speed runs and optimised play - after all, the noob with the low DPS who doesn't know the content like the back of his hand is COSTING ME MONEY.

    My own (not so) creative idea? Tax the in-game economy. Sell gold (but nothing else), and make store-bought gold or gold from other players the only sources of actual coin - no selling tattered orc ears to vendors. Now design your game so the crafting economy is a useful and vital feature, rather than an adjunct to the scavenger economy. The players who don't want to pay can gather or craft and drive the economy. The ones who are cash-rich and time-poor can buy gold to shower upon the crafters for their wondrous items. Make sure there are some coin sinks in the game to keep the economy chugging along. Players who don't want to pay or work in-game are welcome to try their hand at banditry - instant PvP content :)

  4. Jesse, I agree, but would look for a way to get more than $15 a month. It's just too cheap for an activity that entertains you for 30 hours and more a month.

    Roq, this is the problem I already tried to tackle in the post, without writing another paragraph. It's tricky.

    Tremaynes Law, I absolutely agree. It is the reason I didn't suggest (and didn't even mention) a model that makes players pay for the amount they play. This works with mobile phones, but it doesn't work with MMORPPGs. Any model for MMORPGs must always give the player some amount of time that they can play or not play without additional fees.

    Your suggestion is similar to the way Eve Online and other games handle things. I think this is very elegant and solves a lot of problems. Unfortunately it also directly connects the game economy with the real world economy. This is bad for immersion and for players that are interested in an economic simulation.
    I never had fun at playing a merchant in Eve, because buying ISK for € was always a lot more efficient at getting rich. Only in the very late stages of EvE can you make more ISK ingame than you would (probably) want to buy with €. But then again, this also depends on your real life wealth. I remember that russion billionaire who invested 0.01% of his money (=$100.000) into buying ISK. That's just not right; even though CCP was certainly celebrating when they saw the order ;)

    I also just read your post on the same topic. The first half describes the problems of the monthly sub model better than I do. Which is why I link it.

  5. One other idea would be direct sales of content, like DDO's pay-per-dungeon or Wizard 101's pay-per-zone. Hardcore players would presumably play more dungeons and end up paying more than casual players. You might even be able to use creative players as content generators by offering well-made player mods for sale.

    And the play time model has been used before. IIRC old MUDs charged by the hour, and I think time cards are still used in Asia. I'm not familar enough with the system to know how well it works though.

    Generally, I prefer systems that sell content and/or access to the world, because those are what I value most highly. Systems that sell advancement, items, and the like wouldn't get any extra money from me because I'm just not that interested in those things.

  6. Tolthir, selling content works for some games. DDO is a good example. It's modular by its very nature and, thus, selling modules doesn't disturb immersion. It happens outside of the context of the simulation.

    However, if you sell this kind of content in an open-world MMORPG you produce gates that only some players can pass. I can live with a few. Maybe two or three. But more do disturb immersion.
    Also, the management would be encouraged to split the world up into many, many different zones that could be sold.

  7. if you sell this kind of content in an open-world MMORPG you produce gates that only some players can pass

    I agree completely! That's why I still prefer the subscription model to the alternatives. But if forced to go with a microtransaction system, I prefer content-based to item-based.

  8. The best solution would be to have a NPO create the game. They would only have to charge enough money to keep the thing running but they wouldn't need profit for investors. So, yes, a 13 Euro monthly subscription is more than enough to create an amazing game if you spend them all on the game.

    1) has the problem that the company would be inclined to create a hero class, and then a more hero class and so on to force you to switch to the new class. ... it would basically be like WoW and everyone would play a Paladin...

    I think it would be better to sell character slots. Delete your old char to get a new one free or buy another slot. But then they would probably add advantages for having many chars and make leveling easy...

    2) has the problem that you might loose the social players who are online a lot. But those are very important players (assumption, I might be wrong) because those are the players on a casuals friend list who are always online. Without them the casual player wouldn't meet and friends online and feel lonely. (Two casual will rarely meet themselves because they only play casually.)


    There would be the ability to sell content. Something like Zul'Farrak. You can enter it in the world or in a dungeon but the bosses are only available in the dungeon. I don't know if that would break your immersion?


    Another chance would be to have a monthly subscription fee, let's say 13 Euro.

    Then you would also sell a premium account. The premium account is 26 Euro per month and you would have to buy 12 month in advance. Then, after every month you would have to buy another month. That would ensure that whenever you unsubscribe you would loose 12 month of subscription. The advantage of the premium account would be that it removes the grind which is only added to keep you paying. Like you get a free JC token and a free cooking token every day automatically and you don't have a weekly VP cap and you get VP for every random dungeon, not only for the first. You could even get free VP.

    That wouldn't have an impact on immersion as your char can't know that other chars have those random restrictions. If anything, then the normal account would be immersion breaking.

    The daily tokens could be explained with some kind of membership in the JC guild, which you would enter by a quest. The quest would only be offered the players deemed worthy.

  9. I had a rather disconcerting experience when I went into a church in Sienna and had to put money in a slot machine in order to light up Donatello's sculpture of John The Baptist. Somehow it just doesn't seem appropriate (and surely Christ himself would not have approved, judging from my limited biblical knowledge)...

    Similarly, games should make you feel that you are doing a good thing by going down dungeons in order to defeat the evil denizens therein and keep the surrounding community safe at night. Having a little box pop up saying "Dungeon charge $5" would be a complete downer in that respect - tainting our noble instincts of self sacrifice to create a greater whole with the taste of filthy lucre.