There have been several posts floating around about MMOs’ current payment models and whether subscription beats pay-as-you-go beats free to play but pay for expansions/goodies/whatever. (Yeah, I tried to find a couple of the recent ones, but I’m going to be lazy. If you want to come wade through my 90+ feeds, go ahead.)
I just missed the pay-for-usage ISP model that CompuServe (I think) was so fond of, back in the day — also, it was never particularly popular in the UK, where I lived at the time and where most people had the sense to go “WTF? You want to charge me how much by the minute? No thanks, I’m going to Demon.” (Note that at that time, we paid for even local calls in the UK, so you’d have a time-used charge and a call charge. Also, Demon were handing out static IP addresses back then, which was geek-attracting.) To me, the monthly sub to play a game made as much sense as my monthly sub to my ISP or my gas company or whatever, so I paid it and forgot about it. As a result, I’ve always been slightly mystified by the stance that games should be free. Why? They’re providing a service. They’ve got infrastructure to maintain to provide that service. They have staff to pay. And most cogent of all — they’re not bloody charities. If you want FREE games, go play chequers.
So I’m going from the starting point that something needs to be paid, somehow, for the games I play where I expect a reasonable amount of company communication, a reasonable amount of customer service, near 24/7 server uptime, and relatively frequent updates. Ah yes, I’m also a child of Asheron’s Call which, unlike EQ, did not make you pay through the nose every time they added content. Turbine had monthly content updates; granted not all of them were earth-shattering and sometimes there was very little in them other than bug fixes, but the basic intent was there: every month, we’ll give you something new. Now while I’m perfectly happy paying my monthly sub, it would have driven me away in a second to be told that ON TOP of that sub, I’d have to pay for extra content — certainly not every month. There were larger expansions that you did have to pay for if you wanted them, but they were few and far between and added a great deal more than a single month’s patch ever could (housing was in the first expansion, among other things).
Now, however, as gaming reaches a larger market, people are apparently scared of the subscription model. Which puzzles me, since we pay on that model for all sorts of things that get piped into our house — telephone, TV, electricity, all of which have a flat “service” (read: subscription) fee over and above any consumption costs like calling Antarctica a lot or watching pay-per-view.
Outgrowing the subscription model I can understand. Being worried about the format itself, though, seems pretty disingenuous to me.
That said, there’s definitely a case to be made against games that happily take our subs and give nothing but a static game in return. (I’m sure Blizzard’s US subs people would disagree.) I’m okay with subs because I got monthly goodies for them and because… that’s what I’ve always done. Apathy and habit are a large part of why the model hasn’t changed — that and the fact that it has worked pretty well for games companies over the last decade.
But it’s not the only model, as Guild Wars, Wizard 101 and a host of other games have proved. Wizard 101, in fact, has several different payment methods — you can play in certain areas for free, you can subscribe and have access to everything, or you can buy in-game “crowns” for real money and use those crowns to unlock areas as you go. It’s also noteworthy that W101 offers discounts on subs after the first one, which encourages families to play together — and for W101 it’s perfectly sensible, since it’s a game parents are likely to at least want to try with their children, or whose children may want to play together. It’s strange that it should seem so revolutionary when it’s exactly what cellphone companies are doing here in the States; a new customer who pays a little less because they’re associated with an existing customer is better than no new customer at all.
Another point that’s been made and that’s very relevant to me in my older, game-hoppier, more time-constrained days is the fact that while I’m happy to pay for one or two subs (maybe three), I certainly won’t pay for 5 or 6, so I’m restricted in terms of how many subscription-model games I can play at once, especially since any subscription I get we also get for the spousal unit — so two accounts for me means four accounts being paid for in the household. That stuff adds up, especially these days. So, I end up playing whatever I’m playing and my friends, that I’ve made in half a dozen different games, usually end up playing something else. Absent some cross-game client-amenable chat platform, we only really communicate outside of games now even though we met within them. If subs were lower, of if there were other payment models available, playing half a dozen games at once (or at least being paid up to play those games, time permitting) would be a lot easier.
It’s a tough call, at least for me. On the one hand, you generally get more for your money up front with a subscription system (access to the whole, usually pretty large, world and all of its content, etc.), but less and less for your money as time goes by. I may be soft on patch days, but even I don’t consider a few balance changes and bug fixes “worthwhile” content as far as getting value for my subscription goes. In that sense, a scaled, tiered, or any other non-sub model would probably give me much more bang for my buck in the long term, because I could pay for stuff as it came out or as I needed it.
What I don’t ever want to see, and you can call me old-fashioned, is a “free” game that isn’t, in fact, free, because it shoves adverts in my face every time I turn around, or because there’s some other pernicious method for parting me from my cash (like making me pay for basic things — if I’m at a disadvantage because I’m not buying items or skills, I’ll exercise my option to choose by choosing my ass right out of there; don’t pretend something is a choice when it’s not).
One other thing I wonder about is this: the time-sink design paradigm is often said to be rooted in the subscription payment model, since the basic aim is to keep your players paying for another month. If games move away from the subs model, do you really think a generation of designers is going to move away from the time-sink design model? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. Sadly. I think it’ll take more than payment changes to alter what has become the standard way of designing things for mainstream MMOs. Which is another reason up-and-coming, smaller (i.e. non-WoW) MMOs might want to consider a different payment model — if you’re trying to do something innovative like get rid of timesinks, don’t force people to a) buy a box and b) buy a subscription just so they can see what it’s all about. It takes more than a free month to really get to know a game, and that’s possibly the biggest argument against the subs model I can think of.