December 14, 2012

Payment types of the MMO world

One thing that is becoming an ever increasing controversy these days seems to be subscription models and the free to play format of MMOs, and I can see where this argument might be coming from as well. In the past, subscription models were essentially the life blood of the MMO genre, and in this day and age, rate hikes are not something that can be planned for anymore. In today’s gaming market, with MMOs being very similar to one another, it’s hard to actually justify a subscription, hence the ever increasing push towards the free to play model. Of course, you have odd balls, but I do think that there is an easier middle.

Now first, let me get to addressing the obvious not free to play model that SWTOR chose. Let’s face it, anyone saying that’s a free to play model honestly doesn’t understand the concept. When basic, core features, like action bars, the ability to turn off helmets and basic UI features are locked behind a payment plan, this is the shadiest of shady practices. Let’s not even get into the fact that major parts of content are actually locked out to anyone willing to try the game, or have a limited use time per week to actually participate in, such as the dungeons and space content. This isn’t so much a free to play model as a very limited permanent trial feature.

Now, I won’t go into details on this but other people have talked about free to play models that have been smarter than me. Personally, I can see the merit of free to play, but it requires some ambition. Ambition that a lot of these MMOs actually lack and thus once the game is done and in free to play mode it sort of like they just kind of give up. A few are exceptions to this rule, of course, but others are not.

But, I think there is a third option. What is now being dubbed the buy to play method or B2P. This is something that Guild Wars 2 started on and TSW just recently adopted. What is it you might ask? Well quite simply buy to play is basically you buy the box and you can access the game without subscription. It’s kind of a middle ground between free to play and pay to play. Like a normal box game that you pay for, the updates are a part of DLC content that you can choose to buy later on. The only difference here is this is on a massive scale instead. I think many MMO gamers would actually be in the mind for this type of model than just subscription or the price gouging of free to play.

Now, despite what some reviewers might say, buy to play is not free, not in the slightest. You have to pony up cash at the start, and of course that’s a lot to ask for starting out of the gate. This marks the fact that developers of MMOs actually have to start getting bold again. Currently MMO developers are content with taking one design matrix and going from there with very few tweaks in between; just copying each other with no real ambitions to do things differently from everyone else. Some call it just being like WoW, but realistically, WoW’s a copy of the games that came before it such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot.

Now that’s not to say that being familiar is a bad thing, it isn’t, but when everything you do from one game to the next is the exact same game with only a different coat of paint you really haven’t done much thinking outside of the proverbial box. This is off putting to gamers, and after that initial wow factor wears off that they are in some new world, the familiarity comes crashing back down like a lead brick to the face and it makes people not want to stick around all that much.

But back on point. Despite what several reviewers might think, Guild Wars 2 is not free to play. You have to pony up cash and this type of model is actually quite sound. Now the key difference between an MMO and a single player box title is that future content is almost always in constant development where a single player title future content usually gets halted after a few DLCs and much more is never done for it. In the case of an MMO using the buy to play method this opens up the avenue of DLC in a way that developers can actually not only develop knick knack content for use by its players (like clothing, costumes and various skin styles for players to buy) but also they can develop larger future content for people to pay for a decent fee.

Of course, that’s the catch-22. The DLC has to be worth it to keep convincing your player base that they want to pay for it. Not all your content should be pay for, special events and such (like holidays) should be special and should be reserved as thank you’s to your fans of the game. That’s something I will probably touch on in another blog about how I feel on holiday events but that’s a discussion for later. But the key point of this is that the DLC has to be decently packed with new content updates and possibly new powers, gear and so forth to keep your player base interested, but not stuff that makes the rest of the players feel alienated or isolated from the game.

I think TSW has it right, and I know from experience I prefer that game over GW2, but there is always room for improvement. Ad revenue can help the game, but having methods in game for players to earn said currency can help to. But in the end when you introduce new DLC content, do not make it feel like you are alienating your players. Players shouldn’t feel like they have to buy a DLC to feel a part of the game. So this also means that the main original game, back to that point, has to be worth the cost of a box price. If you develop your main game then your future content strongly, you will keep getting repeat people willing to buy the content if you prove you are capable of delivering.

Players are stingier than ever now and they want to know their dollars are actually worth it. Of course you have your unreasonable types but it’s just as unreasonable to expect people to pay $25 for a pony. Subscriptions are pretty much dead. It’s time to adapt and change or shrivel up and die in this day and age of the MMO market. And those resisting change are going to get caught up in that wave.

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