Thursday, September 24, 2009

Should the monthly fee die with WoW?

Hey Guys,

Here follows a brief transcript from a mail I put to Darren from the ‘Common Sense Gamer’ blog and ‘Shut up we’re Talking’ podcast:
“On this week’s Combobulater (Sept. 19th) we discussed subscription models for today’s MMOs and weighed up the pros and cons of the two most prevalent options which include monthly fees and the free to play/micro transaction.

With this in mind we went on to consider Aion’s recent launch which sees the typical monthly fee adopted and NCSoft announcing the closure of Dungeon Runners (a small monthly fee) due to it not proving to be profitable. We also looked at the success of Wizard 101, DDO, Maple Story and Runes of Magic as examples of how developers have taken micro transactions forward and made them a relevant and ‘good value for money’ option.

The question I’d like to put to you is this, should the monthly fee model for MMOs die with World of Warcraft? Blizzard have hinted that one day WoW may adopt some sort of free to play model, most likely when their next MMO appears, so when that does happen I’m of the opinion that the monthly fee could die with it.”

I’d now like to expand on this further and share my thoughts with you, The Combobulater audience. I have narrowed my thoughts down into five bullet points which without any further ado we shall dive into.

Not paying for down time
We’ve all had to suffer down time in one form or another. Servers are taken down on a weekly basis to apply updates, defrag machines and generally maintain the stress of hosting an MMO. I don’t begrudge this down time, don’t get me wrong, but when you think on it you realise that you are paying for time you can’t play with.

Maintenance is one thing but what about glitches and server queues? Are you happy to know that your money is paying for time that isn’t actually worth anything? This is especially true of new MMOs that take off with a big launch, from what I hear Aion players are suffering queues that can last hours at peak time which is surely eating into the actual time you can spend with the game and thus impacts your value for money.

If the monthly fee was dropped then players would only be paying for the time they are playing, and therefore you get more bang for your buck. If the servers are down or maintenance is applied then sure it’s frustrating that you can’t play but at least you’re not paying for that! Furthermore, what if you’re not around to play for personal reasons? Maybe you have some project at work that demands your time for a few weeks, or you go on holiday or perhaps for just a couple of weeks you need some time away from the game. Your monthly fee is still ticking over while you’re absent so this once again boils down to not getting the value of the money you plough into the game.

Account Security

Reports have suggested that your MMO account is amongst the most hotly sought after info on the internet. A variety of unsavoury types are always on the lookout for a means of getting hold of your details. Not only can accounts yield virtual currency which can be stolen and passed on to those idiots that buy gold, your personal info can also be raped. Credit card numbers, your full name and address, date of birth...all of the details you need to verify your credit card and setup your monthly fee light up your account like a Christmas tree.

Combating this type of fraud is also an expensive fight for MMO companies, 'Chargebacks' are another way that criminals exploit the system to rip off companies and with so many MMOs accepting credit cards the cost of this particular problem is never ending!

Granted, there are alternative means of paying a monthly fee for games such as WoW, you could get by with buying game time cards and never having to hand over your bank info. However how many of us really do that? The convenience of setting up a direct debit to your credit card or bank is just too easy to resist and I would suggest that the majority of a game’s player base opt for this.

Removing the monthly fee though opens up the possibility of a company not having to hold your details on record. Imagine paying for your MMO as you would if you were to shop at Amazon or Play, you pick the item that suits your needs and you pay for it in one single transaction. Players could choose to have their details saved, that’s a risk you decide you want to take or you could decide to not have your details saved and once the transaction is complete your details are scrubbed. If your account was to be compromised then at least your account is not tied to your bank or your credit card, which in itself makes hacking your account that little bit less appealing.

Removing barriers to entry

As detailed above the majority of MMO subscriptions are tied to a credit card but not everybody has access to a credit card. If you can’t pay for something online then you are going to struggle to setup your MMO access. This hassle itself could be enough to put a player off but let’s continue.

Look at how many MMOs adopt the monthly fee. The biggest games on the scene include WoW, LotrO, Warhammer, Age of Conan and more recently Aion and Champions Online. New titles are emerging such as Fallen Earth and there is no doubt a ton of others I could have listed here.

There is no way though that I would consider trying to dip my toe in all of these titles. As much as I would like to sample Aion or dabble in Champions I really don’t think it will happen because I don’t want the hassle of setting up a monthly sub.

Playing multiple MMOs demands a lot of time, the very nature of the game being that to get the most out of it you need to focus your attention on one title. This is counter to a player that might want to flit between titles, especially when your value for money would diminish with the less time spent per title.

With the subscription removed though a player could buy the time they want to spend in an MMO and chip away at that in their own pace. Value for money is there and the likelihood that you would sample other games is now viable. This won’t suit everyone of course, some of you are likely loyal to a single title and that suits your play style. That’s cool, but there are plenty of people that like to try out a variety of MMOs and the subscription fee is a barrier to doing just that.

Encourages Innovation

Without a fee to compel players to spend time with an MMO developers would be pushed to constantly innovate and keep their game relevant in the market place. Games like Wizard 101 and Runes of Magic maintain a decent player base by constantly updating their game with something to encourage players to boot up their title.

You could argue that Blizzard have nailed this by releasing big content updates every few months and an expansion pack every couple of years and I can’t say that you’d be wrong. Blizzard have led the way in providing content in this fashion but that said, they are far from perfect. Players that burn through content complain at the length of time between updates and those that can’t afford a new boxed expansion are simply left behind.

Free to play games trickle their content on a regular basis which players are either given as a free patch or can weigh up the choice of buying or not. If you don’t want to buy into a new zone, or some new class then you can choose to pass this offer up or put it off until a later date. The game will continue to evolve but the pace can be somewhat dictated by your choice. In the meantime it is interesting to see how developers tackle this free to play model and what they can do to tempt players into their game. I reckon it is on this free to play scene where MMOs are likely to push boundaries and change the way we play MMOs in the future.

Steady player base

I base my opinion on the dramatic drop in subscribers that afflicted Warhammer Online and Age of Conan. Both games saw a sizeable uptake upon launch but as the game settled down they saw player numbers decline. I believe a big part of this (amongst many other things such as quality issues) is because consumers don’t wish to pay for multiple monthly fees. Most gamers in the MMO scene are likely subscribed to something like WoW or maybe LotrO and when they pick up a new game it is likely they are thinking that if the new choice proves a sustained interest they will cancel the first MMO.

In the case of Aion I am going to predict that it sees a similar fall in subscribers in a few months time, once the ‘newness’ has lost its gloss. I believe players are comfortable in one MMO and if the pull of their comfort zone is strong enough to keep them subscribed (and thus paying the fee) then the new game will eventually get canned.

Of course I could be wrong, Aion may yet buck the trend and hold onto its player base but I think my point is valid. If Aion had taken a chance and come into the market with a different subscription model (for example, offering players the chance to buy a chunk of time at a fee as is popular in the east) I think it could have paved the way ahead for dropping the monthly fee as the dominant subscription model and taken the scene in a new direction. Its success (as I am sure it will be at least in the short term) could have been used to make a point. It is time to give players more choice when it comes to offering an MMO experience and both Aion and Champions online (and many more to come) are missing the opportunity to innovate.

In conclusion

To wrap this up then I’d like to echo what was said at the end of the podcast for September 19th, it’s about time MMO developers offered players more ways to pay for their MMO experience and moved away from the ‘set in stone’ subscription model. I don’t think that monthly fees have no place on the scene, but I’m of the opinion now that the monthly sub should give up its throne and make room for a new way to pay.

I feel that Blizzard have a great opportunity to lead from the front with WoW and whatever their next MMO project is. If Blizzard can make a success of a new model (as has already been demonstrated by multiple titles) then I think other developers would take notice and start to follow suit.

Let’s see what the future brings.



Andrew said...

Well said, Emeny!

I'm all for choice in payment models. In fact, I think that's one of the key features of next gen MMOs - they will no longer try to shackle players to them with monthly subs.

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