SOE Station Access Returns to 2004… And Then Some

I was going to wait until SOE posted something official on the SOE web site about the Station Access price reduction, but their community team seems to all be at E3 and unable to do anything besides post pictures to the SOE Facebook page.

I thought a bit of caution might be required, since the stories that announced this coming price reduction all seemed to lack an official original source to which they could link to, only linking to other similarly sparse reports on the subject.  Given how the press “misunderstood” and repeated certain stories during the Sony hacking fiasco, I thought a little care with SOE related stories would be a good thing.

Color me a cynic.  I want the deal in writing.

But I am also impatient, so let’s just treat this as if it is true, and that SOE is going to reduce the price of Station Access to $19.99 a month, down from its current $29.99 a month, at some date which we will refer to as “soon.”

I remember when Station Access was announced, way back in late 2004.  A mere $21.99 a month would cover your subscription fees for all of the Sony Online Entertainment MMOs. (I had to go back to my SOE billing history to get that number.)

For me, the fact that I could be subscribed to EverQuest II and still go tinker around in EverQuest was a decent draw at that price, but the clincher was the fact that, with Station Access you also got a couple more character slots in EQ2.

I will grouse to my dying day about SOE launching a game with 24 character classes that only allowed you to make four total characters.

The price went up to $24.99 later on, and then just a little over four years ago it jumped up to its current $29.99 a month.

The speculation at the time was that this was to help cover Vanguard being brought into the SOE family of MMOs, and there was worry that with each new game a future price increase would come.

Fortunately for those of us at the consumer end of things, the price did not rise any further with the addition of games like Pirates of the Burning Sea.  I would guess that the $29.99 price seemed to SOE to be perhaps the most the market would bear.

For those who are not familiar with Station Access, it is one of the SOE subscription plans.  It allows the subscriber to play any of SOE’s online games as though they have subscribed to that particular game.

In theory you must buy the game box before you can play any particular game.  In practice I was able to download and play Star Wars Galaxies, The Matrix Online, and Planet Side without paying for anything aside from my Station Access subscription.  And the games you play benefit, as your Station Access subscription is allocated out based on what game you play over the month.

At $21.99 it was a hell of a deal.

At $24.99 it was still a very good deal.

But at $29.99 the package deal lost some of its luster.

At that price it was a penny more expensive than simply having two month-to-month subscriptions for any given pair of SOE games.  Furthermore, with a standard subscription you can get a further discount by subscribing in 3, 6, or 12 month increments, something not available to Station Access subscribers who can only pay on a month-to-month basis.

This lead to a rather amusing, in my opinion, Station Access Savings Calculator that would tell you how you could “save” nearly $75 a month in subscription fees (if you otherwise subscribed individually to every SOE game), but could not explain why you should subscribe if you only played one or two SOE games.

So unless you were active in 3 or more SOE games on a regular basis (and there are some of you out there who have been at times… I’m looking at you Stargrace and Tipa… and speaking of Tipa, her comment on this post is worth noting just for context) or really needed one of the few other benefits that Station Access offered (like more character slots in EQ2… of that I am guilty), the value proposition for Station Access was not so hot.

But now, if the news is to be believed, Station Access is being reduced in price, back to a level below what seems like a good deal back in 2004.  At $19.99 a month I would subscribe to SOE games only via Station Access, if only to allow myself to peek into EverQuest now and again and keep myself going in both versions of EverQuest II.

Which leaves me with the usual question, “What does it mean?”

Certainly SOE has been a leader in subscription options.  Just looking at EverQuest II, does any other competing game offer as many ways to subscribe and play?  We have free (EQ2X only, granted), $10 forever (ibid), a 3 day a month plan (EQ2 Passport), a standard monthly subscription, and Station Access.  If there was a lifetime plan and an option to buy your subscription time with in-game currency I think they would have almost all the current options in the MMO sphere covered.

But with all of that, why upset things with a radical change in the price of Station Access?

My speculation, and that is all it is, is that the market has changed, both inside and outside of SOE.

Back when EQ2 launched, $15 a month was the defacto standard subscription fee.  (Remember how we scoffed, well I did, when Mark Jacobs suggested that Warhammer Online might charge more, positioning it as a premium game? And now the first 10 levels are free.)  $15 was the line, and the MMO companies held to that, because there were not a lot of options for your western fantasy MMO dollar.

But with the market now flooded with choices, price has become one of the points of competition.  With Lord of the Rings Online, for example, even before it went free to play if you couldn’t find a way to subscribe at $10 a month (basically a $5 discount off the list price) you were not trying hard enough.  And after going free to play, $10 a month became the standard monthly VIP price.

$15 a month has gone from being the standard to being something of the cap on MMO subscription pricing.  How can you charge MORE than WoW, the bestest MMO ever if we use subscribers as our sole metric like so many people do?

So for something like Station Access to “feel” like a deal, pricing it at double WoW is no longer really viable.

And SOE has changed as well.  When Station Access came out… and even when it went up to $30 a month… SOE games were all monthly subscription that, with the exception of Planet Side, were at the standard $15 a month.

Now, however, we have FreeRealms which is nominally free, as are EverQuest II Extended, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures.  If that does not necessarily break the Station Access model, it certainly adds a new dynamic to it.

And you have Station Cash, which has been around for a while now and which was not met with enthusiasm. (And it still has the purists screaming. See race change potion on Fippy Darkpaw.)  Station Cash has become, over the last two and a half years, an increasingly bigger piece of SOE’s revenue pie.  And this, I am going to guess, is probably the key item.

While market changes certainly had no small influence, I am going to bet that somebody did the math, went through and figured out how much revenue there was in attracting each free to play player and how much that revenue changed… went up… when a free to play player converted to a subscription.

Those would be very interesting numbers to see, but I would guess that Station Cash purchases for a player that commits to a subscription are higher than for a free player.  And, I would additionally be willing to bet that somebody willing to spend Station Cash in one game is more likely to spend it in other SOE games.

And if that is the case, getting somebody to commit to all of your games probably nets out better in the long run if Station Access is less expensive because more people are likely to commit over all.

Or so goes my theory, which I will summarize as “market change and the increasing importance of Station Cash purchases to the SOE bottom line.”

Syp took a look at the value proposition of the change, which for a consumer can simply be said to be “better,” but I haven’t see much on the “Why” front.

What do you think is really driving this change?

Addendum: They posted the webcast to YouTube and mentioned the Station Access pricing change in their post on the Station Blog, so we now have something in writing.  Still no details… like an actual date.

11 thoughts on “SOE Station Access Returns to 2004… And Then Some

  1. bhagpuss

    I’d missed this rumor entirely. If it’s true it’s good news for us, since we pay for two Station Access subs even when we don’t use them, which is the case at present.

    As to why, it appears the whole SoE setup is currently in flux. I imagine that the fast-changing market and the decreasing attractiveness of SoE’s stable of aging games was pushing change in any case and the hack debacle just accelerated the process.

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  2. flosch

    If that is true, I’ll put it down as great news in my books. I’ve been playing a lot of EQ2 recently, and I really want to have a look at Vanguard regularly. And I bet I will have an EQ itch at some point again, too. I was already pondering how to continue with this widened array of games once my free 45 days run out. At this cost, there’s not question I would take the Station Access.

    Let’s hope for the best! I hadn’t heard anything about that either, incidentally; but I regularly have the impression I must be living on the dark side of the moon, listening to nothing but Pink Floyd, because that’s just the newest thing that has hit there, being years and years behind on news and trends of any kind.

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Without a doubt as a consumer it is always good news to pay less for the same stuff. I am on Station Access right now because I was playing 3 SOE games, EQ and both flavors of EQ2, and with the price change I am likely to just stick with that even though I am focused pretty much on EQ2X now.

    But the “why” part is what interests me. I’d like to know what the value is of each free player and the boost to Station Cash purchases, if any, that comes with somebody going from free to subscribed.

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  4. flosch

    Well, I wasn’t, that’s the point. I hadn’t played any SOE games for some time until about 4 months. And I hadn’t checked out anything but EQ2 until the breach because I didn’t want to spend the monthly fee.
    With the Welcome Back program, I got 45 days to test out all the games I had been a subscriber of at some point. The at least low-level interest, combined with the lower fee, might very well tip me in favor of a Station Access subscription. In which case I guess Sony’s marketing ploy worked well for them, because I’ll pay them more than before.

    And I bet it will take them months to change the calculator. That, or they’ll remove it altogether. But, for good measure, keep all the links to it that from then on will just lead into nothing if you click on them.

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  5. Angry Gamer

    Hate to be snarky about this but…

    “At $19.99… Which leaves me with the usual question, “What does it mean?””
    Answer: er… business is slow so we want to have a fire sale?

    “Certainly SOE has been a leader in subscription options. ”
    Answer: Yes they have certainly been the trailblazer of the downward slope

    “Just looking at EverQuest II, does any other competing game offer as many ways to subscribe and play? ”
    Answer: Does any other game have to?

    “But with all of that, why upset things with a radical change in the price of Station Access?”
    Answer: So you have never worked for an organization where the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing?
    You must be blessed.

    “My speculation, and that is all it is, is that the market has changed, both inside and outside of SOE.”
    Answer: Bingo! we have a winner Johnny tell him what he’s won.

    “But with the market now flooded with choices, price has become one of the points of competition. ”
    Answer: Well yeah… but it’s hard to compete with free isn’t it?

    “While market changes certainly had no small influence, I am going to bet that somebody did the math, went through and figured out how much revenue there was in attracting each free to play player and how much that revenue changed… went up… when a free to play player converted to a subscription.”
    Answer: Good guess but you are giving them too much credit…

    Think more along the lines of royalty or paying less bonuses and royalties and you are closer to paydirt.

    “Those would be very interesting numbers to see,”
    Answer: yes it would be too bad they don’t have such numbers… nobody who didn’t design for this kind of data integration has it…
    but someone IS designing it now… *cough*

    ##################################

    “What do you think is really driving this change?”
    Answer:
    Things at Sony online are terribad and all hands are being called on deck to try to save the ship. If you could sell players chances to destroy Alderan with their own Station Cash Death Star the marketing types would do it.
    I can’t stress this enough… things were grim BEFORE the hacking… now they are Titanic bad. If SOE had been the culprit instead of PSN there would be no SOE right now.
    Sony is losing money across their normal core businesses and has ZERO interest in saving a non-core business that looks clueless in it’s vertical.

    SOE will get hit big time when SWTOR comes out… everyone knows it nobody wants to admit it. The Tsunami is coming and SOE needs to get some positive numbers quick or it’s shutdown mode by end of the year.

    If they need to cannibalize current customers to get extra pocket change they will do so. Funny thing though this will be bundled up in “The Sony Reorg Plan” and SOE/PSN will just get carried by the wave whichever way it goes.

    Best case scenario would be a divestiture… but no game company has the pockets to do it. No other platform except maybe Microsoft has the cabbage either.
    AND if the Softies get involved it’s goodbye PC games SOE, hello console PSN 360.

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  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    “Hate to be snarky about this but…”

    Liar!

    “Subscription Options”

    Gamers complain about MMOs having basically one real price plan, so when a company has more than one, they must therefore be in trouble. The logic doesn’t quite scan. Listening to customers isn’t always an admission of failure.

    “Well yeah… but it’s hard to compete with free isn’t it?”

    I will have to ask Blizzard about that if I get the chance.

    “yes it would be too bad they don’t have such numbers… nobody who didn’t design for this kind of data integration has it…”

    I’m not sure you know how accounting works. I think, with my own time in accounting, it would be literally impossible to run a business on their model if their accounting system couldn’t derive such data. Maybe it isn’t easily derived, but the data all has to be there, and that is why you hire fresh MBAs, to go do the grunt work of getting the data, creating a spreadsheet that calculates changes, and create the simple PowerPoint slide that explains to senior management why sometimes charging less ends up earning more. (See Steam)

    Of course, sometimes you get the wrong MBA and you’re doomed.

    “SOE/SCEA/Sony Doom and Gloom”

    We shall see.

    I certainly do not discount the possibility of SOE crapping out by the end of the year, and as I have written before I have been in a software group in a hardware company and do not envy SOE their position being ruled by the PlayStation people.

    In fact, I feel certain that if there is a complete downfall of SOE, it will be directly traceable to their direct hardware overlords, either just jettisoning them as a distraction to their core business (hardware) or reducing them to yet another studio focused on mediocre PS3 games.

    Problems like SOE has are solvable if the company has the will and enough control over their own destiny. I’ve been through that too. It would mean ditching some products that are clearly revenue neutral by the most rosy, optimistic accounts because they are distracting from more profitable enterprises. Few people get the idea of opportunity cost in my experience. My fear is that SOE has neither the control over its own destiny or the organizational will to make it happen.

    But for a while I will get to play a couple games that I enjoy at a cheaper price.

    Good for me!

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  7. Stabs

    I’ve been pottering around in EQ2X and there’s a lot of new and returning people. Bizarrely the hacking incident seems to have been good for business.

    Like

  8. Noizy

    First Domino becoming Associate Producer of EQ2 and now this. I almost have to go back now.

    As for the timing? I bet Rift really hurt the subscription numbers and SOE really needs to try to minimize the damage that will occur when SWTOR comes out. SOE was caught napping a bit by Rift and I don’t think they want to make the same mistake again. Plus, I’m not really sure SOE can survive another huge drop in numbers, at least in its current form.

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  9. Yarr

    I think SOE bet the farm, as it were, on DCUO and now is scrambling to raise money any way they can. Add in the black eye from the account hacking and things don’t look so great long term.

    I am hearing rumors (Asian based, not from anyone connected with SOE) of 3 Chinese and 2 Korean MMO companies with lots of cash being interested in picking up SOE’s stable of games and people. I wouldn’t be overly shocked if Sony just decided to wash their hands of SOE and concentrate on hardware. What that would mean for the players of SOE games I’m not sure. But if it meant more support for the games and possibly an EQ3, I’m all for it.

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  10. bhagpuss

    Of all the above rumor, speculation and conspiracy theory it’s Yarr’s comment that rings the truest note. Had the whole hacking thing not happened, I think SoE would still be in trouble from the mess they appear to have made of monetizing DCUO.

    DCUO is actually a very fun game, but in no way is it a subscription MMO. If they’d gone with some form of F2P/cash shop/micropayment deal the servers would be bursting at the seams. As it is, it’s already becoming a forgotten game and it’s not been out six months.

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