Further Mutterings about MMO Revenue Models

A few years back, at the height of the housing boom, we decided to move.  We listed our house at the market price for our neighborhood, and the first day on the market we got an offer for roughly 60% of what we were asking.  Somebody sensed, as we all were beginning to at that point, that the bubble was going to burst soon, and wanted to know if we were desperate.

We were not, and actually sold the house for what we were asking a couple weeks later.  But there was no possibility that we were going to come to an arrangement with the person who made that first offer.  Their offer was so insultingly low that it made it completely unlikely to be able to negotiate any deal at all.

We have a garage sale at least once a year.  Often we have two, one in the spring and one in the fall.  Just the process of finding stuff to sell helps us keep the house clear of clutter, so that our home, with the exception of my office and my daughter’s room, feels clean, open, and spacious.

We tend to put out all manner of things on the driveway for sale.  I often have a pile of books that have made it into the category of “won’t read again” out on a table.  At one garage sale I had done a big purge and had 40+ paperbacks lined up, with the asking price was 25 cents each.  Cheap enough that anybody with an interest would pick them up, and it wouldn’t kill me if I decided to give a couple away to any kid who looked like they wanted to read one.  And, as always, quantity discounts are available.

A woman, who rolled up in an expensive car, offered me a dollar for all of the books, and then started gathering them up like it was a done deal.  A dollar turned out to be exactly the right price to start a fight.

In the cold logic of hindsight, it was just an offer I could freely reject.

In the reality and emotion of the moment, it was insulting.  I started with “no” and worked my way up to using them for kindling before I would sell her one at full cover price.  Her offer stayed at a dollar throughout, leavened with sneers and insults.  But we could have stopped after our first pass through offer and rejection, as no deal was possible after that point.  I cannot imagine she thought her negotiation technique was going to be effective.  It is always interesting to meet people who are worse at interpersonal relationships than I am.

What did those two little stories have to do with anything?  We’ll get to that.  First, a foundation of words needs to be built.

With the announcement that Rift is moving from the once traditional monthly subscription model to a cash shop driven free to play model, there have been the usual range of reactions, from feelings that no good will come of this to expressions of joy at the demise of yet another monthly subscription barrier to entry.  Some people really hate the subscription idea.

My own response is somewhere in between.

Good things will come of this change.  I know that.

More people will play Rift.  It won’t make it suddenly popular with people who wouldn’t play a fantasy MMORPG in the first place.  But people who wouldn’t otherwise commit to $15 a month will want to play.

An annoying amount of words, and some irrelevant pictures, after the cut:

More players can be a boon like no other.

Some of my favorite periods of time in several games… EverQuest II, EverQuest, and even Lord of the Rings Online… came right after the transition to free to play.  New players show up and old rush back to the game.  The population balloons.  There are people playing again throughout the range of levels.  The auction house becomes viable again.

The experiment with EverQuest II Extended in particular was amazing.  The Freeport server, on which it was hosted, quickly became very popular.  Old players voted with their dollars, copying characters over to be a part of this vibrant experience.

Many versions of the Frostfang Sea

Many versions of the Frostfang Sea

This seems to be the norm, the big surge in players after the change over.  And though when the model was extended to all of EverQuest II, there was some grumbling from long time players about not wanting low commitment freebs in the game, I think that passed quickly and people in general appreciated having more players in the game.

This is part of what I will call “The Happy Time” after the transition to free to play.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is in that zone now.  Rift will be there soon.

And as the population rises, the money will roll in.  There will be plenty of people buying the one-time upgrades, like bag slots and character slots and special souls and the like.  Reports of an increase in revenues is part and parcel of the new model.

Not everybody will be happy.  This is a change, and if you liked things the way they were, then change may not be in your best interest.  Certainly if you are a crafter in Rift, the idea that the cash shop will be selling gear… not the very best gear, but likely better than you will be able to make… will no doubt put a damper on your spirits.

And some people won’t like the PLEX-like REX.  I think REX is great idea… if the currently moribund Rift economy can support it… but there has always been a faction that thinks it is cheating, an exploit, an ability to opt out of the in-game economy, something that keeps players from being invested in the game.

But over all, barring any technical issues, things should start off well.  You can look forward to an exciting summer in Telara.

And then the first blush of enthusiasm will fade.  Populations will drop… not back to pre-F2P levels, but they will peak and subside.  The purchases of one-time upgrades will taper off.  The reality of the situation will begin to influence how things move forward.

In the end, the game must have revenue to survive.

When you need a subscription to play, that may drive people off.   But even with the smaller population, the revenue is predictable.  Unless you do something to piss off your whole subscriber base, you will likely have about as many dollars this month as next month and the month after that.

And, more importantly to me, it means that the focus of the team supporting the game is to provide enough content to keep people subscribed.

That can lead to good and bad.  I think we have to look at WoW as the primary practitioner in that arena.

I am not sure anybody is gushing with joy at the way daily quests have evolved in WoW or that reputation grinds are fun for the whole family.  Certainly, the pile of dailies and such at the end of the Burning Crusade expansion were a complete turn off for me.

On the other hand, raids and instances also get added.  And I have to admit that I had a good time doing all of the Argent Tournament stuff and running Wintergrasp just about every day once I was up to level cap in Wrath of the Lich King.

And even Bobby Kotick is saying that WoW needs to push out content more frequently to protect its huge, if leaking, subscriber base.

Or we can look at EVE Online.  CCP has eschewed the tradition of selling expansions, tossing one out to its space faring audience at the rate of about twice a year.  Keeping new content flowing to keep subscriptions has been their model, and they have been very productive on that front.  Look at all the expansions:

(Expansion screens stolen from the EVE Online Facebook page.)

That is a lot of expansions.  That is an EverQuest-level list.

And they all came with the monthly subscription fee.  No extra charge.

You can argue about how expansive any one of those were individually.  Crucible was, for example, mostly about fixing stuff and quality of life in general, though it was popular because of it.  Incarna, which really tried to bring something new, lead to riots and required the CSM to talk CCP off the ledge. (Pro tip: Monocles were not the cause.) Other expansions have often been focused specific aspects of the game.  With so many things to do in EVE though, there is a lot of ground to cover, so somebody always feels neglected with every expansion.

But the point is, CCP is focused on keeping people subscribed to the game.  Their revenue model depends on keeping a large (compared to anything except WoW) subscriber base engaged.  That is the behavior that the subscription model rewards.

When a game transitions to a cash shop driven free to play model, the broader player base is no longer the focus.

Yes, you still need to feed people into the game, so there is still some incentive provide general updates.  But the people who count are the people who are buying things at the cash shop.  That is the revenue stream for the game.  The company needs to focus on that to survive.  So, for example, we have EA living up to their promised SWTOR update schedule with a drop that does nothing but add items to the cash shop.  It isn’t hard to tell explain why that is case, and it certainly illustrates where the focus has to go once a game depends on the cash shop.

And what happens when the happy time ends and those one-time items and easy sales start to dry up?

Well, first, there is the hope that they won’t.  If you haven’t made your game too easy to level up in already or haven’t already handed out lots of experience boost potions and the like (a failing of EverQuest II), if you have thrown in enough useful items, like good gear, if you have a popular housing mechanic that people enjoy that will provide lots of cosmetic sales, things might last for a while longer.

But the company still has to focus on creating new things for the cash shop.  And unless they are really savvy, some market saturation is going to occur.  There is a threshold beyond which it becomes difficult just to find things in your cash shop when items multiply.  There are gimmicks that can extend this.  You can have special, limited time items.  You can do the Disney routine and rotate some popular items to “the vault,” bringing them out now and again to spur sales.  The KV-5 in World of Tanks is a good example of that.  That gets an “oooh, its back!” from somebody whenever it appears for sale.

The focus on the cash shop is not without impact on your user base.  When every email I get from a game is about what is on sale in the cash shop this week, when game events focus heavily on things like selling giant pink cow mounts, when the launcher ad details every currency sale, when the game has to pop up a window every time I log in to tell me what new items are available to buy, when a window pops up to tell me I can buy more daily quest slots, when every dialog has a link to the cash shop, when the game opens up a browser page when I log out to get just one more chance to try and sell me something…

Well, it takes a toll.

It creates a different atmosphere.  It influences how I look at the company and its game.

I realize that I am in an economic relationship with the company.  I was when it was monthly subscriptions.  I am still when it is a cash shop model.  But when every interaction I have with the company involves them trying to sell me something, it changes the relationship for me.

Then, when they start trying to sell me something I actively dislike… even more that giant pink cow mounts… the problem is compounded.

For me, it is lock boxes, or card packs, or other pseudo-gambling purchases where you pay some money for the chance of getting the item you want.  That is where I start to growl.

You can tell me I do not have to buy them, that they are purely optional.  In turn, I will point you to the two little stories at the top of this post.  Cold logic does not always rule.  Emotion is always a factor.  I won’t stop playing a game out of hand because of lock boxes, but it becomes another aspect of my relationship with the game, one that makes me want to avoid the cash shop as much as I can, one that makes me think less of the company running the game.

And the problem is that lock boxes seem to be the way a cash shop driven game needs to head to be successful.  Star Trek Online went that way.  EverQuest II hopped on board that train.  Need For Speed World is all about the random card packs now.  And I expect that Rift will end up there as well.

As has been reported elsewhere, the transition to free to play is a mixed bag of positives and negatives.  As Raph Koster said, not evil, but different.

In my own experience, the initial experience can be quite positive.  But over time, it seems like another race to the lowest common denominator, that cash shop focus becomes cash shop mania.  And frankly, I play these games in part as an escape from the modern world and the focus on buying and selling.  When it intrudes there, it is just that, an intrusion, and I am not sure I am better off seeing capitalism in its more naked form in this particular case any more than I would be if a publisher decided to put ads in the middle of a novel.

And I do not know what the answer lies, where a company can go that makes enough money to support the game but keeps it from becoming an endless and odious exercise in the hard sell.

20 responses to “Further Mutterings about MMO Revenue Models

  1. Great post and completely agree on gatcha boxes (yes they even have a name!) and even the Japanese companies that popularized them are backing away from the practice – mostly helped by the gambling regulators.

  2. Yeah, I bought the KV-5…and I love it. Unabashedly so. I’m all for vaulting then I guess. If it had been there all along, would I have wanted it as much as I did?

    Anyway, the complexity of the options in the model is always interesting to me. STO forces the lockbox issue, but I never get a pop-up or in game advert. EQ2 gives me a low level buy in option for goodies, but rubs banners in my face every time I turn around.

    Mostly, at this point, I’m just curious as to what models Rift will adopt and what it will look like.

  3. @HZ – Indeed, there is a non-zero chance that Rift will get things just right, finding the middle path between revenue realities and noxious annoyance. We shall see.

    I was tempted by the KV-5, but I am already rolling in a KV-4, so it seemed like a bit too much overlap.

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  5. During the various forum explosions and reddit AMAs last night, Trion confirmed that lockboxes are coming to Telara with F2P…

    And more substantively, I think LOTRO backs up your argument nicely: it all began sweetly, all ‘we’ll never debase the LOTR experience’, but as the initial enthusiasm receded, Turbine have moved more and more to mobile gaming-like IAP: all in-your-face and unworried about shame or decorum. If an IP as strong as Middle Earth can go that way, an IP as weak – as friable- as Telara must surely also go.

  6. Maybe one of these companies experimenting with hybrid subscription/f2p models could add another tier in between: You pay a small subscription, say $20 for 6 months, and get the standard f2p experience PLUS your name, email, accounts, etc. are on a do-not-advertise list. You can still shop in the item store, but unless you actively seek out the interaction, they will NEVER send you emails or popups or daily banners about cash shop offers. I’d pay for that.

  7. Great post. Two reasons why my feelings about the move to F2P might be a lot more positive than yours come immediately to mind:

    1. All my life I have enjoyed the anticipation of buying things more than the actuality of buying things. I love window shopping, browsing and dreaming about things I might buy, whereas actually buying things is generally a big anticlimax. Consequently I get a an enormous amount of pleasure from being able to look at things I could buy without actually needing to spend any money. Once I began to see cash shops in games I realized quickly that I really liked them for this reason and I now find MMOs that don’t have cash shops feel as though a very important part of the entertainment mix is missing.

    2. I think I like the things they sell a lot more than you do. I really like the silly stuff they have in the EQ2 shop. The recent Mole Machine they added to the GW2 gem shop has given me enormous pleasure and I haven’t even bought one yet (probably will be the first thing I buy there). I get a huge kick out of seeing other players using it, as I do from seeing the ridiculous get-ups, pets and mounts they buy in various games. To me, that’s additional content.

    I like lockboxes, provided I don’t have to pay for them. In GW2, for example, you get occasional free keys to open them and that’s always a bonus. I have hundreds of unopened lockboxes in my bank there and they will all remain unopened until the game closes down unless I find free keys, but just having them there gives me pleasure because I know I might open them one day. Not that I want anything in them. It’s opening them with a free key that like.

    A lot has changed about MMOs since I found EQ all those years ago. Much of it I don’t appreciate, like the heavy scripting of raids and the trickle-down of those mechanics to general gameplay, for example, or the current revolting trend towards “action” gaming, but those things haven’t happened because of changes in payment methods or because of the introduction of cash shops.

    On balance I prefer things as they are now to how they were five to ten years ago but I’m happy with either, to be honest. My real problem right now is that there are too many really fantastic MMOs to play and they won’t stop coming. Knowing I’ll never be able to do justice to more than a handful is really bugging me. I guess if they all went back to Subscriptions at least I’d have to make a decision on what to play instead of dithering between dozens of them.

  8. @Bhagpuss – Yes, clearly I am less enthusiastic about cash shop items in general. I have complained about how much Station Cash I have in the past and how I cannot find anything worthwhile to spend it on. But I tend to like to go and find things in game. The one thing my house gets used for in EQ2 is displaying anything and everything I possible can that I crafted or picked up in the world.

    On the anticipation side though… I guess I am sort of with you. I am like that in real life. I cannot just buy a computer, or a car, or a camera, I have to read up on them, look into the alternatives, compare them, read reviews, hem and haw, and generally drive everybody around me crazy.

    And I enjoy working towards a goal. I mentioned the Argent Tournament in WoW. I have all but one achievement from that, all the pets, all the banners, all the mounts, which meant I had to do a series of non-trivial daily quests every day for months. The Silver Covenant hippogryph mount remains one of my favorites to this day, earned through many hours of diligent play.

    The cash shop… because I so rarely find anything I want there in the first place… doesn’t really scratch that itch for me. I could imagine a set of circumstances where it might… I do like shopping for cars in Need for Speed World… but I am much more likely to throw myself into some medium or long term effort to earn a cheap cosmetic mount or tabard than to want to buy one in a shop.

  9. @Wilhelm
    I would be interested to read your reaction to Neverwinter. Go to your inventory screen and count how many different forms of currency exist in the game. The there are the thousand subtle reminders on buying items in the Zen store. ;)

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  11. I draw the line at the actual gameplay and content being driven by the store. The most obvious example for me was when LOTRO revamped the relics that can be slotted in their much-vaunted “legendary” items. The new relics were weaker than the old relics, but if you already had the old relics, you could keep them … for a price. Before the revamp, you could unslot relics from items when melting them down; after the revamp, that suddenly became a store feature. You could BUY a scroll that let you remove relics from an item.

    Add four million cosmetic items. Sell potions that speed up XP gain. Sell mounts (as long as they’re not “better” than the ones you can earn in-game). But when you change the gameplay to drive business to the shop, I’m done.

    We’ll see if Trion succumbs to that temptation or not. But them claiming that “no one left the company because of F2P” strikes me as highly unlikely (Hartsman being a big proponent of subscription-based MMO’s); and when they’re feeding me lines that strike me as “highly unlikely,” that does not bode well for our long-term relationship….

  12. SWTOR finally nailed down my antipathy to the cash shop model – the relentless advertising.

    I’m fine with paying for content, (whether by subscription or cash shop) and it’s obvious to me that games I like need to make decent money so there will be more games I like. What I don’t like is feeling pushed into buying things over and over. Subscriptions encourage different publisher behavior – publishers who get my money on a reliable basis every month are less likely to piss me off by spamming me with ads. Publishers who rely on cash shop models can’t afford to assume I’ll find things in the cash shop on my own, which leads to constantly pushing ads for their cash shop at me via email, twitter, facebook, launcher promotions, and even in the game.

    I hate advertising. It annoys the hell out of me, and I associate that feeling with the products being advertised. If you’re going to bother me constantly, I don’t want to play your game.

    (I’m also not too happy about game balance being affected by the cash shop – Cryptic’s penchant for selling respec tokens in their shop and forcing you to pay to spec out of broken or buggy class abilities comes to mind – but that’s a different rant that applies only to certain publishers, not the whole model.)

  13. Excellent post! Strange that the game that was made atsuch a bargain price ::cough:: now has to go ftp to turn a profit?!. I just see this as another turn of the screw in the evolving mmo scene, where its possible devs will look back to classic mmos for inspiriation instead of rolling out WoW clones.

  14. One point you forgot to mention. In all MMOs, more players means more server load, which means more equipment, more bandwidth, more support staff. For a sub-based game, each additional player is paying to cover the additional cost – no problem.

    In a F2P, this is not so. Each additional player adds more load, but does not necessarily add to the revenue stream. In fact, it is quite possible for such a game to reach a point where player costs exceed player revenues. This is one of the major weaknesses of the F2P model (and, understandably, one which they don’t mention often). Ideally, then, you’d want every player in a F2P game to be a buyer and, so, if the ads scare off the non-buyer players, that is actually a blessing, not a curse.

  15. @Anonymouse – I have to think that any company that moves to the F2P model and has “drive away slackers” on their “To Do” list is setting themselves up for failure. Scaring off players, at least in a general sense, is always a curse. Paying customers will go with them.

    As a F2P game you want as many potential paying customers as possible.

    Being in a situation where total players were exceeding your server capacity would be ideal. It is practically the dream scenario. You just make priority login a benefit of having bought X amount from the cash shop and watch sales grow! #winning

    So what was the problem again?

  16. Just a random thing to wonder about. Everyone is touting EVE as this special exception to subscription MMOs, but they neglect to mention that you can actually pay your sub by playing the game, making the game essentially F2P. How many veteran EVE players are actually paying a sub?

    If WoW had a means of playing the AH or grinding dailies to pay your monthly sub, wouldn’t that actually made people keep up their sub? It’s a bit of a vicious, but clever, cycle. If you play casually, you will have to pay the sub, if you play more intensely, you can get away without paying a dime, hence EVE retains their veterans alot easier than WoW would…..

  17. I am, in general, very much on the “hate F2P” bandwagon. You’ve summed up nicely most of the reasons why — latest example is Neverwinter (which I do play admittedly).

    At the same time I’m all for games giving people a way to play in some fashion without paying. For two reasons — “demo” (no barrier to entry to try) and “idle” (someone who is not playing actively can still log in to chat / dabble sometimes without having to pay a sub).

    In my opinion the happy middle ground is somewhere where DDO lies (or at least used to lie, didn’t play it for a while) — you get ‘free’ game with lots of restrictions, you get ‘sub’ game where you basically get ‘everything’ as long as you pay, and you get cash-items that sell you ‘sub’ stuff piece-meal.

    Or in other words, I think every F2P game should offer ‘sub’ option that will give people ‘everything’ (e.g. equivalent of ‘xp boost’ potions if these are sold, access to fastest mounts for in-game currency, access to all content, access to AH, access to extra character slots etc.) for as long as people pay that ‘sub’. That’ll give company incentive to chase these subs thus getting us closer to the initial ‘ideal’ of company working to enhance gameplay rather than cash shop.

  18. I’m happy to pay my WoW subscription once a year. It is such a trivial sum compared to say my local gym subscription that I already think of WoW as being almost free to play anyway.

  19. @Solf – I think most F2P games do offer some sort of subscription. Certainly all of the conversions from subscription only format seem to. The question is, do the subscription options offer enough?

    I wouldn’t bother playing EQ or EQ2 without subscribing. SOE has enough barriers up that it is annoying not to, plus they give you some in-game currency every month as well, as something of a rebate.

    Likewise, I probably would subscribe to LOTRO if I was playing. Actually, I have a lifetime subscription, so I already am subscribed. Like SOE, Turbine has enough carrot and stick to make a subscription worthwhile.

    And I hear SWTOR is pretty grim without a subscription.

    Rift though. What they are currently planning to offer is, frankly, not enough for me. I went and cancelled my subscription so it will not renew in November. They need to rethink that. And that, by the way, will likely doom REX as well. If a subscription is not worth paying for, it probably isn’t worth grinding plat for either. We shall see I suppose.

  20. I think you’re right re: conversions from P2P -> F2P having sub option.

    In general it might not be true about F2Ps though.

    The prime question here whether option is there and if it is whether you still ‘need’ to buy ‘stuff’ in cash shop.

    Some games (e.g. Neverwinter) appear to be designed straight-up to not consider sub — e.g. it seems that the only way to get better (faster) crafting in Neverwinter is via cash shop? (and do please correct me someone if I’m wrong :))

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