Further Mutterings about MMO Revenue Models May 15, 2013Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Need for Speed World, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Tanks, World of Warcraft.
Tags: Free-To-Play, MMO Subscriptions, No Real Point
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.
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.)
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.
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.