A new billing plan, that is.
Why is $15 a month the standard billing plan for an MMO here in the US? And why are the alternatives companies bring up so bad? In-game advertising (Don’t get me up on the immersion breaking horse again! I will get all “more immersive than thou” on you!) and “pay more (much more) for better stuff for your character” schemes do not fly with me. And, judging from the reaction to billing schemes from games like ArchLord, I am not alone.
Not that $15 a month is a bad idea. If you are a company like Blizzard and have a popular game it gives you a nice predictable revenue stream and it really isn’t a bad deal if you play enough. The problem is, what if you are not Blizzard? What if you are not even Sony?
I think I am like most people. I have time for one MMO. Currently, that MMO is World of Warcraft. I still subscribe to EVE-Online, but it is an exceptional case. It does not need much attention to progress at my level. I am mostly training, which can happen when I am offline, or running missions, which I can frequently do on my laptop while I am doing something else on my main CPU.
But if I had a WoW subscription and, say, an EQ2 subscription, I would cancel one of them. There is no way I have the time in my life to play both of them and I have no intention paying for a game I am not playing.
So, with the $15 a month billing plan, you have to be the one game somebody wants to play when it comes to most people. It is an exclusive arrangement. You are the game or you are not getting any revenue at all.
So if you are a smaller gaming company, what do you do?
Well, Guild Wars has a model. They charge full, new-game price for each expansion and let you play on their servers for free.
I have not seen any numbers on how this has worked out for them, but they do not seem to be interested in changing their model too much yet. They have added in a few things, like the sale of additional character slots, but the sale of retail boxes still appears to be the main plan. As long as they can keep those sales up to cover the cost of development plus the cost of their network, they are set.
Still, I haven’t seen anybody rushing to copy the Guild Wars model.
Then there is the hourly billing scheme. This has the advantage that you pay only for what you use. However, to the gaming company, this option probably looks pretty dim. You lose predictability of income, you lose the nice, standardized billing scheme (($15, 1.5 million times please!), and to make it worthwhile to run a charge you probably have to have a minimum monthly fee, which gets you back to a point where people are not going to keep their accounts for casual gaming.
There is another option for hourly billing. Pre-paid hourly plans.
As I have stated in past entries, I can be a bit of a cheapskate. I rather like to think I just don’t like to waste money, but sometimes I go to far. One of the areas where I hate to spend money is on my cell phone. I need a cell phone, but I only need it about 10 minutes out of the month. I used to fume that my cell phone bill would be $35 for 10 minutes of usage.
So, now I have a VirginMobile pre-paid cell phone, which was, when I got it a couple years back, the absolute cheapest route you can go and still have a fully functional cell phone. Basically, I pay $80 a year for my phone (well, $20 every 90 days, so a little bit more, but not much). I get charged by the minute for my air time, but the maximum charge is 25 cents a minute, which is considerably less than the effective rate per minute I was paying on a “normal” plan.
So my proposal, based on my pre-paid cell phone plan (call it the casual gamer package) is as follows:
-Per hour pricing to play. Call it 25 cents an hour.
-A requirement that you list a credit card and expect to be charged a minimum of $10 every 3 months.
-You accumulate and never lose the amount you get charged. You only lose that money through hourly play charges or when you cancel your account.
-If you exceed your balance, your card will automatically be charged another $10, but that resets the three month timer.
-You can, at any time, roll over your account into a flat-rate account ($15 a month presumably) and have any balance credited towards your monthly fee.
If that style account were available today for EQ2, I would opt in. In fact, I would opt in for double the amount if I could have a Station Access account on that billing method, so I could go back and tinker with EQ, EQ2, and maybe try out SWG.
That style of account would also make other games more attractive to me.
Now, my numbers are just off the cuff, but I still think the plan has merit. The company keeps a relatively predictable revenue stream, it gets an increase revenues, it limits the number of credit card transactions, it boosts subscription numbers, and it keeps goofballs like me involved with the game.
What have I missed?