Market Saturation and the Cash Shop

In which I prove I can be both cranky and cynical at the same time.

I seem to have two standard sort of Friday posts.  One is a set of succinct bullet points.  The other is a rambling wall of words that never quite gets to a real conclusion.  This is Friday post is the latter.  You have been warned.

So the topic du jour lately has been Black Something Online.  I honestly cannot remember as I write this, and I have probably read the name five dozen times over the last two weeks.  So I suppose you can add “jaded” to the my blogging super powers.  (The missing word is “Desert,” but I had to tab out and look Feedly to find it.  Black Desert Online.  I kept wanting to write Black Diamond Online.)

Anyway, since it is free to play, the cash shop became an issue… once everybody was done gushing about the character creator at least… though there is some contention as to what the actual issue is.  Is it that the cash shop is too expensive or that people are too cheap or that the whole thing lacks ethics or what?

I think only Bhagpuss has spent much time talking about actual game play, and even he seemed to be tiring a bit.

But game play isn’t where I want to go.  I want to join in on the cash shop fun.

Random internet picture captures the morality...

Random internet picture captures the morality…

I have my own view on cash shops and free to play, which I generally sum up as tired resignation.  They are the reality of the MMORPG market today.  What started as an attempt to by troubled titles like Anarchy Online, Silk Road Online, and eventually Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, to grab some sort of competitive advantage over their monthly  subscription based rivals quickly became the default method of operation.

Remember back during the pre-launch hype around Warhammer Online when Mark Jacobs said he was considering charging MORE than the then industry standard $14.99 a month for the game’s subscription?  Those not caught up in the hype dismissed the idea while even those who were looking forward to the game seemed to think that Mark had better have something pretty fucking special up his sleeve in order to go that route.

He didn’t and that whole idea sank quietly into the swamp, foreshadowing the story of the game itself.

But that is sort of how things are today.  If somebody comes along and says they want to launch a fantasy MMORPG with a $14.99 a month subscription as the only option, you would be right to dismiss that as crazy talk.  The Edler Scrolls Online and WildStar certainly got schooled on that front, both admitting defeat in under a year.

Only three games seem to be good enough for that route, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online.  Basically, the new champion of the fanatsy MMO experience, the old favorite, and the odd-ball that doesn’t fit nicely into the genre.  And the latter two have the WoW Token and PLEX, so you can play for free so long as you can get somebody else to pay.

As a business model the “monthly subscription only” idea is nearly extinct.

But now the cash shop is the market default.  Free is no long a competitive advantage, it is now a requirement to even sit at the table.  Everybody is free.  Everybody has a cash shop.  And most MMORPGs seem to be able to eke out some sort of livelihood in that market… which is a problem in and of itself.

MMOs don’t die very easily.  They linger on and on.  They don’t necessarily attract new players or grow, but they figure out how to hold onto their core players and get them to cough up enough money to keep the servers on and development going.  EverQuest and EverQuest II still have expansions for their core base.  Star Wars: The Old Republic has gotten past hot bars and seems to be doing okay selling content… and the forcing people to subscribe to access it. (But a new Star Wars movie probably helped a lot as well.)  Hey man, whatever you have to do.  DDO still have levels to add and new classes to sell.  LOTRO has… erm… let me think about that… no more expansions… no more Euro data center… oh, yeah, Tolkien!

But the market has grown, there are a lot more MMOs out there than back in 2004 when WoW and EQII launched.  Go look at the list of games that launched back in 2004.  It feels like ancient history.  Battlefield: Vietnam! Half-Life 2!  Halo 2!  Katamari Damancy!  Pokemon FireRed & LeafGreen… on the GameBoy Advance!

Imagine a market when you wanted to launch a new shooter but people wouldn’t stop playing something that went live 12 years ago?  And not just a few cranky hold outs on old hardware who couldn’t run your game even if they wanted to, but the mainstream of your market.  This is sort of what SWTOR launched into and for all of its faults, it was in large part fighting for market share of an audience that tends to stay fairly loyal to their favored game for years.

We’ve heard and dismissed past estimates of how big the potential MMO market is.  People thought it was 100,000 players big or 500,000 or a million or five million or whatever.  Those estimates turned out to be far too low.  But there was an effective upper limit out there somewhere, a hard stop where the genre simply ran out of players willing to commit the time and effort that MMOs demand.  I don’t know how big that number is, but it feels like it has stopped growing and may even have begun to shrink.

This was another Mark Jabobs thing, that the MMO market was going to be bigger than anybody thought… which was true enough.  But maybe not as true as he hoped, as he has gone from ironically saying “MMOs are a niche market” to making a niche title because the market isn’t all that big after all.

So in a genre where there are only so many people who will even hear about any new MMO coming out (MMOs are no longer news unless EVE Online has another big space battle or WoW launches an expansion), a subset of which would be willing to commit the time that an MMO requires, and where a good number of those players are already in a long term relationship with their favored MMO, any new title shows up has a steep hill to climb for success.

I am therefore not surprised that any new MMO that comes along goes straight for the cash shop antics that piss a lot of people off.  Any MMO that launches eventually has to buy into the trifecta of annoyance with over-priced items (to harvest whales), lock boxes or random card packs (to prey on those with poor self control), and constant reminders about the cash shop and sales and what is new and hot (to cajole the rest of us to buy and keep buying) because that is what it takes to survive and they don’t yet have the luxury of a core audience that would buy things like expansions.

What does surprise me is that anybody thinks they can wander into the MMO market with a game that is a rehash of WoW (2004)… which itself was just a rehash of EQ (1999)… with a few cosmetic differences (as I noted, most of the non-cash shop things I have seen about BDO has been about character models) and some slightly different game play (which is true to anybody besides the connoisseur) and expect market success.  It boggles the mind.

Of course, there is no doubt a message in the fact that the last few attempts have been Asian imports warmed over for the western market.  Nobody who has to pay salaries in US Dollars or Euros seems interested in going there from scratch.  (And just on cue, EverQuest Next has been cancelled.  More on that in another post.)

The right move seems to be to go niche, stay small, and build a following around a specific vision, as with Shroud of the Avatar, Project: Gorgon, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, or Star Citizen…  and then maybe gouge the whales on the real estate or spaceship market.  Even Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen and its plan to farm the failed mechanics of the past seems to be a better plan in today’s MMO market than going for a release with broad appeal.

Of course, we have yet to see any of those titles… aside from Project: Gorgon, which may be the smallest of the lot… actually deliver on their vision in any substantial way yet.  We shall see if that ends up being a good path forward when… and if… those titles reach a salable product state.

So that was about a twelve hundred word stream of consciousness ramble.  But at least I linked out to a few people.  Hi blog neighbors!

I suppose I need a point of some sort to sum up now.  Let me see… here are a few.  Pick one you like.

(There is an oh-so-clever poll below this, which sometimes gets eaten by AdBlock, in case you don’t see it.)

I look forward to a few angry comments about completely tangential items that I brought up briefly along the way.  Early guesses include “BDO isn’t like WoW,” “LOTRO is doing great,” “Game X has changed/will change everything,” and something about Star Citizen.

Now when is WoW Legion going to ship?

12 thoughts on “Market Saturation and the Cash Shop

  1. Liore

    You’re totally right about “tired resignation”. I still rant, obviously, but I know that the truth is we’ve already lost this war. I’m getting used to it now: I’ve been on the losing side of solo MMOs, subscriptions, obnoxious cash shop policies, and honestly MMOs in general.

    … damn kids on my virtual lawn.


  2. Athie

    Does EvE even make news anymore? I swear I’ve read much more about WildStar in the non-MMO gaming press than about EvE these last couple of years.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Athie – Well, WildStar has had enough issues to qualify for it. I like to say there is no bad publicity, but they might be testing me on that front.

    EVE Online though, that gets into the non-gaming, mainstream press now and again, which is the point I was shooting for there. And I just saw it on several non-MMO gaming sites this week for its Project Discovery feature.


  4. Fucknuckle

    Aren’t MMOs doing fine though? The division is ubisofts best selling game ever, and that’s a fairly well received MMO. On the consoles destiny trundles on and on the PC you have stuff like League of Legends, DOTO and world of tanks sending millions into pvp battlegrounds.

    I guess the old world MMO theme park concept is slowly losing its grip, but when you really analyze WOW then most of the non-core content is really just an animated 3D lobby.

    I think we’ll see shooter RPGs take over until someone makes a real MMO version of Survival/Crafting.

    Not that WOW is going away, I mean, Everquest is still around. Cash shop games though, are always going to be short lived in the west.


  5. Azuriel

    Black Desert Online costs $30, so it’s B2P rather than F2P. It’s an important distinction when looking at cash shop “fairness” IMO. And makes the $30 costumes even more ridiculous.

    Not that WoW’s $25 character transfer fees are any more sane.


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Fucknuckle – I am speaking of what we might call the classic, virtual world focused, MMORPG in this post, things that followed the Diku fostered path through EQ and WoW. Console stuff is a different world and League of Legends, DOTA2, and World of Tanks are not MMOs in that sense at all. (Or in any sense in my opinion, but that is a whole different topic.)


  7. Mazer

    @knuckle Depends on where you set the bar for that first M in MMORPG; personally at least I would call most of those games multiplayer RPG / shooters / mobas, none of them MMOs.

    It would be fascinating if we had some broad statistics for who’s spending money on what across the MMO industry like you could run on the Android or iOS stores. At least in my gaming acquaintance group an increasing portion (over half now) of people who have the money laugh at the idea of spending anything past a $10-20 box price on a game… but the same people are fully willing to stay subbed to WoW through the entire run up to Legion.

    Reminds me of website funding almost; we got flooded with terrible ads, people started using blockers, sites start sinking but people still turn up their noses at even a $1/month subscription to a site they use all the time.

    Almost forgot: Leave LotRO alone! Star Citizen hats for everyone!


  8. bhagpuss

    The gameplay in BDO is fine if you like that kind of gameplay. I’m enjoying myself as far as it goes but more than anything it’s brought it home to me that the very specific cocktail of features that gets labelled “sandbox” these days just doesn’t do much for me no matter how well it’s done. Sandbox these days seems to mean a combination of RTS-style resource management and a trading/economy sim forced into uncomfortable partnership with non-consensual PvP. Since I don’t like or play any of those genres when they’re presented separately it’s hardly surprising i don’t like them any better when they’re jammed up together.

    As for cash shops, as someone with virtually no history of impulse buying and aesthetic preferences that very rarely accord with those of the peopel making the stuff that goes in them, they’re a bit of a non-issue for me. I actually wish they’d sometimes put something in that I wanted because I don’t object to spending the money – I just can’t seem to find anything worth buying.

    And I was going to do a quick response piece on the EQN news and then i thought nah, I’d rather play. It’s waited this long, it can wait til tomorrow.


  9. Syl

    “people who have the money laugh at the idea of spending anything past a $10-20 box price on a game… but the same people are fully willing to stay subbed to WoW through the entire run up to Legion.”

    Some people have cognitive dissonance issue where WoW is concerned, it’s a thing. It annoys me about as much as anyone who feels an MMO that won’t make it past 6 months isn’t “worth paying” for at all; ye, because you played all those steam games that you finished within a week for longer. If I play BDO even for just 3 months, it will have been worth several times over what I pay elsewhere. I don’t play MMOs for the ‘far future’, I play them right now and am having fun right now. Same standard for all my games. Not wanting to pay for anything out of some overblown expectation towards the genre is half the reason things are going to shits.


  10. Jenks

    My hope for the past to ever be relevant again died with Pantheon’s Kickstarter.

    My hope for the future lies with Star Citizen.

    Voted for “Things were better back when you or I started playing MMOs”


  11. Fenjay

    I’m with Jenks: “Things were better back when you or I started playing MMOs” is the only one incontrovertibly true.

    In a way I think WoW set the genre back as far as it brought it forward. It expanded the market, but it also made us live in a period where everyone thought if they spent AAA money, they’d attract another 10 million players. Then they found out they aren’t Blizzard. I think we’re coming out of that, with more indie/niche titles appearing. I think that if you can set your business model for 10-50,000 subs, a lot of flowers will grow. I also wonder who will go down the subscription path but at a lower price point. I wonder if 3x the people will subscribe for $5/month instead of $15/month.


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