How Long can the Fifteen Dollar Subscription Hold Out?

I remember, way way back in the day, a user review for EverQuest that was an all caps exercise in outrage over the fact that, on top of the purchase price for the game it required you to pay a fee every single month you wished to play.  It ended with a call to boycott the publisher of the game to put a stop to this complete rip-off of a business model.

I think EverQuest was $9.95 a month back then too.  It wasn’t even to the $15.00 mark we’ve come to accept as the norm.

Daybreak subscriber prices

But we’ve been at that $15.00 mark, with a discount for purchasing multiple months, since before the launch of World of Warcraft.  The fact that WoW adopted it pretty much set the price in stone.  I recall Mark Jacobs being soundly rebuked when he suggested that maybe Warhammer Online would cost more, a premium price for a premium game and all that.

We have been conditioned by Moore’s Law to expect tech items to cost less over time.  While the law itself specifically concerns itself with the number of transistors that can fit in a given space, the corollary effects include the iPhone 8 in my pocket outperforming a 1970s Cray supercomputer for a tiny fraction of the former’s original price.  We get better, cheaper hardware all the time.

And some of that has been reflected in other pricing.  It used to cost an hourly rate to log onto the online services of the 80s like GEnie and CompuServe.

GEnie Price “cut”

Now most people in urban and large suburban areas have access to some form of high speed internet and the web, while splattered liberally with ads, is mostly free.

But that is mostly hardware and bandwidth driven.  Software is different for many reasons, though the immaturity of software development methodology and the constant need to update due to security issues and defects has a lot to do with it.

The outsider view is that you write your code and, having written, move on.  The reality, which I can harp on about ad nauseum, is that a development group on a mature product can easily find itself spending most of its time dealing with problems that come up simply due to changes in the environment the code lives in.  Every product manage wants more new features to sell and hates to hear the dev team talking about the need to upgrade outdated libraries or other maintenance functions.

So we are in an unnatural situation when it comes to video game software, with their pricing stuck in time. (There was a good discussion of this in the comments on a post here a few years back.)  Triple-A titles are $60.  MMORPG subscriptions are $15 a month.  And so it has been for coming on to 20 years.

Enterprise and productivity markets have long since gone to annual licenses and even Microsoft wants you to rent Office365 from them rather than buy the hidden, but still available, stand-alone Office package. (And, having just moved an Office 2013 license from an old machine to a new one, let me tell you that they are keen to throw a lot of chairs in your way to get you to give up and get on board their rental bandwagon.  But I don’t think many of the products in the Microsoft Office bundle have change enough since the 90s to warrant a rental fee.  If I could still use Microsoft Word 5.1a, I would.)

But video games seem stuck.  Worse than stuck in the case of MMOs, where free to play has become the norm and only a few strong titles can afford to hold the line on requiring a subscription beyond what is essentially a demo period.  My headline is a lie in that the fifteen dollar subscription hasn’t held… but in the opposite way that I meant!

Stymied on the box price and subscription front, video game studios have ventured out in other directions.  So now we have cash shops and DLC and season passes and cosmetics and pets and mounts and character boosts and special servers and game time tokens and skill points and xp boosts and anniversary editions and premium editions and collector’s editions and even a $250 “friend’s and family” edition, all to eke out a bit more cash from the end users who inevitably shout “Greed!” and “Pay to Win” at the first hint that they might feel mildly incentivized to make one of those purchases.

It isn’t that I want to pay more for any of these games.  I have a kid in college, and education is one front where people haven’t been shy about raising prices.  And I have been notably prickly about some of those items listed myself.

But even though these games I play were launched in 2007, 2004, 2003, and even 1999, the people who work on them have to pay rent, buy food, medical care, and everything else here in 2021.  And stuff has not gotten cheaper.  It feels like eventually we hit one of those “you must pick two” scenarios where the options are:

  • Don’t pay more for games
  • Don’t have Pay to Win in your games
  • Your game stays in business

So I wonder when we’re going to have to pony up some more cash to pay.  Until then I try to temper my ire when companies do things they said they wouldn’t do or trot out packages or plans that seem ludicrous to me.  If they don’t pay the bill then there isn’t a game to be played.

10 thoughts on “How Long can the Fifteen Dollar Subscription Hold Out?

  1. MagiWasTaken

    Lovely post! I hate that nearly every game nowadays is either pay-to-win or it costs 60€. Resident Evil: Village came out the other day and someone told me today that it costs 80 bucks. I thought that was a joke but nope, it’s actually true. And it sucks that devs get away with it. Eventually, developers will end up charging more and more for their titles and they’ll get away with it because people will want to play the new Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy or whatever other game… but unless one game flops completely, nothing will change and price tags will keep getting bigger.

    As for subscriptions in games, I’m not too sure how to feel about them, really. Still very mixed feelings but they may be better than abysmal price tags that keep increasing or pay-to-win models in games.

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  2. mikeazariah

    The interesting thing is to add the question . . . what is the change in cost of living over the past 2 decades? I know subscription games have stayed the same price for a long long time but the rest of the world has refused to do the same. I am also fairly sure the first game to decide to try to increase that cost may see a mass exodus of players.

    But if we are honest with ourselves? They should. That or change the billing model to hide the fact that they want to charge more. You know . . . DLC AND a sub, that sort of thing.

    m

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  3. Nogamara

    If I can trust this inflation calculator then the SNES games of the early nineties for 120 DM would be 90 EUR now, so I don’t know if 80 is actually too bad. I think the problem is that some games are just not… enough content. If the game is actually good and long so I get enough entertainment, 80 wouldn’t be such a problem. Also maybe they should stop reinventing game engines and providing more content :P No, I don’t want the 7th “same” game, but where would be the problem reusing a 3 year old engine for your next game – non-game software companies can do this… but sometimes I get the feeling they’re boasting with “we had to reinvent new tools for this game”, well screw that.

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  4. paeroka

    When I’m thinking about WoW – the only MMO requiring a sub that I’m playing at the moment – then what comes to my mind is that while yes, the sub price stayed the same, they added several items to their cash shop that didn’t exist in the beginning. So maybe this is how they deal with that? Adding other ways of earning some extra cash on top of the subscription?

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  5. bhagpuss

    The big factor that’s changed since that long discussion (guest starring Raph koster) four years ago is the widespread growth and acceptance of the subscription model in other forms of entertainment. A lot of people have subs for the music they listen to, the movies and the tv shows they watch, the delivery services they use… And plenty of people have more than one sub in some categories.

    Most of those subs cost significantly less than the $15 a month WoW charges. They are slowly increasing. Netflix premium sub costs around the same as WoW. But you can get Netflix for close to half that for the equivalent service (one instance running on one machine). If mmo companies want to raise the sub they’ll first have to convince people they offer a better deal than Amazon or Spotify and then they’ll have to come up with the extra content to prove it.

    And the real question is why would they want to? Would they even make any more money if they did? Would people accept a $20 sub and still keep using the cash shop? Who’s going to be the brave one to try it? Not WoW. They can barely hold on to the players they’ve got.

    I don’t think the sub is dead. Like vinyl, it’s making a comeback that’s a little more than a dead cat bounce. I think the future is going to be Pay To Win and slowly players to accept and even like it. I mean. look at Genshin Impact…

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  6. Bmyers

    Interesting thought, with subs down and inflation cost riding over the years. Salaries health care benefits etc. are we in turn getting more stock game content recolored compared to full new designs.

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  7. PCRedbeard

    Oh jeez, I remember when GEnie was $5/month. As long as you didn’t play any of the games and kept to the (very active) forums, that is. That’s how I got to know several SF&F authors at the time.

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  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @PCRedbeard – I remember when they did that. You could use some of the chat rooms too. It kind of irked those of us who played the games. Also I recall Jerry Pournelle was active on GEnie at one point. He came and played Air Warrior one evening and did nothing but complain… though, admittedly, that was his usual routine when he wrote his Chaos Manor column for Byte back in the day; buy some product then complain about it until the company held his hand setting it up.

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  9. Tabletop Teacher

    Have to admit, I haven’t paid for a new game since Minecraft because of the whole kids and a mortgage thing. I was able to get away with some Warhammer for a bit, since by reselling the models you can basically keep the hobby money neutral, and running a school club meant a little budget for paint and corrupting new nerds. But I think that the big reason that was okay was because models on a shelf, no matter how unpainted, did not lose money every month I wasn’t able to play the game.

    I’d be happy to pay the sub for Eve if I could guarantee at least a hour or two a week to play it, but with commitments I can sneak on the die horribly in a Rifter for perhaps only 30 minutes or so every other week. If I contrast a game to an Amazon Prime sub which nearly pays for itself with shipping cost savings or a Netflix account which my entire family uses, then the value we get out of it for our budget is much smaller and confined to only me.

    I’m not sure what can be done about that. Maybe family sub packages? I’m just glad devs these days have given me the free to play option, even if it means I’m at a severe disadvantage to other players.

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  10. kiantremayne

    In some ways the cost of single player games has gone down. Before MMOs, I was picking up a new PC game every weekend and paying £30 (so about $40) each time. These days… Steam sales are a thing. Maybe I have to wait a year or two before I play a game, but this weekend I bought my first new game in months (Total War: Thrones of Britannia) for about £10, and before that it was XCOM 2 for under £3. I get that these are ‘long tail’ sales that wouldn’t have happened back in the 1990s because the games would just be gone from the store shelves at that point, and I’m excluded from the latest and greatest releases, but hey – I’m playing quality games for a fraction of what I would have done in the old days.

    As for MMO subs – I think we’re just seeing how profitable sub based games were, or at least successful ones were. Inflation has eaten into the margin, but the per user cost to run an existing game is still below the $15 mark so they remain profitable. The problem is with new games – they have development costs to pay back (which have definitely grown over the years) and struggle to attract enough people willing to sub to the new game as well as (or instead of) their current poison of choice. The F2P model works because the run cost per user for these games is still low, so they can tolerate having 90% who pay nothing because a few of the remaining 10% who do pay, pay a LOT more than $15 per month. The upside of that as a gamer is hey, we get to play for free. The downside is that we get a decidedly second class experience because if we aren’t paying we aren’t the customers, we’re the content for the whales to crush in PvP or lord it over.

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