Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shooting Unicorns

TAGN posted a great contribution to the never-ending MMO payment model debate yesterday. Some of the links are particularly... interesting. I confess I had to google Damion Schubert to find out who he was, which certainly cast his polemic in a different light.

Somewhere in the comments of one of those linked posts a suggestion got made that I haven't heard before. I'd credit the suggester if I remembered who it was. The suggestion itself, that I do remember: lower subscription prices.

The idea was that just maybe what's keeping a lot of would-be players from subscribing to MMOs isn't the subscription model per se but the specific cost of the subscription. Perhaps instead of removing the subscription altogether some plucky developer might try reducing it.

In the past, when people have discussed the future of subscriptions, back when people thought subscriptions had a future, it was always assumed that eventually prices would have to go up. I mean, for what else are you still paying the same price you were a decade ago? Subscription prices never did really go up much, though, did they? They bobbled around a bit, generally from $9.99 to $14.99 with all kinds of complicated multi-month deals thrown in to spice things up but few ever broached that mid-teens barrier.

As everyone always chimes in, $14.99 is a very small price to pay for an entire month's entertainment, especially when compared to other options like movies, concerts, meals out or even books. That's as may be but it still adds up if you play several MMOs. The limiting factor, obviously, is time, but with the current trend that's centering MMO gameplay around frequent content drops, holiday events and discrete chunks of content completable in a few sessions it's becoming far more practical than it used to be for even a fairly casual player to dabble in several MMOs at a time.

If a subscription cost $4.99 a month, well you could have three on the go for the cost of your current single, couldn't you? I would. I might go as high as four or five at that price. Not to mention the prospect of multi-boxing. Of course you do still have the issue of getting people to put in a credit card number, which apparently they don't like to do (and who can blame them given the history of security breaches for online games) but you're going to have to come up with some way to get money off them at some point, so the issue can only ever be stalled. If they're going to balk at the first hurdle, were they ever really likely to get their wallets out anyway?

A small subscription gives the company a guaranteed, known monthly income but it's probably wishful-thinking to imagine it will bring in three or four times the number of players to get you back to where you were, and even if it did presumably managing the extra traffic will up the costs. So, you're going to need a Cash Shop as well.

Most MMOs do have some form of in-game Store these days, regardless of payment model, a trend that's unlikely to go away any time soon. Does anyone imagine that WildStar won't have a Cash Shop as well as a subscription? Which brings us to Wilhelm's very well-observed musings on payment models and their effect on the sense of immersion we used to set so much store by but which he worries is now of interest to maybe half a dozen people: "...it will be flying pig mounts, pinwheel hats, and hotbars for sale all day every day" indeed.  (cf Syp at BioBreak)

Ah, immersion. Those were the days. Count me in as one the six. But then, isn't one man's subscription-based immersion another man's Krazy Kiddie Klown Karnival?

Let me present Exhibit 1: the illustrations throughout this piece, taken from the fully subscription based, no cash shop in sight Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Check out my Cait Sith Doll standing on one leg! See me grooving in my Moogle Hat! Marvel at Carbuncle my Blue Neon Ghostbunny!

Immersion, surely, comes from within. Within the player, within the setting, within the culture of the game. I'm no Final Fantasy expert. I've only played the higher primes (7, 11, 13) and those not for long or all the way through. Still, even I know that levitating fuzzy teddy-bears, giant comical ostriches and a cast of characters that resemble a cross between Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Garden are entirely in keeping with the ethos of the long-established, much-loved brand.

Transplant Moogles and Chocobos into Age of Conan, however, and you might have a problem (and a lot of roast chicken and barbecued fuzzy-bear). Wilhelm has issues with Mount Creep in EQ2 and Harbinger Zero felt that game jumped the shark when they let players play Fae. I could never take Tyria entirely seriously after the first time someone fired a stream of Rainbow Ponies over my head when I was battering down a keep door in World vs World.

When it comes to immersion we all have our own breaking points but the idea that any of this is made worse by the specific payment model a game employs seems unconvincing. F2P wasn't even a twinkle in Smed's eye when the art designers of the Kunark expansion gave us Rats In Smoking Jackets But No Pants, just to give one example out of thousands and surely I don't have to remind anyone of Slappy the Cool?

Now if you'll excuse me, I think the Moogle Postman is at the door.


  1. The problem with subscriptions is not the price, but that we are subscribed and paying a recurring fee at all. Or such is my observation. My daughter was playing Animal Jam enough to want to subscribe, which amounted to $4.99 a month. Small potatoes.

    But I was on her any month where I had not seen her playing, asking if I still needed to pay the fee and keep her subscribed. It appeared on the credit card as a reminder. And the moment she wasn't play, I unsubscribed her.

    There might be a low enough threshold for me not to do that, but I am not sure it matters if a price as low as $4.99 bothers me.

    Then again, in our group, Earl remains subscribed to WoW, despite the fact that we haven't played in ages. He is a Wall Street lawyer, and that subscription fee is too small to register for him I gather.

    As for immersion, the payment model may not impact it per se, but I have certainly experience F2P cash shop models that were implemented in such a way as to wreck havoc on immersion.

    I am in a love/hate relationship with LOTRO. For me, the game is almost all about immersion in the world of Middle-earth. If you lifted the game intact and changed everything to Shannara, I would stop playing.

    On the flip side, Turbine seems dead set on breaking immersion as often as possible, in no small part by putting buttons nearly everywhere that will bring up the Turbine Store. I probably bring that store up at least five times a night on accident. And even when it doesn't come up, an amazing number of the dialogs have a "visit the store to unlock" options. And every time I finish a deed, I get a title, a new deed, and a reminder to please visit the Turbine Store to spend the 5 Turbine Points I just earned.

    It really is a struggle some nights.

    1. As I've said quite a few times (well, I say everything quite a few times so I probably could have left that bit out...) I'm still paying for two SOE All Access Passes even though I don't log in all that often and Mrs Bhagpuss even less, and then only for EQ2. That was an extravagance even when all SOE games were subs but now that they're all F2P there's really no rational excuse to keep paying the subs.

      That's the thing, though. It's not rational. We've had those Access Passes since they were invented and before that we had regular subs going back nearly 13 years now. We only ever cancelled them once, when we briefly played WoW, and we both felt very uncomfortable about it. To me, not paying my SOE sub feels like I have decided to leave a club to which I still want to belong. The value I get from that sub is almost entirely emotional, not practical.

      That said, I think I'm very near the point where I might let them lapse. The other reason I've been keeping them going was related to the PSS1 debacle, but as things stand we will have to play EQNext through PSS1 no matter what so the need to hang on like grim death to the SOE accounts hs become somewhat moot.

      While I'm pretty sanguine about the peculiar things that get made for the various cash shops, I am in complete agreement with you about the prevalence of payment buttons in-game. One discreet button in the UI I can deal with but having the SC button on every NPC vendor display is obnoxious.

      The one that really gobsmacked me recently was the entire in-game ZONE they have created for you to wander round and look at all the rewards you can get for buying packs for the LoN card game. I might get round to doing a whole post on that some time - it's almost too weird to process.

  2. I (again) agree with you Bhag. When it comes to a subscription, it's all about value obtained. You drop the price asked for, we need less value to make it worthwhile.

    $5... I feel nothing about $5. I can easily give away $5 to someone, anyone, and not really care. So there is no hurdle there to jump over. $15 adds up over time, $180/year... I can do a lot with $180. But $5/month is only $60 per year, which would be what I would probably pay for the game itself! That is 100% acceptable in my book. I would have no qualms about forking over $5/month. I mean, heck, that's what I pay for XBox Gold, or as I like to call it, my "Netflix tax" (as thats all I use it for anyway).

    Good call. Then, even with a cash shop on top of that... it'd be a lot easier to stomach than the $15/month with cash shop we have now.

    1. Everyone is going to have their own price point but inevitably the lower it goes the more people it will include. It's obviously a lot more complicated than just that, but I think it's generally understood that outside of luxury brands where exclusivity is a selling point, the less you charge, the more you sell.

      Also, added Casual Aggro to the blogroll :)

  3. I don' know....I'm this big immersion sucker myself but payment models just don't interest me that much, in the end. I'll play what's the most engrossing and somehow I even manage to ignore all the stuff that's popping up in LOTRO nowadays. as you say, immersion comes from within and we have different tolerances as to when something becomes too obtrusive. I'll tolerate almost anything in return for a dynamic, living, breathing world.

    As for lower subs, I actually suspect regularity is the bigger turnoff than the actual cost. if they made you pay 12 (or let's say a flat 100$) subs in one go for a full year up front - even that might go down better than monthly. "annual subscription model": pay once, hurt once, forget about it. ...anyone tried this yet? :D

    Oh and the consistency and shamelessness towards their own magic and world is what has always made FF stand out as a franchise. faithfulness and recognition value is their one great power.

    1. I'm sure everyone has their own trigger-points that set off the "Oh ffs" alarm. One of the worst for me is when players get given access to Global Broadcast. I think the first place I encountered it was in Allods, where you could get some kind of megaphone from a lockbox that allowed you to make announcements that could be seen in every zone. Seen similar things in several F2P games since and it's always a bad sign.

      I think you might have something with the yearly payments, too. I paid (or rather Mrs Bhagpuss did, since I got it as a birthday present) something like £75 for Rift's Storm Legion + 12 months access. Total waste of money since I barely used it but it looked like such a bargain at the time.

  4. I don't think price makes much difference. When I was running Meridian 59 were only charging $10.95/month but I heard repeatedly that people considered that to be "almost as much" as WoW's $14.99. It's as Wilhelm says above, the real obstacle is getting people to pull out the wallet in the first place. That's why free-to-play has been so successful.


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