Greedy Goblin

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The fundamental problem with unequal subscriptions

There are several payment methods available for games that has long life cycle, therefore need permanent funding (like MMOs). However the "everyone pays $15" method is the most common in the AAA games.

I'd like to prove that it's not an accident, it's the only possible funding method (with little quirks).

No one wants to pay if he can get the same thing for free. If the cinemas would use a "you can watch for free and pay as much as you want to" system, they would go bankrupt in a week. So a really free to play game is going down in no time, unless it is so cheap that advertisements can keep it alive (which is by the way not free, as you pay with consuming ads). An MMO has high development cost, so need real money.

The "free2play" method means you can access the game for free, but can buy certain in-game items and services for money. Theoretically it could be a funding mechanism, but it's not. The reason is that major factor of gaming fun is coming from winning. While you can win single player games too by smashing, shooting, shrinking, kicking, blowing up AI opponents, the replay value of these games are near zero. You pay for the content by buying the box and that's it. For a game played for years you must win over human opponents as no one can create enough content for years. It can happen directly in PvP or indirectly in PvE ("I killed more bosses than you noob"). When you buy items in the shop, you are actually buying winning, which in turn means that the competitors who did not buy such item just got losing.

If I win in a fair game I did it with my skills so I'm happy. If I lose, I have a chance to improve and try again. The even field of the game locks out the "I did not have the same chance" crap that pesters the real life. If I beat you in a game, it's not because my parents could pay my university, it's not because I'm white or male or whatever lame excuse you tell when someone asks why can I make money while you live on welfare or in mum's basement. If I beat you in a fair game, it happened because I'm better than you in that game, end of story.

A pay-for-game-strength system breaks it. It makes playing irrelevant. If I win there, I only won because I have money (because I'm from a rich family and white and male and young and whatever). No one will see me a winner there even if there is anyone who plays. And even I can't. I merely displayed my wealth, but there are much more effective ways to do it than buying pixels in a game.

The only way out is an equal subscription. Here those who are that poor to can't pay it, can't play. Everyone who could pay was rich enough so can't really blame me being more rich.

One quirk the company can do is placing vanity items in the game that are laughing stocks but the ignorant kiddies believe them to be status symbols.

The other is "pay for time" what World of Tanks uses: your XP gain increases if you pay. You could get the same thing for playing more. Blizzard could introduce a premium feature where you get 50% more XP, justice, honor, conquest, valor points and daily quests require 50% less items/monsters to be killed. This way you can't get competitive advantage (the top points are still capped and anyone could get 50% more XP or honor by playing 50% more). However this thing can't be overdone by letting payers play so faster that an average player can't keep up with time or they feel "i must b nolifer to win this game suxx"

The morons of the day are all the people who paid $25 for a reskinned pixel gryphon:


Azuriel said...

The "free2play" method means you can access the game for free, but can buy certain in-game items and services for money. Theoretically it could be a funding mechanism, but it's not.

Err... you may want to edit this part because it appears as though you are claiming the F2P MMO model does not work, in defiance to multiple (wildly) successful counter-examples.

Ephemeron said...

It is perfectly possible to combine unequal payments model with skill-based gameplay.

Example: Magic: The Gathering.

burcakb said...

While i agree with your article in general, there's one paying model currently running that i think is worthwhile to see how it goes. World of tanks is free2play and you can "buy" extras. Interesting side is you DONT need to "buy" extras to win, you can be a top player without spending a single dime, buying stuff just makes like easier. (paying basically reduces your time invested for toplevel play, not your winning chances)

I'm really interested in seeing how far "paying for convenience" can keep up a largescale game afloat.

Anonymous said...

This is really about PvP or socials.

PvP games tend to be zero sum with a winner and loser.

But AAA MMOs are basically PvE with a minor PvP component to attract the Call Of Duty console teenage boys.

And only socials care what others did or when; your self-image should not be dictated by what others did but by your own performance. Your TB macro is perfect example. I am not a better player just because the quality of the quality of the population declines.

How insecure do you have to be to care what color armor someone else got in a video game?


Long term, I actually think advertising will be the financing mechanism. Billions of dollars of US entertainment is provided advertising supported. And due to DVR skipping of commercials, product placement is growing funding source. Some MMO players will resist RM$ in MMOs but everyone is used to being inundated with product placement and advertising.

Phelps said...

As mentioned before, World of Tanks seems to have it figured out. You can buy 30 days of "Premium" for $15 (with a little gold left over.) That gives you 150% xp and money earned.

In your movie analogy, you can get in for free, but if you want to sit down, you have to buy a ticket. Most people will just buy the ticket after 10 or 15 minutes to be able to sit down. From what I can tell, the people who play WoT for more than a couple of hours a week pop for the premium (and the people who only play weekends buy 3 days at a time, for a slightly worse $$$ to days conversion rate.)

Riptor said...

Is "winning" in your opinion really the motivation to play a game? What about beating the Odds and challangeing yourself?

"Winning" is just setting the Bar incredibly low. It's not looking for a Challange but rather seeking the short lived feeling of accomplishment towards faceless pixel-peers.. oh whait..

You ananlysis is probably true for WoW as it has become in essence a cesspit for people that want to take the next step from Farmville.

If you ever get the Chance, play Demon Souls.

chewy said...

Your argument is lacking perspective.

If players (all players) play to win then the sales of vanity pets would be zero and they would quickly be removed as they provide no benefit to winning.

This single point shows that players don't play to win in the same way that you and the minority of other players do.

The question is then "what do people play for ?" and the answer, I suspect, is the same reason they watch television, to be entertained. If this is true then there is no reason that an advertisement funded model wouldn't work. Similarly, as the TV market sells extra channels, so the games market can sell "extras" that might help people complete more of the game. Yes, that could be seen as cheating but I don't think a majority of the players would care.

Gevlon said...

@Chewy: play4fun kiddies want peer acceptance/respect, I told many times.

However it's not uncorrelated with winning, just think of the very term "loser".

They can't lose all the time or they feel disrespected.

Anonymous said...

Thing is, for many people it doesn't matter if the fight was fair. They only want to win, and they will be perfectly happy to pay to get a huge advantage. It's actually the opposite of what you say, because those people pay enough to make up for all the others that don't.

Fex said...

Free2play doesn't work, popularity is very high, but their customers tend to leave a lot, and quite fast aswell. The amount of players comming back is quite low.

The ones that work better are the ones that aren't based purely on pvp and have more indirect competition through pve.

Also the ones like world of tanks work well.

Pure free to play pvp games fail horribly, serious gamers tend to leave them fast unless they can spend the budget needed to keep their top ratings.

For example, Evony, options for items to buy, scroll that increases your outgoing army by 25% 1 needed per army sent out, item that increases your attackpower by 50% for 24 hours, one that increases defence of army by 50%, one for wall hitpoints another 50% increase, Option to speed up army production for 7 days by 50%. also one for buildings, option to buy resources to build armies / buildings.

Since you cannot send more then 10 armies per city and can only have 10 cities, and need specific items ( can be bought aswell ) to get access to more then 1 city, and can only craft 1 training per barrack ( with a maximum number of barracks per city ) you are effectively capped in your production.

At end game army sizes dictate who wins, if someone uses items, you need to spend aproximately 300% the amounts of troops to beat him then if he's not. If they max out on all items all the time, they can outproduce you easily with no way for you to make up the difference. Meaning they win.

They can maintain larger armies since you farm for food rather then buy it, and that is limited through game mechanics, ( travel time, amount of possible armies sent out at any given time to limited to 100 marches for a maxed account ) Meaning your total food income reaches a cap at a certain point. Once it does larger armies will starve unless you cheat and add another account to support your first. Wich will be conquered since you pretty much need the maximum army cap to stand a chance in end game.

I played it, maintained #1 rating for 3 months due to larger time investing then others, and superior knowledge of mechanics, ( played 6 months on another server and learned the ropes there ) But in the end, an itemshop player defeated me, you can tell by the army sizes they send, if someone uses items their army size is 125k rather then 100. Those items are 5 bucks each, i had him attack me for 3 weeks before i gabve up, up to 300 attacks with those items daily.

You cannot win in that game without items.

Similar for other games, as soon as there is even 1 money sink available, ( as in repairs ) then at some point you'll be losign to players who spend money i gaining resources, there are only 24 hours in a day. and you can simply not outproduce them.

Fex said...


If largescale mmo's have any competition element, ( and they must have to produce enough content ) then any interference to compete with others through outside means that cannot be gained ingame, breaks the playing field. At wich point players unwilling to spend additional money on the game are limited. The severity of this impact depends on the things available, and the culture. But in reality, even in a game where you can just trade time for money, players not spending money will give up. If you've worked for 3 months to get an epic thing, and you can also spend 50$ to buy it, you'll feel negatively impacted. Especially since no one can see the difference. So you get 0 respect, others will just think you bought your item.

Consider the most expensive vanity items in game, ppl flying around on them are usually considered goldbuyers. Regardless of them possibly being goblins.

Even in Wow someone decked out with titles and epics completely but lacking skill is thought of being an ebay player. Regardless of the fact that he may have "bought" boosts from raid guilds to obtain those items with gold made in the ah. Wasn't it common practice during 3.2 to sell twilight vanquisher titles by top guilds? i know i saw tons of adverts for them in trade.

Buying those was expensive, and players lacking skill to match the titles were considered ebayers, or goldbuyers. Regardless of the alternative that they might have grinded the ah for them.

Next to that the moment a title became available like that, even if only sold by one guild, it became worthless, anyone wearing it was thought of to have bought it relatively soon after.

neowolf2 said...

How about a scheme where players pay each other (with real money), and the game skims off a percentage?

Boosting is a valuable service that can be monetized.

Anonymous said...

"World of tanks is free2play and you can "buy" extras. [...]"WoW has this too: recruit-a-friend (RAF). Unless you take in account sale of gold, buying boosts, and so on (which are not supported by Blizzard, and against ToS) thats the only similar feature WoW has.

For the rest WoW has gimmicks which don't provide much, if any, gameplay value. Remote auction house now with social /g chat. Pets and mounts. Even Arena Pass is gimmick.

"It is perfectly possible to combine unequal payments model with skill-based gameplay.

Example: Magic: The Gathering." True, and all the RPG games out there such as D&D, Warhammer.

Yet it is perfectly possible to win with a weenie deck from a 3000 USD deck. MgT has restrictions to make sure people buy the latest and greatest cards: they differentiate between type I and type II (names might have changed; that was how it was called when I played the game 10 years ago). Type I is unrestricted meaning the oldest cards (which WotC does not sell) are most powerful. A few gamebreakers are restricted and/or banned. Type II, aka restricted, only allows the last 3 or 4 expansions which they sell in booster packs. This leads to players having 3 options:

1) You make a (cheap) deck which outsmarts the 3000 USD deck.
2) You spend 3000 USD and get yourself a Type I deck.
3) You continue to keep spending money every 3 months on the latest expansion. Every 3 months your oldest cards are rendered useless.

The bold is the twist. They devalue the oldest cards rendering their value worthless. So I started with #3. Figured out they render your cards useless. Tried #2. Couldn't afford it. Sold everything and still have #1. If I ever get challenged, I'll try out my $20 weenie deck, and may win. The more expensive the opponents gear is, the more kick I get out of winning.

Braille said...

It sounds like you’re only familiar with the Eastern version of Free-to-Play, where “pay-for-power” is the norm. However, in Western (English speaking countries in particular) F2P games, the normal system used is a combination of paying for access to some content, convenience items, and fluff (things that only affect appearance, like a different mount that travels at the same speed as the regular mount, or a special costume).
A few years ago, Dungeons and Dragons Online was a subscription model, everyone-pays-$15 game, and it was doing poorly. So, the game’s company decided to go to a F2P model like I described above. The only things you could get from the store were low power non-proc items (up to a +3 iirc, when dungeons can drop +3 or better with procs or stat bonuses and can be gotten from the AH with in-game currency), access to other quest-lines, and buffs that increase such things as experience gains. Even the store credits could be traded for with in-game currency, so if the person is just a goblin, they can eventually get all store content without ever spending a dime of RL currency.
Within a very short time, DDO increased their profit by 500%, and iirc, they doubled their subscriptions. The doubling of subscriptions is the interesting part to me. It means that the simple act of letting people try the game for free before deciding to join the club counts a lot more than developers had cared to think before.
Since that time, many other games in the Western region have gone F2P with a similar model: Premium (aka all-access and free convenience and fluff) content for subscribers, store for access, convenience, and fluff content. All have met with increased success when they did, even Star Trek Online, which has gotten pretty poor reviews overall. The latest I know of is Global Agenda, which has been able to greatly increase their development of new content after going F2P.
Let’s not forget, though, that in the Eastern region, pay-for-power is very successful. Something is very different about their culture, that they don’t mind at all being able to pay to slaughter their opponents. So even that part of your theory is culture-dependent.

chewy said...


I agree that there are those that play for respect but there are a lot of people (I would suggest the majority) who play for "something to do".

The London Times today ran an article highlighting some of the new words that have been entered into the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The one that caught my eye was "Brain Candy" because that is exactly what WoW or other MMOs represent for most players.


Breaking competitive content by introducing a paid advantage is, I agree, counter productive but more content doesn't have to be competitive. How competitive is collecting reputation or lore master titles ? This sort of content could be offered at a price with a nice shiney mount at the end of it, no benefit to anyone playing competitively but a whole lot of "more things to do" for the "Brain Candy" brigade.

Anonymous said...

actually, you-pay-what-you-want systems are being implemented IRL. However, the average gameplayer is probably much worse morally than the average restaurant visiter

Chris said...

"If the cinemas would use a "you can watch for free and pay as much as you want to" system, they would go bankrupt in a week."
This seems like a poor example. While I do not have any sources with actual figures to back it up, I'm fairly certain that the box office is a smal percentage of a cinemas profits.
In the UK, you can get unlimited film viewing for £13.50 a month with Cineworld, and film tickets are buy one get one free with an Orange Wednesdays code (35p + a text message).
I'd be very surprised if removing box office costs would bankrupt a big cinema chain, as I think it is a fairly reasonable assumption to say that the great majority of their profits come from advertising and refreshments.

Masterlooter said...

Off the top of my head I can name 2 games that bust your "only possible funding method" theory.

DDO and LotRO doubled and trippled their revenue respectively, when they moved from a $15/month plan to a F2P plan. They also increased their player base substantially - meaning more players to talk about the game to other prospective paying customers.

If they had stayed with the monthly subscription option, these games would be much less successful than they are now - if they would be in buisness at all.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why F2P stores are the only one that people object to.

In EVE Online, your skills increase based upon how long you have subscribed.

In 4.2 of WoW, you will get an advantage if you run a few hundred Hyjal dailes. If you spend some time fishing or in the AH, you can buy better crafted or BoE gear than your fellow players. It certainly takes little skill to farm herbs or do a daily. So why is it OK for someone who spent hours on these low-skill tasks has an advantage in 4.2 raiding? What is the difference between that and allowing them to spend $10 instead of 30 hours?

Saying everyone should steo into Firelands raids with the same gear is fair. It seems illogical to me to say that people with more time than money get an advantage but people with more money that time do not.