Whether ‘Tis Nobler in the Mind to Pay

Are subscription MMOs a dying breed? Dana at WarCry and Akela at Massively have some comments. With more and more free-to-play massively multiplayer games coming to the market, will players continue to pay monthly subscriptions? Yes. Show me a free game with as much support as World of Warcraft in the North American market and I may change my tune, but I believe players will continue to pay for that level of service for some time to come.

If players want to play games with the level of polish and game type of World of Warcraft in the future, they’ll continue to pay subscription fees. I’m still not fully convinced that a traditional MMO (EQ, WoW, LotRO, etc.) can make enough money to keep up-to-date without subscription fees (or to get big investors… how do you convince someone that you’ll make lots of money with no reliable revenue source?).

Many of the other revenue streams tend to deviate from what traditional MMO players value (personal achievement, for example). Meaning, if you sell me good gear instead of me earning it, that’s just stomped on one of the big draws of the game.

I’m sure there are free-to-play alternatives that could still work fairly well in traditional MMOs…

Zones: Areas of the world that can only be accessed if you purchase access to them. If there’s a viable alternative and you really don’t have to go there, I could see players mostly accepting this (but in a seamless world, you’re going to lose some immersion). This also has the opportunity for players to pay more the longer they play–higher levels take longer and require more zones, so if you provide a single zone per level range, higher level players may be more inclined to pay for others.

Flavor Items: Anything that has no functional gameplay impact and has only some aesthetic impact is probably an acceptable cost to most players. Social outfits, housing items, pets, personal avatar theme songs, etc. Will I ever get any of those? Maybe one social outfit (pirate) and a sweet theme song, but otherwise I’d leave most of it alone. This is really the umbrella for all things I feel are viable to pay for in a traditional MMO.

Unlockable Races/Classes: Would players pay to play certain races/classes? Possibly so, and assuming they aren’t better than the free alternatives, this may be accepted. Even better would be using this in a game like FFXI where you CAN put forth effort to unlock one of their jobs (classes), but could also pay for access.

Unlockable Avatar Customization: Like plastic surgery for the fictional world. You can only get certain hair styles, noses, eyes, tattoos, skin colors, or whatever your character customization entails if you pay for it. This has no real functional impact, but I could see some players paying a little money for a unique look.

Names: Last names, name changes, middle names, titles. You can charge for these things because, again, they have no real gameplay value. In EverQuest, if I could have paid to get a “the” as my middle name (or part of my last name), I sure as heck would have. And titles, well, how do you think most lords even came to be in our own medieval times? Yep, money.

Character Moves: Want to move your character to another server or account? Pony up. This is already part of most traditional MMOs, and players rarely, if ever, complain about it. It may not make companies a lot of money now, but as one part of a microtransaction model it could really have an impact.

Character Slots: More money means more characters. Final Fantasy XI already does this. If you want more than a certain amount of characters, you’ll need to pay a little extra money for that access. I’d personally give players as many slots as my game has roles (not classes. Think tank, healer, dps, etc).

Premium Data: Charge a small fee for access to places like EQ2Players (which does charge for some stuff) or WoW’s Armory. It’s not a necessity, and it doesn’t impact gameplay, so charge something for it if you aren’t making people pay subscription fees. Or, you could give fansites access to this same information for a price (though fansites are generally poor, and this may not be viable at all).

Instanced Housing: I put the “instanced” qualifier there for a reason. If your game has in-world housing at all, and you let people pay for it with real money or virtual money, you will have problems in a traditional MMO. If the housing is instanced, and players can pay for it with real money or virtual money, I think people will accept it (as long as there aren’t real gameplay benefits to having a better house).

I’m sure I could come up with a few more viable options if I really put my mind to it. The point is, if a free-to-play massively multiplayer online game ever comes out that is at least as good as World of Warcraft, maybe subscriptions will go away. If a game can make enough money by simply implementing lots of little microtransactions without violating what makes the genre tick, I don’t see any real reason that the market won’t shift toward free-to-play.

Do I expect that to happen any time soon? Not particularly, no. I’d expect us to be at least into the next decade before the threat of it (to subscription MMOs) is even felt with games like WAR and Age of Conan on the horizon. It will take a few more pretty darn successful free-to-play MMOs before major companies start adopting the model for major traditional MMOs.

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