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The Think Tank: What elements make up your perfect business model?

Shawn Schuster

The topic of the MMO business model is a hot one lately as studios are in the Wild West of experimentation, discovery, and limit-testing. New games are going free-to-play every week it seems, and we, as consumers, are accepting more and more as these business models become standard.

But that's certainly not always the case. Among the Massively staff, pricing opinions run the gamut, and we're not afraid to tell you what we think. That's why this week's Think Tank column is all about how we would assemble our own perfect business models from the pieces of others. Who does it right? Who does it wrong? Read along for more on our thoughts for the perfect business model.

The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I'm pretty simple and prefer straightforward payment models. If I had to pick a game that represents my favorite model, it would be Mabinogi. It offers a free game, one that can be pretty much fully explored for absolutely nothing. On top of that, the game is rich in lore and areas to explore as well as wonderful sandbox features. It's truly one of the richest sandboxes out there. The cash shop offers mostly fluff but also allows players to buy items and chances at gaining great equipment that has real use in the game. It's not quite selling power, but it gets close enough to make it tempting. It's starting to show its, age but I still think it is still one of the best free models around.

I also enjoy how Free Realms pretty much forces a small subscription but has a cash shop that is packed absolutely full of wonderful toys, clothes, and neat-looking mounts. If there is going to be a cash shop in a game, it needs to be full of truly tempting items that give me the same wonderful impulsive rush that I get in real life when buying a new gadget or toy. Both of the games I mention offer plenty of options but balance the prices almost perfectly.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I have always been a big fan of the Guild Wars 1 model -- buying a box for the campaigns, not worrying about a sub, and never really needing to dip into the cash shop unless I wanted makeovers or name changes or cosmetic outfits. Guild Wars 2's doesn't annoy me much either, and it has the added bonus of allowing me to buy a bit of gold legitimately to fund the addictive money-sink that is crafting.

But the Guild Wars model is an anomaly in the genre; far more common is that money-grubbing, annoyance-laden hybrid model that Western MMOs love to adopt. Of all of those, I preferred City of Heroes' because it just seemed clean and honest. There were only a few bits (lockboxes, cost-obfuscation) that irked me, and for the most part, I was actually happy to buy costume pieces, new power sets, and new zones that I knew I'd actually use, and I could do so on a reasonably old sometimes-premium/sometimes-VIP account without losing too many gameplay perks. I especially liked the license for inventions, which basically made your uber characters playable on a $2 mini-sub -- that's something we don't often see from other F2P games. They're usually all or nothing.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
There is one tested model for MMOs that has always worked: a straightforward, vanilla monthly sub. The industry was built on that model because that's usually how a game can continue to grow in content. Yes, it means you have to pay monthly, but in comparison to the cost of a standard single-player game, $15 in an MMO goes much much further.

It seems that these days, most games that convert to the F2P model end up being a bit lackluster in terms of content and the restrictions F2P imposes. So I end up subscribing again anyway, which is quite likely the plan all along, but it means that there is then a dividing line between P2P and F2P people. They can't use the same water fountain as I can, and it seems wrong. In most F2P games, it seems devs continue to build on the F2P model by creating different kinds of "money" and making more items for the shop than what is standard in the game. Make me pay the $15 a month and give me content monthly, or don't make me pay and continue to give me content with the option of buying a new wig, but make sure the wig doesn't have super powers.

The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool sub guy, but I'm finding that I simply don't care anymore as long as the game is good. I'm still not much of a F2P fan because I feel that everyone should pay for what he consumes, but business models have next to no effect on my decision to play (or not play) games.

That said, I will agree with Beau and advocate for simple and straightforward. I don't care for "Microsoft Points" or "Station Cash," or whatever the BS currency is that's designed to ensure you're always a little bit short. Just charge me whatever you're going to charge me in dollars and I'll gladly pay it. Don't try to weasel more money out of me with that shady stuff. I also wouldn't mind an option for a more expensive everything-is-included monthly plan where you have automatic access to everything in the item shop going forward. That would please my inner-completist and save me the hassle of entering a bunch of $1.99 line items in my budget. I'm not holding my breath, though, because it's probably more profitable for game companies to charge piecemeal.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I, like Jef, used to be a staunch supporter of the standard subscription model. To this day, I'd generally rather pay a subscription than deal with a cash shop, and I have no problem with a $15-per-month subscription for a quality game; after all, $15 is about how much I'd spend on a night at the movies, so $15 for a month's worth of unlimited entertainment is a damn good deal in my eyes.

Of course, cash-shop models aren't intrinsically evil or anything, but I tend to look at most F2P business models in much the same way some others look at communism: fine in theory but with too many pitfalls to work in practice. Sure, there are some F2P games out there that have managed to perfect the balance of power in such a way that those with extra money to spend in the cash shop don't necessarily have an unfair advantage. However, a cursory look at some of the many F2P imports run by the likes of gPotato and Aeria (and so on) will show that such well-implemented cash shops are about as common as unicorns, and most games that feature cash shops tend to require you to spend the same amount of money that you would pay for a subscription (or more) in the cash shop in order to remain competitive.

I think insofar as business models are concerned, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have it right: There's no subscription; you just buy the box and then you can supplement your gameplay with cash shop purchases. But why am I OK with that when I'm generally not OK with cash shops in general? Put simply, the only things on offer in those two games' cash shops are purely cosmetic (new outfits, minipets, etc.) or provide only small conveniences like experience boosts. So to directly answer the question: I think GW2 and TSW are on the right track, and I wouldn't complain at all if more developers began adopting that model as well.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I like subscriptions and buy-to-play because any game worth playing is worth paying for. If a game is well-designed and locks into a specific demand from players, those players will pay to play it. If it offers an experience players can't readily get somewhere else, it will survive the free-to-play competition. Look at EVE Online: Subscriptions have gone up year-on-year since its release, despite the crash and clatter of F2P titles. The reason, of course, is that EVE delivers an experience players can't find anywhere else.

Sure, if you're making yet another fantasy-based MMO with mages, elves, and dragons, you're going to need to get creative about encouraging players to pay for it. And that's the problem: If the most creative thing about your game is the way you're attempting to monetize it, you've already screwed up.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
I kind of like EVE Online's sub model or really any model where wealthy players can subsidize free players in some way. F2P tends to create problems, particularly with the disparity between free and paying players. Microtransactions are completely fine, but the social conflicts between free and paid players will always be a problem. Ultimately, I don't mind as long as games continue to allow free players to play on the same level as paid ones. The rest is really nitpicking.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
After spending a large portion of the last decade paying monthly fees to subscription-based games, I'm glad the tide in the marketplace has changed. I think that going forward, new MMOs are going to have to do something vastly different than the norm in order to justify the recurring expense. I'm really enjoying the business model in Guild Wars 2. After buying the box, you have full access to every aspect of the game without a subscription fee. ArenaNet also makes money from an unobtrusive cash shop, which sells items that are cosmetic or provide conveniences. In addition, if you don't want to spend any hard earned cash, you can purchase items in the gem store by converting your in-game gold into gems. I think that model is about as perfect as you can get for my tastes at the moment.
The Think Tank What elements make up your perfect business model
In general, I admire a company's desire to provide new content for a fee. The studios are businesses, after all, and we need to stop expecting the world for free. That said, the ones that are doing it right, in my book, are Guild Wars 2, Wurm Online, and EVE Online.

EVE and Wurm both give you the option to pay for your game time by working really hard or just being smarter than the next guy. Earn that money in game and then pay for your time with that money. Of course, the conversion rate is ridiculous in some cases, but that's the price you pay for doing it this way. Guild Wars 2 has something similar, where you can earn in-game gold to convert to gems and use those gems to buy shop items and services (like new character slots), and I like that. I also like the option to buy in-game gold with real money, which helps to eliminate gold farming. I'm just not a big fan of lockboxes or cash shops with nothing new to offer. If a studio is making money selling certain items, get more of those items into that shop regularly.

I also think that every game with a microtransaction or pay-per-content business model should offer a VIP option to give those who enjoy the tried-and-true subscription model the choice to just do that and get everything.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.

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