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The Soapbox: No, 'we' don't hate the subscription model


If you're a casual reader of Massively and read a post or two from a few writers about business models, then you might get the impression that the Massively staff does not like the subscription model. While it's true that some of us praise some games for the choices their publishers have made regarding pricing models, others of us believe still other games have missed the mark. Lately, the subscription model has fallen under some hard scrutiny, but that doesn't mean that all of us dislike the subscription model completely, nor should a few writers' opinions be misconstrued as the opinion of the site as a whole, as if the site were some sentient thing to begin with.

Economists have made extremely persuasive arguments in favor of the subscription model, citing its cost-effectiveness with hard numbers and statistics. We've also seen free-to-play and buy-to-play models allowing companies to revitalize their game, and most importantly for the people employed by the developer, doubling and sometimes tripling their revenue. So at what point does the subscription work?

average gamer
The average gamer

In an article on Gamasutra earlier this fall, economist Isaac Knowles attempted to justify the subscription model. He explained that subscription MMOs make the most money per player by keeping players casual. Basically, if a player spends 30 hours a month playing, it will essentially cost him more money per hour to play the game versus a player who plays 60 hours a month. According to Knowles, it will cost this first player 50 cents an hour to play, whereas it will cost the second player only 25 cents an hour to play. Knowles cited the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in claiming that the average age of computer gamers is 33. In spite of the prevailing stereotypes, the average gamer isn't a teenager or college-aged student with a lot of time on his hands. So even though it might cost more for the average gamer to play a game, he becomes more valuable to the developer than someone who spends every waking hour logged in.

"Too many times I have seen MMO developers grossly underestimate the amount of time it will take for the average gamer to complete the content."

Theoretically, subscription-model developers can make better-quality content because they have to make less of it. If the average player will actually spend less time playing the game, developers can spend more time building a higher-quality product. Developers have time to polish content because it takes longer for the average gamer to complete. Of course, theory doesn't always pan out when dropped into the real world.

Too many times I have seen MMO developers grossly underestimate the amount of time it will take for the average gamer to complete the content or the average amount of time a gamer will actually spend in their games. Because of that, the development schedule has to be revamped or content has to be pushed out unpolished. Either way, the game begins to bleed players. Three months after launch, the game is spiraling downward in a way that could have been foreseen had the time-to-completion not been underestimated.

Time is value

But let's say that things do work the way the developers estimate. The average gamer, age 33 with children barking in the background of Mumble, will run out of content after about two months on average MMO, by my estimation. During the third month, the developer will announce new content, but that new content rarely takes the player a month to complete. What does the developer do then? Unfortunately, I don't have a good answer other than to say that I hope after the third month the devs are on a four- to six-week content cadence.

Developer-created content isn't the only way to add value to a subscription, though.

Endgame varies greatly depending on the MMO. Most themeparks rely on repeatable content at varying levels of difficulty. You'll see repeatable dungeons for small groups or raids for larger groups. Dailies work for individual players, but most dailies aren't enticing enough to warrant a subscription. Sandboxes can convince players to maintain a subscription by giving them the feeling that they're going to miss something if they don't log in. For instance, if a player doesn't maintain a sub, then his crafting production stops or he loses his place in PvP ranking. Ultimately, what keeps a player subscribed to a game is the value of his time spent in the game.

EVE Online
Right and wrong

Although I'm not a big EVE Online player, I do give credit to CCP for maintaining a subscription game for such a long time. I believe the game's success can be boiled down to two factors: a three-month development cycle and PLEX. Every three months, the developers promise new content that usually takes a month or two to complete. And the Pilot's Licence Extension (PLEX) can be purchased for a reasonable chunk of in-game credits, allowing hardcore players to cover a month's subscription by just playing the game.

Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic began losing subscribers when the development team would underdeliver on the product's endgame. I would venture to say that the producers and developers believed that players would continue to replay the initial launch product, therefore allowing the developer more time to produce additional content. But BioWare learned the hard way that you need to continually add value to a game if you want to keep people paying part of their monthly income to play your game.

The power of an hour

If it's possible for a subscription to do well, then why does it appear that journalists dislike that model? For the answer, we have to go back to the Knowles article. He says rightly that if the value of an additional hour falls below the hourly cost of the subscription, then players will unsubscribe. If the cost of the additional hour is zero (as it would be in a free-to-play game), then it's just a question of sacrificing the time. It's easier to see the value in a game that costs nothing to play than in a game that asks you to put a monetary value on your time.

"It's easier to see the value in a game that costs nothing to play than in a game that asks you to put a monetary value on your time."

When faced with future games that will launch with a subscription, like WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online, we find our opinions diverging because of the aforementioned time-to-value quotient. However, in WildStar players will be able to earn in-game credits that can be used to purchase game time. So theoretically, a portion of every hour a player spends in game goes toward additional future hours, thus adding value.

Personally, I don't believe either of those games should launch purely on subscription only to morph into some sort of free-to-play model six months to a year after launch, which I think both games will do unless they do one thing: consistent monthly updates. Games with subscriptions have to be a service, and there has to be something that players can point to and say, "This is what I paid for this month."

Show me the money

My message to developers who are considering a subscription model is simple: Show me that my paying monthly adds value to my time; then I will subscribe to your game. But what I consider to be valuable is different from what other people consider to be valuable. To help these future developers out, let them know in the comments the services and mechanics and features that add value to your game time. Do you like monthly events? Is a stipend and/or a discount to the cash shop enough? Maybe access to specific endgame zones will keep you subscribed. If developers listen closely to their players, then we will see the subscription model rise again.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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