(Long) Article: Problems with MMO payment Models

Well, this is another personal post of mine. I want to start out by saying that I haven't played an MMO in some time (about a year), but I've been active in following what's been going on, and I used to be quite an active gamer (until my Desktop broke... *insert whimpers and whining*).

Here's why, in my opinion, Free-to-Play (F2P) is "a thing". When I used to game heavily, I noticed something. Some gamers liked playing subscription models, which is somewhat fine. But I never played with them. Why? Because I didn't have much money to keep up the subscription. The money barrier kept me from playing with my friends.

And you know what, they eventually stopped playing a short while after. Why? Because their other friends weren't playing either... because of that money barrier.

Gamers know that games cost money to develop, and that's fine. And gamers can afford to buy games every now and then. But gamers aren't always rich. OK, some gamers are, but many gamers don't have much money. It can be a 14-year-old boy who comes home from school to play Battlefield 3 on his XBox 360, or it could be the 21-year-old at college playing GuildWars2 on his desktop after a full 8 hours of work at Wendy's, earning minimum wage. Or it might even be that 35-year-old tech-savvy dad who works in IT and games on his spare time.

Gamers come in all shapes and sizes. And not all are neckbeards... (OK, maybe I'm a hypocrite saying that... d*mn facial hair!) But some of us don't have a steady source of income, either because we aren't good at controlling our spending, our because we go through rough patches, or because we might not keep jobs for long (guys in their 20s with their first jobs? I'm talking to you... and myself... I need therapy *sigh*).

Whatever the reason, gamers might not have a steady source of income. And that's often not included in the pricing model of an MMO. That's because the people who make MMOs (executives) live in a world of ivory towers, fancy car of the year, and so forth. They forget who their target audience is, and how much money they might have. They also forget one of the most compelling reasons people play an MMO: the social factor.

Gamers don't simply play an MMO just for competition. Sure, it's part of it, but many gamers (far more than are considered) like to play with their friends. Call of Duty, GuildWars, you name it! Gamers like spending time with their friends, and playing with their friends. And their friends often live across the ocean, or in some other state, and can't come to play in a lan party. That's a distance barrier, which keeps them from enjoying their game - but there's a solution, and it's called (wait for it...) the internet!

However, an MMO subcription model means that if you want to play with someone else, they have to pay to buy the game. Then pay some more to continue to play. And then pay forever and ever until your wallet's soul belongs to EA (err... well, something like that). But you get the picture.

When pricing models become a barrier that keep more players from joining, sure you get a more interested community... but it's a very small community. Players leave because they don't have anyone to play with, feedback is limited so big bugs go unnoticed until they're a much bigger (and costlier, or more embarrassing) problem to resolve. The issue is that when your pricing model keeps players from joining, something is wrong.

World of Warcraft is only able to keep charging people to play because their fanbase is so large. You may not like to pay so much a month, but you have friends there you like to hang out with and play with, and that keeps you hooked. But most MMOs never get that far. They need to start out somewhere. And putting that price gate at the launch of a big AAA MMO is not only stupid - it's downright (financially) suicidal! Look at how many MMOs have fallen. Sure, many new ones pop up, but few remain.

There are several models beyond the subscription model. Free-to-Play (or F2P) means the game is free, but there are micro-transactions. A good example is DDO (Dungeons and Dragons Online). It's an example of an MMO with good gameplay, and lots of fun... but I never played it for more than two weeks before quitting for six months! Because most of it's content was (once again) blocked by that annoying "pay barrier". It kept me from diving in and enjoying myself. Even though I met other friends through the game, I couldn't join them in certain areas... and I eventually quit.

When 90% of your game is behind pay barriers, you're really just setting gamers up for frustration. It gives gamers a bad memory association with your game and publisher brand, which makes gamers feel somewhat uneasy when they hear your brand name or your franchise. You know the face that most gamers make when they hear the words "EA" or "Origin" or "Sim City Online" ? Yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

To make a good MMO, you have to get people (metaphorically) "addicted" to your game before you charge them. You've got to get them immersed, involved, interested, intrigued, excited, anxious. Once they can't wait for the next moment, or what monster or treasure may be beyond that next turn beyond that pillar in some far-flung cave in SomethingPlaceWhateverStein, you've got the gamer immersed. He wants to play, he's excited, he's involved. And he'll pay good money to continue playing.

But you can't do that with just a game demo. You can't do that with just a game trailer. You have to give them a live sample of it beforehand, otherwise it just won't work.

WildStar has come up with an interesting model. The "Pay-Through-Play" model, or "Pay-With-Play", in which you pay for your subcription through being more active in the game, earning in-game currency to pay for your subscription. This is very intriguing, but it's also somewhat limited, because casual gamers are still going to be limited, and even though hardcore games might like the game, your casual gamer might get cussed out by the hardcore gamers for "not casting the right spell" (also known as the blame game), which might cause once more those negative associations with your game franchise and/or publisher brand. So keeping only a hardcore gamer audience isn't the way to go, especially considering the money to be made from casual gamers or "medium gamers" (not hardcore, not casual, somewhere in between).

There's also the "Pay-to-Win" model, or P2W is what we had in the Diablo III real-money auction house. It allowed gamers to sell for real money their in-game items, and it allowed less-skilled gamers to buy these items for money. Thus, it allowed less-skilled players to beat more skilled ones by having better items. This became the bane of many gamers, and it enraged them to no end. They wanted a game of skill, an equal playing ground where skill (and maybe a bit of luck) determined the outcome. Gamers don't want a game where the one who makes the biggest down-payment wins - because it's not a game, it's just buying a victory, and there's no fun is losing because you aren't as rich as the other guy.

Ultimately, there's also the GuildWars model. Buy once, and then buy DLCs as more content comes out. The initial purchase pays for the hosting, the DLCs pay for hosting of existing/prior customers and also pays for the new content to explore (but also rewarding those who bought the DLC with that new content). It should be noted that this model does have a lot of advantages. Basically, now you have a game that is online, but that's only because of the scale and interactivity of it - not because of some stupid, artificial DRM-related nonsense. You've got a game for life, you bought it and it's yours. No need to keep paying for it as if you're renting a game, it's yours to own for life - the way gamers wanted it in the first place.

With ESO (Elder Scrolls Online), we're going to pay 15$ a month (I hear now it's going to be 10$ a month), but there's 60$ upfront and one month free. That means if the game costs 15$ a month, that's 60$ + 11 x 15$, or 225$ in a single year! Or, if it's 10$ a month, that's still 60$ + 11 x 10$, or 170$ in a single year! Few gamers would actually pay 170$ for a game they intend to play for a year or longer. Remember Skyrim? How many people still play it today, and still make mods for it?

Considering that, it's no wonder gamers don't like the subscription model. We've got better deals out there, better alternatives. GuildWars figured out that gamers like to own the games they have, because they never know when financial troubles may come. And they like it that way. Gamers don't want to "rent" games for life, they want to own games for life.

Other models are possible, such as putting advertisements in a game. But that only creates a bad memory association with the game and the product being advertised - a bad idea, if I've ever heard of one. It also makes gamers stare at advertisement screens instead of playing the game they love. They'll often just close the window, open up Steam and play some other game instead - one that doesn't make them jump through hoops. (Think of how many times you've pressed the "Skip Ad" button on YouTube, or jumped ahead to skip the in-video ad of Linus's Squarespace commercial.)

Here's a pretty good article about it, from a WordPress blogger: http://casualaggro.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/best-mmo-payment-model-ever/

I agree. Let gamers earn content through playing, but don't make us play forever. Let games buy the game at a fixed price to begin, and then earn more content through playing or through buying the extra content. Gamers who are cheap can complete quests to get access to new areas or storylines, but other gamers can buy the new content. Gamers who play get to understand the storyline and plot, and get more immersed in the game, and maybe hear extra tidbits of information along the way that the other gamers wouldn't hear. Thus, it rewards immersion (and maybe a bit of roleplaying).

You can find more info on that link above. Have fun! (Does anyone think this should be a blog post, or not?)

Actually i prefer sub over free to play . Wildstar idea is interesting . Curious to see how it works out .  Free to play has ruined many good games. Subbing is okay in short term 6 months or less.

Not so sure. I know of those problems, but I wouldn't want to "rent" a game by paying a subscription.

However, I think I might like your idea, if modified. Maybe if you subscribe (and play actively) for X-months, you own the game for life (no more subscription cost). So maybe subscribe and play actively for 4 months, and now you own the game. Also, you pay the initial upfront cost of maybe 60$. So, 60$ and 4x 10$ monthly subscriptions, then 100$ later the game is yours for life. Now that keeps casual gamers less interested, and it keeps activity up. =)

Reward activity, reward exploration, reward cooperation, reward helpfulness. By rewarding, rather than punishing, you encourage better gaming and more socialization. =)

Ya that also seems a interesting idea .  Free to play will never support those ideals . It would be nice to see such a thing. Subbing comes as close as i have seen to such a community . I have to admitt the farming F2P players has kept me entaintained for more than one night.

Well, I don't think anyone likes farming, unless the game is fun. When you're level 49, looking for a rare item dropped by level 15 monsters in an early area of the game, it's not much fun.

This is why an Auction House works in many games. But it can't be such that paying players can pay to get anything, like the Real-Money Auction House in Diablo III.

I've got some ideas.

1 - Reward exploration and attainment: Make exploring the game, reading lore books, taking quests, making the right choices and more something that's rewarded, rather than time consuming. Make it fun, because immersion *really* helps keep people involved. Ever seen two ElderScrolls Loremaster nerds debating about the disappearance of the Dwemer and referencing the Imperial Library fan-made website for info? Yeah, that's the kind of bond people can share over a really fun, immersive game. If you make playing the game itself fun, you've got yourself a good game. Get people interested in getting involved, getting attached - that locks players into the franchise, and keeps them interested. Bethesda, Blizzard, Square Enix and a few other gaming companies have achieved this level of immersion and fan support, but few have. Learn from their examples.

2 - Reward good behavior, punish bad behavior: It's simple, and may sound limiting, but it just works. In Skyrim you may be hunted for a bounty if you do certain things. But don't just limit it to how you treat NPCs, or obey local in-game law. In an MMO, you have a community to look out for. Make sure players harassing others are temporarily banned. A week of time-out might give them time to think about what they've done. This way trolling other players, spamming sale messages and other types of behavior (like bots) is punishable by character ban, account ban, IP ban, or other methods. One way might be to block whatever the offering ability was used. Was some player using skills to spam or annoy others? Account-wide Skill ban, so your character might not be able to use Skills for a week, or maybe forever if that type of behavior continues. Was some player using messages to spam others or harass others? Why not give an account-wide Message ban, so the character becomes mute? Was some player harassing your character by "teabagging" (stand and duck repeatedly over the defeated character's face) the defeated opponents in PvP? If his goal is to humiliate others, maybe disallowing him to do anything but stand might be a good start, but not allowing his characters to equip any item other than a Teabag suit might be downright hilarious and poetic!

3 - Make competition fair, and PvP beginner-friendly and low-level-friendly: Yes, this sounds obvious, and some may sound offensive to more skiller players, but bear with me. In a PvP match, what's the fun of an experienced player with a level 90 character fighting a level 4 character? Not much, I'd say. In certain kinds of PvP, balance it out so it's a match of skill rather than a match of items or stats. Some things will stay, obviously, but by balancing it out so that the character's levels are matched appropriately, and the items are are made to have a much lower difference, it makes gaming fun. Imagine making a level 5 character and taking on a level 60 in PvP and winning! Also, it allows players to test their skill, rather than their character build. Also, make it so players who kill newbies in mass PvP guild faction combats will lose their bonuses. Think of adding a killstreak which gives an increased bonus for every similarly-leveled or higher-leveled enemy you kill, but that bonus either drops or is negated when you face an enemy of a lower tier. Maybe make it so that high-level players can't attack low-level players first, but they can retaliate if attacked first. (A good way to keep newbie players from clicking on the wrong opponent is to use a color-coded system above the enemy character names, or maybe just a color-coded icon or aura, to make sure it's easier to identify similarly-leveled opponents or higher-leveled opponents if you're feeling ambitious, lucky or just downright suicidal...)

4 - Give players option on how to acquire more content: Not all of us want to pay 10$ a month. Some people might want to pay 60$ and get it over with. And some people might not be able to afford it. And some might not have a problem paying 200$ a year, and even buying things in the game mall to boot with micro-transactions! But to get the most players and money, you need to give them options. Here you can get the community to help you, by rewarding players who make the community better. Somebody in the forum is really helpful? How about allowing players with a subscription to endorse him, every X (insert_arbitrary number) of endorsements he gets maybe he'll earn one month extra of subscription free of charge for him to keep, or give to a friend. Maybe give players who are really active a way to earn a free subscription, by playing a lot, helping newbies in their quests as a tank or healer, maybe offering free healing in newbie towns. Heck, maybe just telling newbies where to go might work. If you have a good, kind-hearted, friendly community, it's good for everyone, and it keeps players involved, and as they make in-game friends they'll really be drawn in and kept in the game - which means more profit. By giving players options on how to pay for content and access, you've found a way to get more players to enjoy the game, and they "pay" for their game by making it better for everyone. Word of mouth gets around, and suddenly many more players come in.

5 - Make specialized servers, and make them smart: Some gamers prefer roleplaying or immersion. Some are powergamers looking to make the most powerful character possible. Some are competitive, playing in PvP because AI just isn't as fun. Some are casual gamers, looking to distract themselves for a few hours. Some are hardcore, who play religiously many hours a day. Some just enjoy the social element of the game, as a hangout with friends. But whatever the case may be, you can either try to make a game that caters to one particular group and then exclude all others (which limits your audience)... or you can make many types of servers. PvE (Players versus Everyone) is where players don't have a PvP option in-game, which makes it better for beginners and for exploration (without being bugged or ambushed by PK players). Many games have PvE and PvP servers separately... but why should we stop there? Why not have Roleplaying servers, Hardcore servers, social servers, casual servers, etc? Make them smart, so by collecting their usage information about who they hang out with, what they do in the game, how frequently they play, how well they play and so forth, the server can decide where they best fit, and place them accordingly in a server that fits them best. But of course, a player could move to another server to meet up with friends if he/she wanted to. Also, a player might be able to *earn* the right to join a certain server, like the Roleplaying or Hardcore servers. And a player might lose the ability to join certain servers, like the Hardcore or PvP servers, depending on behavior and/or how frequently the game is accessed and/or played by the player. A player might have to re-earn the ability to join a certain server (like Hardcore) by playing for a certain number of hours a week, for two or three weeks. This makes the game better for everyone!


There's a lot more that can be done. But, meh, I got tired or typing.

1st... That Wildstar idea has already been implemented with MMO called EVE Online... and it works... or at least worked for EVE for years...

2nd... even with F2P games you are still "renting" them...  because they still own the servers... they close the servers.. you can't play...  (of course there are private servers... but they could always charge too..)

3rd... if you can't afford the 10 bucks a month to play said mmo you probably shouldn't be playing the game in the first place...

4th... I rather have a subscription fee over all those cash shop / micro-transactions crap that in some cases are forced into pay into

5th... PvE is Player vs. Environment not player vs. everyone...  everyone still implies players... which it's not...

6th... A few mmo, that i know of, maybe more, have "level scaling" so when you go to PvP areas you are automatically max level... (looking at you guild was 2) or when you go to lower level area your level is reduced so those areas can still be fun...  (Guild wars 2, and FFXI)... apart from that why would you go to a pvp area when you'e level 4 anyways?

7th... Having 5 bajillion servers to meet every possible player type would be expensive and ridiculous... that's why they have guilds, linkshells, or whatever you want to call them.. that way you can have hardcore guilds, casual guilds, roleplaying guilds, every-one-meet-up-on-saturday-afternoon guilds...

8th... there's 8 of these!?  >.<

2: Regarding "renting" a server in F2P. You're doing the same in a paid MMO as well. MMOs shut down, even if you pay for them. It's in the Terms of Service. They can shut down for any reason, including (but not limited to) bankruptcy (which is quite often in the MMO world).

3: No. I totally disagree. I think a pay barrier is a bad thing. There are other ways to encourage player participation, and honestly, I think the GuildWars pay model is much better. I don't like paying for an MMO as if it's a service like Netflix. I prefer to buy a game like I do off of Steam, or like I buy a DVD from Walmart. I want to own what I buy, and not have to pay a subscription fee for life. This is personal, but I'd rather pay a larger amount upfront and not have to be reminded with a bill for life.

4: Covered in #3. I also think micro-transactions might be bad, depending on how they work. Star Citizen offers consumables which don't offer much advantage, and cosmetic changes via the cash shop. But that's not the Play to Win model, it's simply cosmetic changes and temporary, slight advantages that mostly help in non-PvP environments.

5: I forgot it was called Player versus Environment. Sorry. And you are correct, Player versus Everyone implies other players, which is indeed incorrect. My mistake.

6: I do like the level scaling. However, I'd still like level scaling in PvP. Because what greater triumph could I have than beating my friend's level 50 ArchMage with my level 4 Warrior, with level scaling? Some people just want to jump right in and fight in arena-type battles, rather than immerse oneself in endless quests and grinding. Why not give players the option? (Speaking of which, make the role of Arena fighter a viable option in MMOs! It'd make for a much more entertaining game. Heck, betting in-game currency on player gladiators with perma-death for Gladiator-type characters would also be entertaining as heck!)

7: Well, maybe not. Look at how many servers Guild Wars 2 has. And consider how many "instances" we have in DDO, and other MMOs? We might not have full-fledged, dedicated servers for certain types of playstyles. But why not instances where certain groups of players can join up due to mutual interests? Obviously this would only work if there were 1,000 or more concurrent players at any given time on a server, but for a AAA-rated MMO, that's a walk in the park. *

* Guilds don't help. You can join a guild, and still have occasional players who join up for certain quests who are casual players, or who might be inexperienced, or might not be very skilled. Finding players like you automatically keeps you from joining the wrong groups. Remember many MMO players don't even know what "instances" are. By making it transparent to the user, it keeps him from being bothered by it, and it makes the game more fun for that game and others like him. Also, the player could select what type of game style he likes at first by answering some in-game questions in the tutorial of his character, the same way questions are asked to "The Prisoner" in Morrowind or "The Prisoner" in Skyrim.

I think the buy to play model for an MMO is the way to go, although I have not played any MMO outside of F2P. I understand entirely the argument that subscription>F2P, as all to often I have played an MMO, joined, and found myself in a starting area with people who clearly do not give a shit. I also find many players not playing for an immersive or enjoyable experience, instead bringing down the experience for others, and players who just pay their way to the top.

On the other hand, I think having to pay at all for a game means a vast majority of players are playing the game because they want to play the game. This has a compounding effect, making it more enjoyable for existing players that new players are playing to play the game, which essentially cycles.

I think the subscription model just charges and expects too much, and forces too much of a commitment. The buy to play model with either no or purely cosmetic micro transactions is the perfect middle ground in my opinion, because it still has the effect of eliminating negative players that sub model does, whilst still appealing to the "medium players" in your words, and to some degree even casual players. It's sad to see how few MMOs are following this model, because F2P seems to encourage a more negative community, decrease the fairness involved in the game, and in many cases bring upon the downfall of the game.

Agreed in full! =)