Archaic MMO Subscription Fees: Welfare for Hardcore Players?

Thankfully most of us live in a world where competition spurs on industries to make better products. In most cases this drive to succeed has the end result of giving people more choices. As consumers we also value the notion that we pay only for what we use. Let’s look at how a steak house operates: the hungry man that wants to order a filet mignon can pay the high price tag for his pleasure; the weight conscious woman that wants to eat a light salad pays considerably less and both of them can order mashed potatoes and a side of vegetables if they wish.

The beauty of an a la carte menu is that we only pay for what we order — we don’t pay for the lobster the guy at the next table is eating. This kind of restaurant dining experience is a proven, successful, time-tested transaction between the vendor and the customer.

Why then can’t MMO companies offer similar a la carte pricing? Why should one group of players have to subsidize the activities of other players?

Recently Tesh posted an article entitled Five Dollar Vanilla WoW. He makes a valid point that given the current real world economic slump and given the fact that SOE’s new upstart Free Realms MMO offers different subscription options, WoW’s current pricing structure seems somewhat archaic and dated. He outlines some entirely reasonable subscription price points for WoW:

$5/month for vanilla WoW

$10/month for vanilla WoW + The Burning Crusade

$15/month for vanilla WoW + TBC + Wrath of the Lich King

I wholeheartedly agree with this concept. I’d like to take this a step further and bring up a point I made many years ago back in 2004…

How Casual Gamers Subsidized Raiders Back in EverQuest

Once upon a time there was a MMORPG called EverQuest and in it lived two powerful dragons. They were seemingly invulnerable but eventually some intrepid players got together and decided to try to kill those dragons. This activity gave these guilds a new found sense of purpose. Players realized that if they banded together and worked cooperatively they could achieve greater things then what was possible with a mere 6 person group. They called it “raiding”.

These great deeds garnered these raiders lots of press and attention. EQ Guildmasters like Furor and Tigole became the MMO equivalent of “rock stars”. The SOE devs eager to gain some of the spotlight started to cater to this type of play style. (Think of the devs as the equivalent of “drug dealers” to these MMO rock stars).

Eventually a disproportionate amount of money and resources were funneled into the creation of raiding encounters. This had the negative side effect of leaving casual gamers — those with jobs, families and lives — with sub-par content. Casual players were all but forgotten. The sad reality was this: despite the fact they were paying the lion’s share of the subscription revenue casual players were subsidizing hardcore/powergamer/raiders.

From my Open Letter to SOE at the Guild Summit in 2004:

I urge Woody and everyone that has the good fortune to attend the SOE guild summit to please stop and think about what’s good for everyone who plays EverQuest not just the privileged few. It seems that SOE has again pandered to high level guilds and have invited many of their guild leaders to attend in an effort to stop the hemorrhaging. Maybe next month we can have a “player summit” where average players get to speak to SOE. Let me remind them and SOE that casual gamers subsidize the powergamers in this game. Soon there may not be any left to pay the bills for your fun.

At that time in EverQuest’s life it had been allowed to morph into a raid-centric MMO despite the fact that raiding was never part of the vision or intended as core gaming experience for its players. The end result from all of this is that casual gamers who were the overwhelming majority of subscribers were treated like 2nd class citizens despite the fact they were subsidizing the tiny minority of “rock star” raiders. With this practice SOE set a horrible design precedent of pandering to a small segment of their subscribers.

Guess what MMO came along and scooped up all those disenfranchised casual players? The rest is history.

Et Tu, Blizzard?

While Blizzard offered a refreshing and more casual friendly alternative to EverQuest, their devs seemed to fall into the old SOE trap and favored one play style over another without any regard to the accessibility and popularity of that content with their subscribers. Two examples come to mind:

  • One lead designer favored raiding and gave us the white elephant raid instance that was Naxaramas — a dungeon that took years to design and implement —  that almost nobody ever experienced until they cleverly repurposed it for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
  • The other lead designer favored PVP with the creation of various PVP experiments such as the Honor System, Battlegrounds, Arenas and E-sports Tournaments. Again there was no evidence that players were clamoring for this kind of content.

As we have seen in the above cases, some game designers seem to have no concept of what is popular or practical from the perspective of the player base. Devoid of any sense of accountability, they design what *they* want and the result was the wasteful monuments to self-indulgence that were Naxxramas and E-sports.

Much of the problem here is that there is no direct correlation to the number of dollars being expended on these projects compared to the number of subscribers that are actually using them. Of course Blizzard has all the internal data but they are afraid to release the actual statistics of how their MMO is being used as players might force them to be more accountable.

What we are left with is an unfair pricing structure that breeds a lack of accountability that has plagued the MMO industry since its inception. Why should players pay for features that they will never use? Why should the majority of subscribers pay for a play style that only a minority of players with the time and inclination can experience?

One Size Fits All Subscription Fees = Welfare for Hardcore Players

The culprit here is the “all you can eat” buffet style monthly subscription fee paradigm. At its most fundamental level it gives everyone access to the same features but charges the same fee to a player that plays for a few hours a week and the player that plays 6 hours per day. Not only are hardcore players getting more value for their subscription fee due to the excessive amount of hours they are playing, they are also shown favoritism by the devs by getting better content and more content then casual players.

It’s also worth mentioning that hardcore players with the very best epic gear can experience significantly more content versus the casual player decked out in greens.

This kind of one size fits all pricing scheme is nothing more then a welfare program for hardcore players. Yet any call to make hardcore players actually pay for 1) the advanced content they are experiencing and 2) the actual time they are spending on the server would result in howls of protest on the forums dominated by — you guessed it — hardcore players.

Could Cable TV Pricing Hold the Answer?

Cable, Satellite and broadband TV providers use a tiered pricing structure that is more adaptive and responsive to customer needs then the current MMO flat fee scheme. Viewers who want to purchase specialty channels like HBO and Starz can pony up the extra money; while people who want to only watch local TV and basic cable channels pay a nominal fee. The philosophy is fair and simple:

  • You pay for what you use
  • The more channels you watch, the more you pay

Why don’t MMO companies use a similar pricing methodology?

To expand on Tesh’s suggestion a bit further here is my take on some possible WoW subscription pricing:

Basic Package

  • Basic WoW $4.99 per month

World Events Package

  • World Events plus Basic WoW $6.99  month

PVP Packages

  • Battlegrounds PVP package plus Basic WoW $5.99 per month
  • Arena PVP package plus Basic WoW $6.99 per month
  • Total PVP package with Basic WoW $7.99 per month

Instance Packages

  • 5 Person Instance package plus Basic WoW $7.99 a month
  • 5 Person Heroic Instance  package plus Basic WoW $8.99 per month

Raiding Packages

  • 10 Person Raiding package plus Basic WoW $10.99 per month
  • 25 Person Raiding package plus Basic WoW $11.99 per month

Advanced Customer Service and Tech Support

  • add $2.99 per month

Total WoW Package

  • Includes all WoW packages $15.99 per month

Enlightened Pricing Means Better MMOs

In the cable industry specialty channels have to compete for subscriber dollars by delivering a quality product that people want to purchase. If the content is terrible then viewers don’t subscribe and the channel goes out of business.

If the MMO industry used the same pricing philosophy then various play styles and activities would be subject to the same discipline of the marketplace and have to compete for their share of that MMO’s subscriber dollar pie. This would have the effect of ensuring that resources are allocated to successful MMO features instead of fiascoes like Naxxramas and Arena PVP.

The result would be a better MMO and a more responsive MMO company that actually provides content that subscribers would willingly pay for and use.

The Free Realms Effect and a Warning to Blizzard

The fact that SOE’s wildly successful Free Realms offers different pricing tiers is a game changer and a wake up call for the MMO industry. Here we have an incredibly fun and polished MMO that charges $4.99 as its maximum subscription rate. Suddenly the $14.99 I pay each month for WoW feels like I’m being overcharged and ripped off. This is even more ridiculous given that fact that I only log on for a few hours each week — I don’t PVP, group, raid or even bother to participate in World Events.

Let’s not forget the fact that introducing a tiered pricing structure doesn’t even begin to address the unfairness of Blizzard not charging players who are online constantly versus those of us who barely play at all. Let’s also not forget that Blizzard/Activision has been siphoning off revenue from WoW and funneling them into other projects — that is precisely how SOE got into trouble in the past as they pumped money into the development of EQ2 and let EQ languish.

Then there’s the fact that Blizzard has demonstrated they are woefully inept at delivering content on a timely basis despite enjoying a staggeringly huge economies of scale development advantage with their 11.5 million subscribers over every other MMO company.

So just what are we paying for?

Conclusion

Suddenly a loyal player like myself who’s been playing WoW since 2004 and owns every Collector’s Edition is not feeling very enthusiastic about subscribing to WoW any more.  Blizzzard seems uncaring and out of touch. Given the current economic recession it feels like they are taking me and my hard earned subscription dollars for granted. Heck, they don’t even have a customer loyalty program for their long term faithful customers.

The days of making everyone pay for content they never use are rapidly coming to an end in the MMO business.

-Wolfshead

63 thoughts on “Archaic MMO Subscription Fees: Welfare for Hardcore Players?

  1. While Guild Wars is not a classic MMORPG and does not charge subscription fees, ArenaNet has changed the model slightly with their new shop that sells features like extra character slots and storage “tabs” and similar stuff.

    But I actually want to point out that Guild Wars was marketed as PvP MMO. PvP was supposed to be the fun, neverending endgame.
    It did not work out. Over 90% of Guild Wars players only play PvE or the more casual Battleground style PvP, while the tournament system Heroes Ascent and Guild vs Guild, supposedly the heart of Guild Wars, are often not played at all. They were not as successful with the players.

    Still, skill balance often neglected the PvE side of the game and there was a culture of condescendence on the forums that was probably never intended this way, PvP and PvP players were catered to like the EQ raiding rockstars and the more PvE oriented crowd was dissatisfied.

    Still, most of the new content catered to more casual PvP, with Battleground style PvP Alliance Battles becoming very popular. PvE was also worked on enormously, in contrast to PvP updates which were restricted to skill updates most of the times.

    We have something similar in Tobolds Casual vs Hardcore Raiders debate. Old Naxx for an elect few vs the new Naxx for everyone. Basically, raiding for everyone vs more challenging raiding. Both are hard to combine, and MY idea would be to just get over raiding as almost the sole form of endgame content.

    This notion is relict of the glorious immemorable EQ past, I wonder how many WoW raiders are not raiders per se but just item hunters at heart. They would basically do everything if it gets them new and better items, raiding or not.

    PRICING:
    Tricky, I tend to disagree with the more flexible payment alternatives, and I am especially critical of micro transactions and how they change player and developer mindset, e.g. declaring what is optional and must be paid for.

    But you just mentioned different types of subscriptions, so I am not in trouble with the ideas mentioned in your article.

    You made some examples, but I think it is tricky to divide content up. I rarely ever played Arena in WoW, but would still go for the full package. Slightly deviating from the topic, but I would really like to pay for premium support just to see if I get finally some kind of support that is not a GM that knows nothing, can do nothing and asks me if I can help me with nothi… erm whatever. :)

    Tesh had the idea of a fee free “vanilla” WoW, maybe without some features, but I think this is a good idea. It allows players to test the game and if it is good, what every company actually should assume about their game, they will stay and subscribe for even more content.

    I also fear that such pricing models evolve slowly into item mall style MT systems, certain high level dungeons being pay to play and so on.

    We already have this with Fallout 3. Bethesda released often very smallish and not so well done DLC, downloadable content. The price is quite high, around 8-10 EUR for an episode. So far they released Operation Anchorage, shooter style, very uninspired, The Pitt, better but very short, and Broken Steel, expanding the game to level 30 and adding a bit more than just more and mostly very imbalanced weapons and armors.

    In short, the quality was not that great and the price was extremely high compared to the original package, and it is justified to milk dedicated Fallout fans by the notion that it is all “optional”. Hum!

    It seems to be a cash cow, suddenly they decided to release at least 2 more DLC packs… :)

    It is a holiday today in Germany, but I think I have already delivered enough food for thought.

  2. Funnily enough, it’s easy to end up paying more for Free Realms than for WoW. Things like Habbo Hotel are even worse. And in EvE, there’s the infamous case of a Russian aluminium tycoon funding his alliance to the tune of $100 000. Whether this is because of obsessive players, price-gouging developers and/or minimum costs for transactions, I don’t know.

    Also, some people simply despise the idea that real-world wealth translates into an advantage in the virtual world, and champion the fixed-cost model as the great equalizer.

    Finally, I personally disagree that progressing in WoW requires a disproportionate time investment when compared to any other team-based hobby and is thus only attainable by the nolifers. Amateur athletes and musicians also devote more than a few hours per week to their hobby, but they also take it seriously. They have a limited amount of time, so it makes sense to make it count.

    PS. Tobold has recently clarified his stance, stating that both easy Naxx and hard Ulduar should have been there at WotLK release. Cater to both, not only one or the other.

  3. I’m very cautious of the idea of RMT, especially charging more for more difficult content.

    The reason is that I think people who pay for content have an expectation that they’ll get what they paid for ie. they’ll kill the bosses, not spend months bashing their heads against some hard encounter. So even though charging for raids sounds great in theory, in practice you can bet you’d be charged extra for stuff which would make the game easier, not harder. I think existing RMT bears this out, with charging for xp potions and shiny gear.

    I could see charging for access to extra zones though. The main concern I’d have is that if you could choose which zones to pay for, who would ever pay for lowbie zones once they had levelled out of them? But you need those zones so that new players can level through them and eventually come raid with you (presumably). So it’s actually a general benefit to the game to keep levelling accessible even if very few people play it. I’m against rulesets that make it more difficult for people to group with each other, in principle and a barrier of real cash is just as harsh as a barrier of level or gear requirements.

    I note in passing that welfare is clearly more of a red flag word to americans than euros, I’d be more likely to talk about casuals subsidising the hardcore — although the pool of more hardcore players does include a lot of the people who run guilds and raids and prepare websites full of info for casuals to use.

    I agree that in theory, it would be fairer if the hardcore guys paid more (because they play more!). But I can’t think of any way to do it that would work better than what we have. Maybe getting them to pay for subsidiary benefits like awesome guild websites and tools, rather than in game benefits would be the way to go.

  4. I want to second Hirvox, the “F2P RMT” model relies on the 1 in 12 players that shells out more money than he ever could in a subscription based game.

    “Free Realms” is actually a funny name for the game. I never got asked so many times if I want to become a member. ;)

  5. I want to second Hirvox, the “F2P RMT” model relies on the 1 in 12 players that shells out more money than he ever could in a subscription based game.

    It’s curious that you’d use that as a counterpoint, since that is exactly the point of the model and Wolf’s argument. Players who play more pay more. In a sane business, that’s somewhat closer to “fair” than “one size fits all”.

  6. Have you seen any of these games that did not give players a strong incentive to buy this, buy that, this little extra, that little extra?

    I am quite opposed to have to pay extra to get an “enhanced” experience.

  7. Again, Longasc, that’s exactly the point. If you’re playing the whole of WoW, it’s *already* an enhanced experience over those who just want to play (and pay for) vanilla WoW and no raids. The thing is, those players are paying for the “enhanced” stuff without necessarily wanting it or even having access to it. Is it fair that they are paying for something they won’t use and/or don’t want? They may also be opposed to paying for an “enhanced” experience since it’s not relevant to them.

    Likewise, are you opposed to paying a premium for more savory fare in a restaurant? If you just want the cheeseburger, but have to pay the cover fee for steak *no matter what you actually consume*, does that seem equitable to you? Would it be more fair to have a menu that people could select their desired items from, and pay reasonably scaled prices for their choices? Say, paying steak prices for steaks, and cheeseburger prices for cheeseburgers?

  8. It would be interesting to see how game dynamics changed if you got the raids for free but had to pay extra for solo endgame progression style content :)

      • Probably, but I think it’s an interesting thought experiment about the power of RMT to change player behaviour. RMT seems appealing if you think that you can get to pay less and ‘the others’ will pay more, but what if the devs decide that the content that you like to do should incur the premium?

        I think with RMT, that’s always a possibility.

  9. I really wish people attempting to argue for a new economic model within MMORPG’s would stop claiming that Free Realms was “wildly successful”.

    It is a free game, for all we know 1% of their one million subscribers could actually be paying. From a PR stand point one million subscribers is a triumph, economically the game probably can’t even pay for the servers it runs on.

    It sounds from your writing that you barely log into WoW for more then soloing a few mobs and chatting with old in game friends. May I suggest moving on to a game you actually enjoy (possibly Free Realms? It is really polished I admit) and using a chat client to connect with the same friends?

    Unless they set the max at what any player can pay at around the 15 dollar mark (what we on average pay now) then we will have an RMT driven system found in most F2P games now where the payments will start escalating out of control.

    A cable TV system would not work at all for anyone except those that clearly know what their doing every time they log in (sitting in town and chatting all night). As an EVE player some days I just want to go mining, all night. Sometimes I do that for a 3 weeks and then I go exploring space for a week, possibly exploring the wormhole space from the new expansion, or I join up with my clan for a system siege, or I do some missions, and the next day I work on crafting (industry).

    Imagine I had to pay for each separate event long before I knew which I would be doing? I would end up just paying the 15 dollars a month again (assuming that was the set maximum) and this conversation would be null and void. I’m not hardcore, I have both a job and a girlfriend. I have two very little sisters (don’t ask) who have elementary school concerts to attend. I go to college during the fall/winter months. I still manage to make due.

    To the writer I make this suggestion; find an MMO that meets your playstyle better than WoW. WoW, just like its predecessor EQ is a raiding game. Whether or not is started that way is moot. There are other MMO’s out there that are not like this and may suit you better.

    Take for example EVE, say you can get past the learning curve ( it’s rough ) then you may find numerous methods of playing without having to dedicate hours of your time (although it may take you a month to get your skills to an appropriate level, and oversight by the developers). Free Realms sounds like it may cater to you as well as it is built for the casual gamer and its priced that way too.

    It sounds to me like you need a scenery change not a price change. Leaving Azeroth is tough but sometimes it needs to be done.

    *I do not hold myself responsible for any grammatical errors found within this post as these blogs do not allow editing

  10. “economically the game probably can’t even pay for the servers it runs on”

    That assumption is just as faulty as the one you rail against, and a fine example of subscriber bias. We don’t have numbers from *any* of these MMO providers, so we can only talk of generalities and economic theory.

    To that end, market segmentation and a la carte pricing are proven strategies, which is the major point of the article. WoW and FR are examples, not the heart of the argument.

    Telling someone to leave for another game is also missing the point. Wolf may indeed have more fun with FR, but the argument is that the subscription model of one size fits all isn’t keeping pace with the market realities. WoW presents itself as a “big tent” game that tries to pull people in, and it would behoove them to pay a bit more attention to the market. Changing the subject to Wolf’s personal preferences is tangential at best. (Though the assessment may be accurate, given the nature of casual and short-session gaming, it’s not really the heart of the article.)

  11. Tesh, I thought about different prices for different menus.

    But I fear the analogy is limping! :)

    I can tell you, I would not be happy if I have to pay different prices for a 10 man and extra for 10+25 or 25 player only content versions.

    Okay, these were just examples. But for how many different things will we pay differently? This would not only be against what I personally want, but also hurt immersion. I think I once mentioned it, the dungeon with the “PAY TO ENTER” signpost would really turn me off.

    I can imagine continent size areas to be unlocked this way, but unlocking professions like in Free Realms for money is definitely not my cup of cake.

    • Okay, these were just examples. But for how many different things will we pay differently? This would not only be against what I personally want, but also hurt immersion. I think I once mentioned it, the dungeon with the “PAY TO ENTER” signpost would really turn me off.

      Or we could put a big nasty troll NPC there collecting a toll from everyone that enters :)

      But all joking aside, as far as charging for every little thing that’s taking things to the point of absurdity. The solution is what I proposed which is the “total package” which essentially exists now. People who want to experience everything that WoW has to offer would not see any different fees. It would be the people like myself who play casually and sporadically who would get custom packages that would see some savings.

      All we are asking for a modicum of flexibility on the part of Blizzard to let players pay for what they use. It’s only fair.

      • Beyond that, Longasc, that it’s not your cup of tea is exactly the point. You’re well served by the sub model, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are others who are not, however, and it’s those potential customers who market segmentation is all about.

  12. God, I have written so many posts about a la carte and how its well due. However, not like a F2P model, but really it is time (in its most simplest form) to make it time based, with a max cap. And the max cap is what the current sub rate is, so everyone is used to it.

    I’d be playing 5 different MMO’s if that were the case – if only to hang out with old friends. Sure, that may make me ultra casual (or hardcore, depending on perspective) but most of the people I know who don’t play WoW (easiest example) isn’t because they don’t want to – or can’t – shell out $15 a month, but it ends up being a waste of time. Since the low-time players subsidise the 40 hour a week players.

    I also think paying for expansions is a sham – ESPECIALLY when expansions limit content. LOTRO is my sad case here. You can’t play two characters without Mines of Moira. It isn’t like the WoW DK (who starts at high level, and has it’s own starting area) it is just a different class that starts at the same newbie towns as the rest. So hey, I may enjoy the game, and sub, and when I get to max level and want to buy more levels and content, that’s okay. Don’t make me buy a game AND an expansion off the bat to play a class I want.

    Back to the topic, I think a good middle ground is $15 a month for the max players, and 25 cents an hour for the rest. It encourages developers to add GOOD content and patch quickly, so people play longer. What about an expansion? Free for everyone – except it costs double time if you don’t pay the expansion fee. That way someone can mess around, see if they like it, then buy if they plan on staying there. If not, they can just stick to their vanilla versions, love the game, and pay fairly for it.

    I could write a book – but won’t – this topic has been discussed to death. The first high quality MMO who inserts a fair payment model will truely be the one to dethrone WoW – as soon as someone offers a great gameplay experience and allows much higher value through payment options, the MMO sphere will sit back and say: “Why in the hell was I paying $15 a month for THAT?”

  13. So, what’s the business motivation for this change? It’s all well and good to propose something that lets you pay less, but what’s the compelling reason for Blizzard to embrace these changes?

    The main advantage I can see is that it might bring (or keep) people playing the game who didn’t want to spend more before. Honestly, though, I can’t see this being a major motivation. Who above the age of 12 thinks that $15/month is too expensive, but $10 is fine?

    The concept of the core/vanilla being free then paying for expansions was tried by Anarchy Online, but they supported the vanilla with in-game ads. Careful what you wish for here…

    On the other side, there are some big potential risks here. First is having most people just decide to pay less. I’m sure most of the people here interested in the lowered price would pay less. Where is the corresponding increase in income to cover these costs going to come from?

    You also have the problem of having yet another way for players not being in sync. Say I need a tank for a 5-man; not only do I have to pick a tank class, make sure they’re the appropriate level, find someone competent, check their gear, I also have to make sure that they are actually subscribed to do 5-mans. This just segregates players even more.

    Finally, there’s the additional cost for Blizzard to keep track of a much more complicated billing system. Meridian 59 had a very complicated pricing structure most of the time 3DO owned it, and that caused a lot of problems both in the billing system and in dealing with confused customers.

    I think the comparisons to other business models miss the mark a bit. The proper comparison is to all-you-can-eat buffet. The thin people (casual players) are looking at fat people (raiders) and complaining that the fat guy can eat more than they can for the same price. Well, yeah, but asking the buffet owner to lower your bill just because you don’t want to eat as much may not be a smart business decision.

    My thoughts.

    • So, what’s the business motivation for this change? It’s all well and good to propose something that lets you pay less, but what’s the compelling reason for Blizzard to embrace these changes?

      The main advantage I can see is that it might bring (or keep) people playing the game who didn’t want to spend more before. Honestly, though, I can’t see this being a major motivation. Who above the age of 12 thinks that $15/month is too expensive, but $10 is fine?

      Fair point. Admittedly I wrote this from the perspective of a player. My pricing structure was a bit more detailed then would probably be practical. Obviously if I was making a serious pitch to Blizzard I would have to have access to internal statistics before making an financially viable proposal with specific price points.

      That fact that Free Realms is offering premium content for only $4.99 a month versus *zero* money for the non-premium content is going to send shockwaves throughout the industry and ultimately force companies like Blizzard to change their pricing structure to make it more competitive and current.

      Sure for now Blizzard can still get away with soaking their subscribers. If they were smart they would consider some form of alternative pricing as a pre-emptive strategy to build customer loyalty and to prevent further alienation of many subscribers who are struggling trying finding reasons to stay loyal to a 5 year old geriatric MMO.

      On the other side, there are some big potential risks here. First is having most people just decide to pay less. I’m sure most of the people here interested in the lowered price would pay less. Where is the corresponding increase in income to cover these costs going to come from?

      That’s a good point but part of the reason for my suggestion is that Blizzard should stop wasting millions of dollars on creating lavish instances that nobody will ever use. And I do realize that they have changed this philosophy lately with Wrath by making their instanced content more accessible to the masses.

      However, I do not believe that $15 a month is a fair price for WoW. As I mentioned in my article Blizzard enjoys an insanely huge economies of scale with regard to development costs. In other words the cost per WoW subscriber (11.5 million players) to create new content is a fraction of the cost of previous MMOs such as EQ which only had far fewer (500,000 players) subscribers. That should be plenty of money for Blizzard.

      Maybe Blizzard has to realize that times are tough for everyone right now and to continue to keep over-charging their subscribers for content is wrong.

      You also have the problem of having yet another way for players not being in sync. Say I need a tank for a 5-man; not only do I have to pick a tank class, make sure they’re the appropriate level, find someone competent, check their gear, I also have to make sure that they are actually subscribed to do 5-mans. This just segregates players even more.

      I’ve been playing solo (without a guild) since the Wrath of the Lich King and not once have I gotten a tell asking me if I wanted to join a 5 man instance. Of course I’m a hunter and nobody wants hunters *grins*.

      Yes I concede that it’s one more potential barrier for assembling a competent group but I suspect most players interesting in grouping would opt for the instance package just so they could be part of the eligible pool of players for groups.

      I think the comparisons to other business models miss the mark a bit. The proper comparison is to all-you-can-eat buffet. The thin people (casual players) are looking at fat people (raiders) and complaining that the fat guy can eat more than they can for the same price. Well, yeah, but asking the buffet owner to lower your bill just because you don’t want to eat as much may not be a smart business decision.

      Have you seen the people who go to all you can eat buffet’s lately? :) Most of them are not exactly lean.

      I think the restaurant analogy is still valid. Even at Burger King a fast food joint you can “have it your way”. Also all you can eat buffets while popular aren’t exactly the most common forms of dining these days.

      The one size fits all pricing structure favors Blizzard in many ways as they are still the dominant force in the MMO market right now with the inertia of their success. This is more about presenting other MMO companies with opportunities (pricing structure for one) to innovate and improve. Just the same way that Blizzard saw an opening and innovated on what SOE was doing with EQ.

  14. There’s just way too much nonsense in this article than could possibly be addressed in one comment. I’ll point out a few things where the logic seems so obviously flawed:

    Casual Gamers Subsidized Raiders Back in EverQuest: I don’t know where your memory is, but raiding was invented by players, not the other way around. SOE initially resisted, but it was too popular to ignore.

    I couldn’t think of a worse example to claim the majority is getting shafted by a minority.

    “competition spurs on industries to make better products”: This is what Mr. Colbert would call Truthiness, because it’s often stated as fact but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, competition spurs industries into wider profit margins, which often means cheaper made product. Quality / Better products cannot compete with “good enough” mass-produced products.

    wildly successful Free Realms: comparitively speaking, a million signups for a F2P game isn’t the least bit surprising. Successful? That’s not something we’ll know until down the road, when / if SOE shows related quarterly reports and if they maintain. Wildly successful? That’s silly pundit rhetoric.

    The biggest issue I have here is that well, to be really blunt, anyone who thinks WoW’s monthly subscription rates are expensive, is either a really cheap individual, or someone who’s probably not playing it enough to bother.

    I”ll keep saying it over and over again: F2P pricing will be guaranteed more expensive for the majority of players. Every other pay-as-you-go service industry (food? seriously, you’re comparing it to food?) is significantly more expensive for most users than subscription rates.

    I’m outright questioning the wisdom in essentially asking to be charged more. I think it’s downright idiotic. Presenting a jealousy case for players who get more bang for their buck, well that just comes across petty to me.

    • There’s just way too much nonsense in this article than could possibly be addressed in one comment. I’ll point out a few things where the logic seems so obviously flawed:

      – Casual Gamers Subsidized Raiders Back in EverQuest: I don’t know where your memory is, but raiding was invented by players, not the other way around. SOE initially resisted, but it was too popular to ignore.

      That’s true. Raiding was emergent gameplay. It doesn’t matter that SOE didn’t envision it initially. The fact is that SOE picked up on it and started to focus on it and promote it to the exclusion of everything else.

      I couldn’t think of a worse example to claim the majority is getting shafted by a minority.

      Raiders aren’t shafting the majority, the devs are by a long standing pattern of self-indulgent game design.

      - “competition spurs on industries to make better products”: This is what Mr. Colbert would call Truthiness, because it’s often stated as fact but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, competition spurs industries into wider profit margins, which often means cheaper made product. Quality / Better products cannot compete with “good enough” mass-produced products.

      So you are saying that competition is bad? If competition is bad then a monopoly must be good? When you have a monopoly consumers have ZERO choices. Given this logic Blizzard should have never created a MMO that competed with EverQuest. Was WoW just “good enough” or was it a masterpiece of design and polish? You know the answer.

      - wildly successful Free Realms: comparitively speaking, a million signups for a F2P game isn’t the least bit surprising. Successful? That’s not something we’ll know until down the road, when / if SOE shows related quarterly reports and if they maintain. Wildly successful? That’s silly pundit rhetoric.

      I admit there was a bit of hyperbole in that statement. Still one million people signing up in such a short time is nothing to sneeze at. You are right, it remains to be seen how successful Free Realms will be. Come back in a few years and we’ll compare notes.

      The biggest issue I have here is that well, to be really blunt, anyone who thinks WoW’s monthly subscription rates are expensive, is either a really cheap individual, or someone who’s probably not playing it enough to bother.

      Whether I’m cheap or not is irrelevant to the point at hand. I guess I am playing WoW enough to bother to contemplate paying less considering I barely play. Perhaps myself and many other people who are concerned about the $15 a month fee should just leave WoW. Blizzard would have to increase their fees to compensate.

      Would you be willing to pay more per month to make up the difference?

      I”ll keep saying it over and over again: F2P pricing will be guaranteed more expensive for the majority of players. Every other pay-as-you-go service industry (food? seriously, you’re comparing it to food?) is significantly more expensive for most users than subscription rates.

      I disagree. Most restaurants offer a la carte menu pricing. So do fast food outlets. The only other dining delivery method is all you can eat buffets. Given your logic all restaurants and fast food places would be bankrupt and only the buffets would be in existance because of their superior “subscription” pricing.

      Last time I checked people don’t subscribe to restaurants unless of course you are in an old age home or a mental hospital.

      I’m outright questioning the wisdom in essentially asking to be charged more. I think it’s downright idiotic. Presenting a jealousy case for players who get more bang for their buck, well that just comes across petty to me.

      Like I said the total package would still be $15 a month. So hardcore raiders and others who are fortunate to enjoy all of what WoW has to offer would not be penalized.

      Just have the decency to allow the rest of us who barely play with limited time commitments to pay only for what we use. That’s all. That’s not petty, that’s just plain fair.

      • Wolfshead said:

        Raiders aren’t shafting the majority, the devs are by a long standing pattern of self-indulgent game design.

        I agree with that statement, but that’s just a complaint on content and you’ve twisted and reworked it into a pricing model argument where you directly tie / blame a subset of players, in a yes– absolutely petty and insulting way. Note, I’m not a raider, but I’ll bluntly say you’re taking a pundit’s approach to something you want. That’s not fairness, that’s misdirection.

        So you are saying that competition is bad? If competition is bad then a monopoly must be good?

        No, I’m saying you’re abusing an oft-used phrase to make a point that doesn’t fit. More misdirection, more slanted logic. And here you are again, making it a binary argument. Are you claiming that EQ had a monopoly, or even WoW? They’re part of the competition. You can’t just pick the leader in the field, say that it doesn’t match what you want and then label it “unfair“.

        I admit there was a bit of hyperbole in that statement. Still one million people signing up in such a short time is nothing to sneeze at. You are right, it remains to be seen how successful Free Realms will be. Come back in a few years and we’ll compare notes.

        Like much of this article, it lacked correct context and you’re using it as a basis to support wide-stretching claims. It’s not as bold a statement once you note that Runes of Magic also has a million signups and Wizard101 has 2 million. One might even conclude that free signups are relatively easy to get. =P

        If you want to compare notes now, look at the existing F2P market in China and you’ll get an idea of how much more we’ll be charged as customers if these become the dominant sector of MMOs in North America. You’re asking for a utopia where you hand the strings over and they only charge you what you feel is fair, but in the existing markets where they have the say, F2P bleeds its customers.

        Whether I’m cheap or not is irrelevant to the point at hand.

        That’s relevant. You’re trying to get what you want, under the guise that you’re speaking on the side of fairness and the majority.

        You’re under a variety of assumptions here. Your defintion of ‘Casual’ is a player who puts in very few hours, and that they’re the majority ‘paying’ for the service and another smaller group (Raiders) is leeching upon their contributions. Where did you get this from? It’s contradictory to all of the player population studies which have illustrated that the majority of MMORPG players spend significant time in-game, especially WoW which on average is a primary source of entertainment.

        Perhaps myself and many other people who are concerned about the $15 a month fee should just leave WoW. Blizzard would have to increase their fees to compensate.

        Would you be willing to pay more per month to make up the difference?

        Absolutely. By my reckoning, that’s a small group. Possibly as small as a group of one. Stop pretending to speak for a mass of players. Even if you spoke for every MMO blogger, we’re a subset group notable for sampling more games than average. Taking away these groups would not noticably adjust Blizzard’s fees, even with the assumption (another) that they must do so regardless of their margins.

        I disagree. Most restaurants offer a la carte menu pricing. So do fast food outlets. The only other dining delivery method is all you can eat buffets. Given your logic all restaurants and fast food places would be bankrupt and only the buffets would be in existance because of their superior “subscription” pricing.

        My logic is you’re comparing food to online entertainment and it’s downright silly. I like the restaurant system just fine because it fits their market, but Games are not Food. There’s no comparitive make-your-own home cooked meal, no comparitive drinks-with-the-meal, no comparitive tip-the-waiter, no comparitive send-the-food-back when unhappy with it. A la carte works in part because of these elements and more. A direct personal service involving a great deal of human interaction and variance, compared to purchasing content online. Your comparison is so overly-simplified and inapt, it utterly loses meaning.

        Different products = different models. You might as well compare the prescription drug market. It’s already absurd to remind some people that games are not movies and games are not tv.

        Like I said the total package would still be $15 a month. So hardcore raiders and others who are fortunate to enjoy all of what WoW has to offer would not be penalized.

        Just have the decency to allow the rest of us who barely play with limited time commitments to pay only for what we use. That’s all. That’s not petty, that’s just plain fair.

        You’re dreaming of a utopia with a disregard for what the actual results will be. What happens to subscription pricing once the F2P and RMT cash cow rolls in? What happens to content creation when it can be meted out in little portions? We have enough existing markets and models for this to be plain. Even in the best case scenarios, negative impacts to gameplay would range from subtle to perverse. And cost to the consumer goes through the roof.

        This isn’t fairness, this is asking for Pandora’s Box to be opened.

        • Comparing game *services* like MMOs to food *services* isn’t that far removed, and it’s a lot more honest and accurate than the old “dinner and a movie” comparison.

          Pandora’s box is *already* open. The question is, who will ride the waves, and how? The flatline $15 will serve some customers; it always has and always will. It won’t serve everyone, that’s the point of different *additional alternative* pricing.

        • My article is all about exploring ways to give people choices in how they pay for their MMO entertainment. The future of the MMO business is all about bringing more people into the subscriber base. The only way that can be achieved is by finding ways to appeal to people who have different needs, financial means and play styles.

          The status quo is no longer acceptable as people want more choices. I’m astounded that someone can be against having more options and more flexibility in MMO pricing structure.

          It’s clear you don’t like my article. I get that. I appreciate your opinion. Let’s agree to disagree.

  15. While flexibility is a good thing, Psychochild makes a valid point:

    “Who above the age of 12 thinks that $15/month is too expensive, but $10 is fine?”

    Let me play the devil’s advocate: It is 50% more!
    Yes… but and I am not sure if saving 1$-5$ and scratching some content that I rarely play would be that good.

    I see myself going to account management to “turn on” the missing content for just a few hours and still pay the full price e.g.. :/

    But as Tesh has already pointed out: I am probably one of the players that are PERFECTLY served by the subscription model. Everything else would most likely be worse for me.

    But there are other players out there that are not. All power to them.

    Still, I am not sure how to implement this a la carte payment scheme into WoW or other MMOs. The tank did not pay for 25 man instances? Either you force him to go to account management and pay for them or you will have to get another one. The game would probably have to be built from scratch with this payment scheme in mind to be really viable.

    • But as Tesh has already pointed out: I am probably one of the players that are PERFECTLY served by the subscription model. Everything else would most likely be worse for me.

      I appreciate your honesty. What I don’t understand is why some people are hostile to the notion that people who don’t group and don’t raid should pay less. As you said and as I stated in the article, hardcore players are still paying the same amount.

      It seems that all-inclusive subscription package has been around so long that a certain segment of the MMO population feels a sense of entitlement. Of course they don’t want the status quo to change because they are the beneficiaries of an unfair and unjust pricing scheme.

      Still, I am not sure how to implement this a la carte payment scheme into WoW or other MMOs. The tank did not pay for 25 man instances? Either you force him to go to account management and pay for them or you will have to get another one. The game would probably have to be built from scratch with this payment scheme in mind to be really viable.

      I think we are getting hung up unnecessarily on the transition between a grouping package and a raiding package. Honestly if a person is seriously considering tanking for a 25 man raid you can be sure they are going to have the intelligence and preparedness to have the correct subscription package.

      • What I don’t understand is why some people are hostile to the notion that people who don’t group and don’t raid should pay less. As you said and as I stated in the article, hardcore players are still paying the same amount

        I’m hostile to this because it’s naive and will end up costing us all more.

        I’m hostile to it because it’s jealousy motivated. You’re not paying a lot, but you’re offended others are getting more for their dollar.

        I’m hostile to it because you’re using binary arguments throwing Casual against Hardcore, when these aren’t actually recognizable groups, they’re just Positive versus Negative connotations to support an argument.

        • You’re also hostile to Free Realms because it doesn’t suit your tastes. Market segmentation is about catering to different markets, and there will always be those who don’t share your taste, your play style, your schedule or any other of a hundred variables, including preference in monetization.

          Try to look at it a bit more academically, and realize that a viewpoint not your own is still a valid one.

          • I’m not hostile to Free Realms, or anyone that plays it. I’m emphatic that it doesn’t suite my tastes because I feel my balance counters the near second-coming praise that some have given it, especially from people who don’t actually intend to play it much, they just like the idea of it.

            There are viewpoints, there are options, and there are requests that would end up screwing other people. It seems odd to me that in this case, there’s this argument for “fairness” in something that so clearly will affect the prices for other players.

  16. All you can eat isn’t going anywhere soon. You will see it around for years to come, especially in any MMO where players compete.

    Calling the death of All you can eat payment styles is kind of like the people calling the death of PC gaming four years ago. Its still here!

    Callign Free Realms a success already seems a bit premature. Didn’t everyone learn that lesson with WAR and AOC?

    • All you can eat isn’t going anywhere soon. You will see it around for years to come, especially in any MMO where players compete.

      Well it will be around for ever if people don’t bother to complain about it’s inherent unfairness which was the point of my article.

      Calling the death of All you can eat payment styles is kind of like the people calling the death of PC gaming four years ago. Its still here!

      I’m sure that there will always be an all-inclusive subscription package for every MMO. Why can’t the industry evolve and offer their customers more pricing options?

      A point I didn’t make in replying to Brian earlier is that by reducing the monthly cost to let’s say $5 a month many more people would be tempted to sign up and play monthly.

      I played Free Realms for one week before I decided to sign up and pay the $5 monthly fee. If SOE can hook a jaded person like me that easily then surely the creative geniuses at Blizzard can perform a feat like that in their sleep and up sell me to the next subscription tier with compelling content.

      Calling Free Realms a success already seems a bit premature. Didn’t everyone learn that lesson with WAR and AOC?

      I covered this in a previous comment. Let’s just say that I should have said that I *predict* Free Realms will be wildly successful and leave it at that. :)

  17. You seem to be coming at this from the view point of someone who is on the lower end of play time, and resenting the fact that some people who play more are “getting more for their money”. When in fact you are both getting the same for your money – that is, as much play time as you want.

    It’s like asking to be charged less for a rare steak than a well done steak. Or asking for money off a burger because you don’t like pickles.

    Even with your suggestion two people on the same tariff will still potentially get vastly different amounts out of the game, based on how much they play.

    A pay/hour rather than a monthly flat fee would sort that out. It might work. But it could also lead to clock watching, and could have a detrimental affect on the social aspects of the game as people way up time spent idly chatting and having fun verses time spent grinding, raiding, pvping.

    • You seem to be coming at this from the view point of someone who is on the lower end of play time, and resenting the fact that some people who play more are “getting more for their money”. When in fact you are both getting the same for your money – that is, as much play time as you want.

      Of course that is true but when there is only one item on the menu: “everything” then there is no choice. Maybe I’m not hungry. Maybe I don’t want to buy everything. Yet Blizzard gives us no choice with their pricing structure — it’s take it or leave it.

      A person who is on the Weight Watchers diet is not going pay for an all you can eat buffet, instead they will go to a restaurant where they can find special diet conscious food on the menu.

      There are two separate issues of inequity here where one group of players is being subsidized by another group players. (And for clarity’s sake and not to provoke a riot — let’s leave the casual and hardcore labels out of it ):

      1) time – players who barely play at all pay the same monthly fee as players who play hours per day

      2) content choice – players who experience basic content pay the same fee as players who experience expensive premium content

      People who raid are certainly getting more for their $15 a month then someone like myself who rarely plays and solos. Why should I be paying for content that doesn’t interest me? And why should someone who plays a few hours a week pay the same fees as someone who’s playing 6 hours a day?

      To use the Cable TV analogy again, if I only want to watch network TV why should the guy who lives next door to me who watches all of the premium channels like HBO pay the same monthly fee as me?

      I don’t resent people who raid but I do resent it when they are paying the same price as someone like myself who wants who barely plays and who wants to enjoy simple content.

      Blizzard spends a fortune on creating instances — design, artwork, itemization, testing, etc. That’s premium content that I as a soloer who has no interest in experiencing it should not have to pay for.

  18. Wolfshead wrote:
    “Sure for now Blizzard can still get away with it soaking their subscribers.”

    Haha! Time for some perspective.

    In the bad old days, before the mass-market internet, games on proprietary networks charged per hour. Some games charged more per hour (during peak times) than current games charge per month.

    Or, if you don’t want to go quite so ancient with your history, look at how 3DO charged for Meridian 59. It was a “pay as you go” system where you’d pay $2.49 per 24 hours, max charge 3 times per week, but not on a new moon… or something like that. Anyway, if you played all the time you’d fork over about $30/month. Sadly, the system was designed to be confusing and get more money out of players, from what I was told.

    So, through the lens of history, Blizzard is hardly soaking the customer, even if they have a higher profit margin considering the cost of creating content. Thankfully, it’s not a sin to make a profit.

    Okay, so what about external pricing pressure, notably Free Realms as you indicate? Setting aside questions about how successful that game is (any game with TV ads better have a lot of attention)….

    I can point out why this doesn’t work the way you say from personal experience. After we bought M59 from 3DO, we decided to keep the price relatively cheap at around $10/month. We rounded up for billing fees, so M59 is $10.95 per month with no box or expansions to buy. Again, keep in mind that people were used to paying $30/month.

    Anyway, let’s do this simple quiz: Are you going to quit WoW and sign up for M59 because of the cheaper price? Let me save you from insulting me: no, you won’t. Why? Because you (and many other people) value WoW more than they value M59.

    WoW (and most of Blizzard’s games) are definitely “premium” games. People will pay more for them for a variety of reasons. If price were a significant factor, then people would stop playing WoW and go play another game because cheaper games are out there.

    I’ll let you know when I see a bump to M59’s subscription numbers. Don’t hold your breath. ;)

  19. Blizzard can’t change now, because they would lose a ton of money – because the majority of their player base most likely wouldn’t hit the max sub fee. I don’t think this is a push for WoW to change (because, well, we all know they won’t). I think it is more a push for future game developers to look at the whole picture, and not just cut and past sub models.

    Heck, Valve proved that by discounting their already super popular game L4D over a short period of time amounted to more profits for the company than the rest of the time the game was for sale. Read the below (an exerpt)

    Price changes in the retail world don’t allow for much freedom. Steam and other services offer flexibility. In fact, users apparently respond to pricing discounts within five minutes.
    Valve was afraid that too many price changes would “confuse and anger” customers. It isn’t the case.

    Last weekend, Valve decided to do an experiment with Left 4 Dead. Last weekend’s sale resulted in a 3000% increase over relatively flat numbers. It sold more last weekend than when it launched the game. WOW. That is unheard of in this industry. Valve beat its launch sales. Also, it snagged a 1600% increase in new customers to Steam over the baseline.

    Worried retailers, fear not. The weekend sale didn’t cannibalize sales from retail. In fact, they remained constant. Well, constant isn’t a 3000% increase, but it’s still pretty good, right?
    Looking at a third-party game, it saw increases of 36,000% with a weekend sale. Oh. Em. Gee. Okay, Gabe is starting to convince me that PC at retail is going to die very soon.

    Oh, more data. I’m such a data nerd. Here’s some data!

    During the Holiday sales:
    10% sale = 35% increase in sales (real dollars, not units shipped)
    25% sale = 245% increase in sales
    50% sale = 320% increase in sales
    75% sale = 1470% increase in sales
    At 75% off, they are making 15% more money than they were at full price.”

    Little bit of “proof” that PC customers respond to pricing models.
    The Diku/MMO industry, to an old (jaded?) player like me with a lot of disposable income is “dead” under current pricing models. I won’t even bother trying a new DIKU style MMO. I have done it all before. At least, not at the silly $15 a month sub fee. Give me options. In the past I would buy the box to give a game a try (AOC, LOTRO, WAR) but really they are all basically the same thing. Deep down they are. Until there is innovation in both the game models and the pricing options the industry will suffer from people like me. There are a lot of consumers like me. I won’t pretend to say that “like me players” make up the majority of sales or expenditures, but we are becoming an untapped market on a rigid, archaic, subscription model. Someone will tap it and do well with it.

  20. It’s curious that you’d use that as a counterpoint, since that is exactly the point of the model and Wolf’s argument. Players who play more pay more. In a sane business, that’s somewhat closer to “fair” than “one size fits all”.

    Of course, examining the revenue side of the equation is not enough. We also need to examine the cost structure as well. Unfortunately, this is somewhat hard because companies rarely speak about them, let alone their profit margins. But we can make a few educated guesses.

    The cost of running a server farm and the customer service department doesn’t directly depend on the amount of content. The website, the forums, the two world servers (Eastern Kingdoms & Kalimdor), chat, account management and bugfixes for core mechanics still need to be there even for the minimum package. Now, the crucial factor is how the cost structure changes between basic and premium packages. Does the premium package’s content cost two or three times as much money to maintain? I doubt it.

    If the base services would make the base package (especially if it’s free) much less profitable than the premium ones, then no sane company will offer that base package unless faced with pressure from competitors or strong (read: bordering on an ultimatum) customer demand. The same applies to the premium package as well. It needs to be at least as profitable as the base package or it simply will not be made. It’s all about the bottom line.

  21. @Hirvox: One of the things Blizzard “proved” was that the maintenance and staffing costs for running their game are at best, barely existant.

    In September 2008, during an analyst call Blizzard revealed their TOTAL staffing (including Customer Service), hardware maintenance, and WoW expenses since 2004 only cost them 200 Million. That sounds huge. Taking just current players, and only NA/EU ones who by the box, (and making a few assumptions) their NON sub fee revenue from Vanilla/BC/WOTLK, assuming about 5 million current NA/EU players, at $40 a box would be $600 million. That’s not counting people who bought any of the boxes who don’t play anymore, none of the sub fees, and none of the non NA/EU market (which is huge).

    If we broke that down on the most simplest lines, 200 million over 4 years, it’s 50 million a year. Or, less than 1 month sub fee of the NA/EU playerbase that pays $15 a month, to cover their entire expenses for the full year.

    Yes, those number don’t include initial development costs, and I am sure Blizzard gets incredible ‘economies of scale’ on their data rates, etc but really, they would still be hugely successful and profitable without charging a sub fee at all.

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  24. they would still be hugely successful and profitable without charging a sub fee at all.

    While that’s true, you’re not addressing the point. Blizzard, like all companies, exists to make as much money as possible. Therefore they will always try to do what’s most profitable. To make them switch subscription models, one needs to prove that the tiered model is more profitable. No sane businessman will reduce his profit margin by any amount unless it results in more overall profit.

    One possible line of reasoning to do that would be to appeal to delayed gratification: First, showing that the current cost structure is prohibitive to a certain market segment. Then, showing that switching to a tiered model would help customer retention among that segment. For example, that someone paying $5 instead of $16 would, on average remain a paying customer four times as long than before.

    • Business motivation is a tricky topic – while I don’t wholly disagree with you it has to be taken in context. It isn’t as simple as “all companies exist to make as much money as possible”. You have to look at it in the context of the company setup.

      Blizzard exists to make the most money as possible *right now* – it is a publically held company and needs to pander to shareholders ROI moreso than the long term. This is the whole crux of the issue of the bubble bursting in the global credit market. Without immediate, measureable returns potential stakeholder interest wanes pretty quickly. Thus we are in the “gouge” scenario where they keep staffing low, charge high, and demonstrate a good ROI. Blizzard pumps out content very slowly as per what other companies demonstrate as possible, and if you haven’t noticed, have been releasing lower quality patches (more and more problems with each one) than they used to in the past.

      I did preface one of my comments that “Blizzard can’t change their model” and I believe that. It’s hard to go to the board and demonstrate with any economic certainty that if they dropped their prices their paying user base – and income generated -would increase – because there are too many factors at play. People could still quit because the game isn’t fun for them anymore, etc. which has nothing to do with price points.

      Blizzard has a great captive “ignorant” market – that isn’t a dig on WoW subscribers, but the cost and price is set on a social level (in NA at least) – it is what everyone charges, and has charged, since the inception of popular MMO gaming. The average gamer is programmed to “accept” that as the norm and doesn’t have much incentive to look outside the norm. Heck, it’s only $15 right? The $15 flatline price point is ridiculous, and other companies have bought into it thinking it is secure. Look at WAR and AOC. How ANY sensible business person could allow them to start at $15 a month is absurd. You don’t beat a market leader by charging the same as them, you beat them by discounting and inducing new customers to move away from the norm and encourage them to try something new. This is even more critical with gaming as new releases will lack polish and the “known” factors.

      Blizzard also has the added bonus that that $15 is a nice barrier against their competitors – few gamers sub to more than one game (because of the time investment moreso than the cost – getting value per dollar) and if they lowered their sub fee to $5 it could encourage their own gamers to try other games – whereas their sub fee acts as an artificial barrier to their competitors right now. Pretty brilliant.

      You made the good point in the end, of course, where none of the AAA MMO titles are capturing the growing market of savvy consumers who don’t see the value of $15 a month for 10 hours of game time. Not only could the consumer remain a paying customer 4x as long as before (in your example) you would probably attract more players to begin with. Back all the way around the circle to business motivation, good luck selling that to the board. A price drop would “signal” to the stock market that they are bleeding subs (no matter how much they spun it) and also tell the market that their income is going to go down in the short term by as much as 30%, so people sell stock. Blizzard is stuck where they are (I am actually surprised they haven’t increased their sub rate with their “monopolistic” market – although they hit a lot of income from one-offs – character naming, transfers, customization, etc) and the opportunity is ripe for a forward thinking company to outdo the giant through alternative pricing models.

      Best change for this is Star Wars:KOTOR as they had already hinted at it. If SW launches with a $15 sub only then the company is truely lacking vision and competitive analysis when it comes to pricing plans.

  25. Elnia has an interesting sidenote: under tiered pricing, the premium subscribers’ word weigh more than others. While I don’t necessarily agree on that because the others would probably outnumber the premium subscribers, it does raise the issue of incentive. It’s in the company’s best interest to have as many people as possible to pay as much as possible as long as possible, so they will try to drive people towards the premium subscription.
    Quoting Tobold:

    Besides the question of how much of an advantage microtransaction items give you, there is also the difficult question of how much these items are pushed onto the user. With Asian companies having a much longer experience with microtransaction games, it comes to no surprise that it is again the US game Free Realms which serves as the bad example: Quite a lot of players complained how constantly in-your-face the in-game advertising for Free Realms membership is, especially in view of the game being marketed to pre-teen children. It is an essential feature of a good Free2Play game that you are actually able to play it for free, without constantly getting rubbed in what you are missing out on.

    While Tobold is mostly talking about games where the lowest tier pricing is zero, there is a point hidden in there. A single-minded focus on the premium subscribers could compromise the game’s long-term viability. If the “budget” content is left to linger and rot, it would hamstring the influx of new customers. If you thought WoW was bad now, you haven’t seen anything yet. ;-)

    • On the other hand, if the “budget” customers actually provide a positive cash influx, *they* can start getting attention.

      Of course, this is all assuming that Blizzard cares about any customers. I’m not convinced of that, considering their myopic design choices and outmoded monetization.

      Still, Chris is very right to point to the obsessive pursuit of the *now* that is inherent in a publicly traded company. It’s cultural, selfish, and borderline psychopathic.

      Treat your customers well, and they will stick with you. Puzzle Pirates is a good example of that, as well as a good example of a game that really *is* largely free to play.

  26. This is one of the best blog posts I have ever read on the topic of MMOs.

    The subscription model is indeed welfare for hardcore players. And the worst thing about it is how it cuts you twice: the hardcore players get more play for their money, AND the content is all designed for their style of play. Casual players get less time to play, and they get the crappiest content.

    What a scam.

  27. This was a wonderfully interesting read (even though I found it pretty late after you posted it). You make some very valid points and I have a few thoughts and some questions.

    I am what you’d consider a “hardcore” player even though I’ll probably never raid seriously again. I enjoy subscription models because I feel like I get the most for my money. For $15 a month I can get a huge time entertainment ratio. This is in comparison to something like a movie. The last movie I saw was $9.50 for 120 minutes of entertainment. I’ve always viewed MMOs as the best value. In my eyes, if you play for 400 minutes in a month, you’ve bested most entertainment out there. As such, I don’t see the “casuals” as being taken advantage of. Compared to other forms of entertainment, they’re doing pretty well.

    That said, I do fully agree that people like myself get a superior deal. I get more per dollar than they do. I also got to see things that they may never see. That is why I actually like your plan in theory. If you never intend to raid I can see wanting to pay less.

    My concerns are in the practice. How granular are we going to get? $3 covers your bandwidth as a user, $2 for taxes, $5 for solo content, $3 for group content, and $2 for raid content. I think, while on the pay side it sounds good, on the game side it is frustrating. What happens when you run into a group encounter that you can’t do and the game says, “That is $2.00 more a month?” Developers would have to invest time in roping off areas and I think that would be detrimental. I feel the price model centered on geography has more merit. WoW vs WoW:BC vs WoW:LK simply makes sense because you have clearly defined boundaries.

    Ultimately though I’m afraid of the outcome even though I do not, in anyway, begrudge anyone getting a better deal than myself. With cable, once they deregulated, prices went up instead of down. I see the a la carte method almost as deregulation. Sure, for the super casual the price might go down but, by this method, the $15 cap might be broken and the average casual (the middle class) will probably end up paying more for what they previously had and the raiders, who already get a huge return on investment, won’t care about chipping in another $2 or $3 a month. It is just a frightening prospect. Of course, in truth, nothing stops developers for charging $40 a month as it is.

    What might be an interesting alternative would be for players to direct their funds. Everyone still pays the say but dictates on what that money is spent. Perhaps in your account menu you can take 10 topics and rate them as where your money goes. The company would then, in turn, take that to heart. I doubt it would ever occur but the idea is interesting.

    Will we see changes to the model? I think absolutely so due to the fact that Free Realms is proving that Americans will respond to a well done RMT game. The major difference is, however, that additional money just buys you fluff for the most part (and classes too). I could be wrong on that however. Either way, I’m sure we’ll see major changes in the next couple of years.

    (Quick note, didn’t read through all the comments yet so if something I said was already mentioned and discussed I apologize!)

  28. You describe two examples of WoW content that you think was wasted effort. What sorts of content would you like to see devs working on instead?

    I’ve seen many MMOs which let the user pay more for better equipment. I won’t play them. I don’t want to get in a “who can pay the corporation more money” contest with my fellow players. I’ll pay my fifteen a month flat fee, and if someone else gets more “value” by spending two hundred hours a month online as opposed to my fifty, frankly that is their loss.

    • *shrug* That’s how the market works, Dan. They may well pity you in return. The point is, neither of your are right, and neither of you are wrong. In a sufficiently segmented market, you both get what makes you happy, and can get on with life if you can just get past how someone else pays and plays.

    • You describe two examples of WoW content that you think was wasted effort. What sorts of content would you like to see devs working on instead?

      Fair question. I don’t normally offer suggestions for MMOs as I’m saving my ideas for my own MMO someday but I’ll take the bait and give you 2 ideas just off the top of my head. Both ideas address specific deficiencies in WoW:

      Content Idea #1: Challenging Solo Content

      One type of content I’d like to see Blizzard implement is some form challenging solo content; it could be instanced or non-instanced. The reason why I think we need challenging solo content is that there is a vast gap between the competency of solo players and group/raid players.

      This competency gap is one of the biggest problems in WoW and has not been addressed by Blizzard. Asking a player who’s soloed to level 80 to actually group or raid is like expecting a grade 8 student to be able to handle the rigors of 1st year college.

      Having instances or dungeons that present advanced challenge from the typical easy solo far would help to create *gasp* better players.

      Blizzard could create special “boot camp” instances that would essentially prepare the players for various class roles. Healers could accompany NPC’s that need to be healed in their solo instances; tanks would need to hold agro to succeed. The possibilities are endless.

      As an aside and this may sound crazy but I find that the instances in Free Realms are far more challenging then typical outdoor solo content in WoW. I actually die in Free Realms after being knocked down.

      What does this say about WoW when a children’s MMO is more challenging then a teen/adult MMO?

      Content Idea #2: Live Dynamic Events

      The world of Azeroth is very boring and predictable. This is the curse of modern day, heavily scripted MMOs. One of the biggest promises of virtual worlds was that you were in a world where anything can happen. In fact SOE, bless their hearts still understands this and uses that slogan in their Free Realms marketing campaign.

      What would be wrong with Onyxia and the Black Dragon Flight invading major cities like Stormwind occasionally? Would would be wrong with the Dark Iron Dwarves surfacing from the dark realm of Black Rock Depths and assaulting the fair dwarven city of Ironforge every once in a while?

      Nothing would make me happier then seeing the apathetic and sleepy citizens of Stormwind running for their lives amidst a burning city in ruins with proud dragons hovering over head breathing fire.

      What adventurer worth their salt would not race back to Stormwind to help the Alliance in their time of need? Failure to assist Stormwind and other cities could have bad effect that close down banks, trainers and even the auction house for a few days.

      As far as all of the alts and mules who populate the main cities I say this: ENTER MY WORLD AT YOUR OWN RISK.

      The players could then be given quests to rebuild Stormwind. The possibilities are endless. Too bad the people in charge of WoW have zero imagination and courage.

      In my MMO the world would be plagued with natural and man made disasters like disease, floods, earthquakes and invasions. That’s the kind of exciting world that I would want to be a part of and that’s what I would provide to my players.

      Blizzard has sat on their laurels for 5 years, taken billions in subscription dollars and done NOTHING to breath life into Azeroth. This is a tragedy as far as I am concerned and the main reason why I continue to be ultra critical of Blizzard.

      • Blizzard has sat on their laurels for 5 years, taken billions in subscription dollars and done NOTHING to breath life into Azeroth.

        But when they do, people complain. The zombie apocalypse is the most recent one and it caused a huge outcry. People really don’t want a clown blocking their way to the next ride in the theme park.

        • Players become victims of their own comfort level and expectations of the game. Change things and they get angry; don’t change things and they get angry too.

          From the outset the MMO devs have to instill a culture of dynamics where “anything can happen”. It’s almost too late for WoW to have any kind of real change except for cosmetic changes such as new classes, new races and new zones/instances. 11.5 million zombies can’t be wrong after all.

  29. One thing to keep in mind here is that the secret of recurring fees is to make sure the customer doesn’t think about them. $15/month deducted automatically from your account accomplishes that, but if the game is constantly reminding you that “You need to pay more for that” then you will hemorrhage players.

    For example, I run a tutoring business, and the customers that make me the most money are the ones who pay every week, not the ones who buy blocks of hours. Each time they need to buy another 20 hours, it feels like a major financial decision (and for a lot of people, it is). But a weekly payment is barely noticed.

    • Good point. People tend to forget things they are subscribed too. When payments are deducted automatically each month the consumer is not confronted by the actual transaction. Could you imagine how much money Blizzard would lose if every subscriber was asked the following question each month:

      Do you wish to continue paying $15 a month for World of Warcraft?

      What I was trying to accomplish by my article was to raise awareness of what players are getting for their subscription dollars. I think the average player is not well served by a one size fits all scheme.

  30. You know, I don’t necessarily buy this argument, because it doesn’t apply to the rest of the games industry.

    There are some non-MMO games that you buy, play for 10 hours, finish, and never take out again. But some other fellow may love the game so much that they play it for years and log up hundreds of hours because they really love it. Both players paid the same amount for the game. That’s…. pretty standard for the game industry.

    • Ah, but Melf, that’s monetizing the game by *content*, not by *access for a period of time*. That’s why Guild Wars works just fine; people buy the game, and get out of it what they put into it, but they never have to pay more for the privilege of playing it. It’s monetized by content (and a bit by convenience items), which is exactly the “level playing field” that so many sub proponents mistakenly think they are getting with their subs.

  31. I have to second Wolfsheads notion to deliver some more difficult single player or more difficult content in general.

    I once had someone tank Caverns of Time who levelled to 80 as warrior and NEVER had to tank, also has rarely seen an instance where he was not pulled through by a high level player.

    Most players left the group, “no point”. But when was the guy supposed to learn the ropes. The early game is indeed empty, and alts of players who already know the game are often not forgiving to newbies either, and there are not that many totally new players anymore. And the new players are indeed playing through the game to max level and then they want to raid.

    Dumbing down the existing raids for them does not solve that problem at all. I agree that there should be easier entry raids, but it still does not address the problem.

    Regarding “live dynamic events”: HELL, yes! Going to work every day is probably more exciting and challenging than static content.

    I remember people complaining about the zombie plague being a disruption, which embarrassed me. They said the poor newbies that got ganked in starter areas, but I know that a lot started complaining after their bank alt got butchered in the auction house and they had trouble auctioning their stuff.

    I personally deem that to be very funny. ;)

    Blizzard used a technology used “phasing” to tell some events, like the battle for Undercity. It is actually very similar to the instancing used in other games. I fear a more dynamic world needs to be build from ground up with this idea in mind, and WoW wasn’t.

    • I fear a more dynamic world needs to be build from ground up with this idea in mind, and WoW wasn’t.

      Indeed. WoW really only persists character state (which includes phasing state) and raid/heroic instance status. Everything else is either on disk (terrain, world map objects) or in memory (doodad state, mobs). Changing that (for player housing, for example) would require a large overhaul of the engine.

  32. Good comment!

    This reminds me of the old Catch 22 for someone who is trying to break into a particular field of employment:

    “I can’t get a job because I don’t have enough experience.”

    “I can’t get experience until someone gives me a job.”

    It’s the same way with MMOs. How can we expect someone to know how to tank, heal, crowd control, etc. when nobody will trust them because they have no experience.

    These are the basic class skills that Blizzard should be teaching players in the early to mid levels.

    For example about a year ago I was the main paladin tank for an Aussie guild and we’d raid Kara a few times each week. It took me a few months of research — I’m not kidding here — to figure out how to tank with a paladin because back then the mechanics of that class were so esoteric and bizzarre (this from a MMO veteran who has played a tanking warrior for many years). I had to pour over various paladin only forums and EJ forums just to figure out the optimum talents, gear, where to get that gear and enchants.

    Nobody should be forced to take a college course to learn how to play a class that is essential for the enjoyment of 9 other people i.e. a raid. Rather it should all be taught to a player *within* the MMO.

    These are the kinds of things that MMO designers should get gently introducing to players in those formative levels. Instead they have abandoned all responsibility and basically let players solo. :(

    • Well, you *could* learn that sort of thing solo, with some well-directed henchmen in a private learning instance. I’d even argue that it’s better to learn that way, so you don’t mess up the play of other people when you make your midlevel group wipe repeatedly.

  33. In WoW hardcore PvP and PvE may not be the most used content, but it is, I’m sure, the content that leveling players are going to – that is what they are leveling for, after they join a guild and hear about it.
    It just feels epic and cool for player that didn’t go to raids as a daily routine, and after 3 months of leveling a character the casual player already paid 45$ for subscribtion and 30$ minumim for the game and addons (with the most cheap variant). It is already too big for a casual player – and, well, I can’t come up with better end-level activities for him than big-scale PvP and raiding ;)

  34. “At its most fundamental level it gives everyone access to the same features but charges the same fee to a player that plays for a few hours a week and the player that plays 6 hours per day”

    You can always go back to the per-hour pay scheme of MUDs, you know ;)

    Well, seriously I (as a F2P MMO gamedesigner ;) ) see the free2play model, with the direct transaction of $ into gold (without “premium features” and pay-only content) as ideal for me as a player. Really, it is just fair: you can grind gold in game – and you can also grind it on your daily job :) Also, it gives up to 40$ per user (and 200$ per paying user), which is much more better than traditional subscription fee (for me as a developer, of course) ;)

  35. I agree that people should be taught how to play their class role in-game. hell it seems like a much better alternative than trolling the internet for hours and reading forums on what spell rotation i should be using to maximize my DPS.

    But i dont think that blizzard should be focusing on solo content rather than the multiplayer oriented Raiding. Its and MMO, its made to be played with a slew of other people where you make groups and take down bosses who would be too tough to take out on your own. its made to socialize. How would it impact the game if blizz started cranking out solo content and it became near impossible to get groups because everyone wanted to get the new axe that drops from their solo encounter.

    Blizzard has been focusing on a median as well, recently they released new 5-man and 5-man heroic instances that are easy to get into.(examples of such are The Pit of Saron, Forge of Souls, and Halls of Reflection.) All of these instances and raids are furthering the story of Warcraft, which most of its subscribers are interested in.

    i just dont think making solo content is the answer, however world events i just cant get enough of.

    (i spent hours infecting stormwind and ironforge with the zombie plague)

  36. You you should change the webpage title Archaic MMO Subscription Fees: Welfare for Hardcore Players? | Wolfshead Online to more specific for your blog post you write. I liked the the writing however.

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