Archaic MMO Subscription Fees: Welfare for Hardcore Players?

by Wolfshead on May 20, 2009

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

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