An Idea For A New Subscription Model

Rogue in RIFT

A screenshot of RIFT as, right now, it really is the only game I'm playing for free

I’m not a fan of free-to-play. Never have been, it’s unlikely I ever will be and, to be perfectly honest, my mind boggles as to why it’s so popular. OK, I get the money aspect of subscriptions but let’s be realistic here, it’s not as if F2P really is free. You still pay one way or another, probably the same amount as a sub eventually, quite likely even more. I mean, even before I could play a game like Everquest 2 or Age of Conan I’d have to shell out for the race and class that I prefer. And then more for broker access. And more for bank slots. And character slots. And bigger quest journals…

F2P also comes with all the headaches and distractions of having opportunities to buy extra items shoved in your face constantly and the driving motivation of developers ambiguously twisted. Give me an old fashioned, straight up subscription over F2P any day. Even if you only played two hours a week, it’s still great value, so much to the point that I think anyone who doubts it probably needs to re-evaluate their concept of value for money. Even playing only a single measly hour a week, you’d be hard pushed to find activities that were cheaper than $3.75 an hour. I guess you could go for a walk in the park… but make sure you don’t stop for a coffee on the way.

But I’m digressing here. As much as I’m an advocate for the subscription model (or better yet, free-to-try combined with a sub model à la RIFT), I know there are some people out there who are so money sensitive and tight with cash that they’d make Scrooge McDuck look generous. So to them, and the rest of the world, I offer this wondrous MMO subscription concept: the more people that play, the less everyone pays.

Imagine a game that had a sub model that cost the average $14.99 a month to begin with but for every 100,000 players past the first, the price started to drop. Now it would take some clever foreign maths genius with an insight into MMO margins to figure out an appropriate sliding scale that still meant the developers turned an increasing profit as the price decreased but I’m sure it could be done. I’m also sure players wouldn’t object to paying $5 subscriptions on popular MMOs.

Of course, this type of financial model wouldn’t likely be of interest to Blizzard (they’ve got nothing to gain) but I reckon it might attract other MMOs who were looking for incentives to help build their playerbase up. And that’s where this subscription model truly shines: it encourages players to invite their friends, it encourages them to form long-lasting communities and it encourages developers to focus on attracting and pleasing their players rather than making gimmicky, over-priced items to sell. It’s win-win for everyone.

So there you have it, the perfect subscription model. Unless you’re Blizzard.

-Gordon

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32 Comments

  1. bhagpuss says:

    I just don’t understand your objections to the current hybrid F2P models. As far as I can see they work entirely in the favor of players. I’m talking specifically about the Western-style “F2P” models that go from a very restricted, totally free option through various options that remove restrictions for one-time payments to a full subscription option that removes all restrictions.

    I cannot for the life of me see how this is anything other than a complete and total win for the player. If you like the game and you prefer the old subscription model, then you can just subscribe. Nothing changes for you at all. If you like the game somewhat but don’t want or can’t afford to subscribe then you can still play, spending small ad hoc amounts for specific things you personally appreciate or desire as and when you feel fit, which might be never.

    Under the old model you paid or you didn’t play. Under the new model you play and decide if you want to pay. How is that possibly a worse deal?

    There are only two possible arguments against it that I see. One says that developer time and effort will go towards stuff that people buy. Maybe it will but I fail to see why that’s a bad thing if so. If the game-makers are providing things that make a profit and keep the game going then they are doing what every business should be doing – serving their customers with what they want. If it turns out that means development time spent on things I don’t personally want then that’s my tough luck.

    The other one goes along the lines of “pay to win”. I don’t believe you can “win” an MMORPG to begin with so that one doesn’t really make much sense to me.

    I should point out that I do subscribe. I like subscribing and I think it’s generally an incredibly good deal as entertainment goes. I currently sub to all SoE games on the Pass and to Rift. Five or so years ago, that would have been about all the Western MMOs I’d have been playing because I can’t afford more than a couple of subs a month. Now I can sub to those and also have over a dozen other good quality MMOs on my desktop that I can pop into anytime for nothing. How can that not be a good thing for me?

    On the substantive suggestion of a sliding scale based on population I cannot imagine how that would work. Would the price yoyo up and down as people came and left? If you subbed for six months at $14.99 and the price dropped to $10.99 as more people came on board would you get a refund? An extension? Just so out of luck? Seems fraught with insane complications.

    • Gank says:

      There are games that don’t offer a subscription option and simply aren’t ‘win win’ for the players. Something is taken away, or an obstacle to ‘fun’ game-play is introduced so you HAVE to pay. No big deal- I’m happy to pay for a good product, but as we see in my current game of choice- World Of Tanks- there is no ’sub’ option.

      I’ve talked about this at length on my own blog, and can’t take the time to repeat it all here, but basically I argue that these types of games are explotative and use a lot of the same techniques as the gambling industry. The player can not really ‘win’ in this case because, as with gambling, the house always wins.

      Full post here: http://gankalicious.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-is-fun-revisited.html

      …and yes, I know the arguments: “you don’t have to play it, walk away” or “it’s free if you really want it to be”. I get all that and have both paid for, and played for free (with respect to World of Tanks) but I find the pricing model they have imposed to be restrictive, and I genuinely like the game (and thus don’t mind paying…it’s the options I object to.)

      For the record I have spent $375 Canadian Dollars on ‘Free to play’ World of Tanks in the year it has been out which shows I don’t mind paying. All that money, however, should mean my gaming experience is exactly how I want it to be, and it’s simply not the case.

      I think we will see a lot more non-sub pricing models as FTP takes hold and the profits soar.

      /my2centsover

    • Gordon says:

      It’s not that I’m completely anti-F2P, it’s just that I don’t think it’s as good a payment solution as a lot of people claim it to be. Sure, if implemented well, it can be a very fair model but you only need to look at how SOE cocked up EQ2 when it originally went F2P to see how problematic it can be. In fact, in their version, you ended up paying more under F2P to unlock all of the same content as you would’ve just through buying the box and subscribing. It was the antithesis of ‘free’ :P

      It also creates very cloudy motivations for developers because ultimately they gain more revenue out of selling items rather than just enhancing the game and even now we’re seeing some slippery slope situations with F2P games introducing gear with beneficial stats on them – looking at LOTRO here. I honestly don’t think it will be long before most F2P games go down the real-money auction house system that Blizzard are introducing with D3 and soon you’ll just be able to buy epic raid gear with your credit card. Cash aside, I’m just not sure if that’s the type of gaming environment I want to play in. I hate constantly being nudged to get my wallet out when I’m trying to relax and play a game.

      As for my sliding scale subscription model… yeah, it might be a wee bit flawed :D

  2. Xintia says:

    I think a distinction needs to be drawn between the Western style F2P hybrids and the totally cash shop driven F2P games. LOTRO, DDO, DCUO, etc. are not your traditional F2P games. They offer standard subscription options that eliminate the feeling of being “nickle’d and dime’d” to death that traditional F2P games give you. And I totally agree with Gordon on that point. Standard F2P is nothing but an exercise in frustration as you pay a dollar here and a dollar there to REALLY play the game as opposed to having those “barriers” removed via a subscription. So to my mind, these “hybrid” games aren’t really F2P, they are more like… unlimited trials.

    I also would much rather pay a flat subscription than deal with cash shop related non-sense. Recent F2P conversions may have encouraged me to take a peek at a couple games I wouldn’t have otherwise (like DCUO) but if I were to truly play those games, I would sub to them. I lament the expansion of the F2P model and if the subscription truly goes the way of the dodo, then my time with MMO’s may come to an end as well. Even at $15 a month, MMO’s remain a hell of a value for your entertainment dollar. I have better things to do than be charged a buck for an inventory expansion and a buck for chat access and a buck for…….

    • Gordon says:

      Exactly this – I’d be a lot happier with F2P games as long as they all offered a normal monthly subscription that game me everything and removed the constant dollar nudges. Of course, that wouldn’t stop me from worrying that they’ll still keep focusing on adding fluff items to their in-game cash shop rather than new content…

  3. Leah says:

    I’m with the hybrid subscription model personally. I love the way DDO and LOTRO does it. pay $15 a month and have everything unlocked? or pay as you go, if you don’t feel like committing to $15 a month. the scaling subscription model is interesting except… it also allows for a possibility of price going up again if people leave. which basically makes you feel like you are tied to playing the game, even more so then the feeling of “must get my money’s worth” of the regular subscription… at least if you bring your friends into it.. because by quitting you are potentially making the game more expensive for them.

    I’m not sure how free are the first 20 levels in RIFT. I never got part the part where I try to recover my account and they won’t let me (and I simply didn’t feel like creating new e-mail just to see if I might like the game any better then first time I tried it)

    but free 20 levels in WoW are terrible. you are restricted from pretty much everything other then completing some quests. unless they make that particular model less restrictive, to me its not fun enough, personally.

  4. Erwin says:

    In your system: wouldn’t the 1st 100.000 subscribers just quit and resub as soon as the sub became cheaper? Effectively, creating a big merry-go-round in quitting and resubbing?

    If you throw some economics at that you’d probably effectively cap your max population at some lvl where the sub-quit-resub would stabilize at.

    People don’t like paying more than others to get the same service and will try to correct if given the chance…

  5. Scott says:

    @Erwin just nailed a big aspect right there. Example: my girlfriend and I just upgraded to new phones. She chose the Motola Razr. Less than 48 hours afterwards, Verizon started a promotion where the Razr was $100 less than she paid. She marched into the store and demanded the refund or she would return the phone, then re-buy at the cheaper price. It’s much less work and less time to simply refund the $100 and keep a happy customer and that’s what they did.

    Look how people will drive another mile if they know a gas station sells for 1 cent less per gallon.

    You don’t think MMO players locked into a subscription of *any* amount would find the cheapest way to pay? They absolutely would. Hell, that’s why there is even a sub-set of players in the F2P games who never pay a dime to support the game they claim to love, but will put in ridiculous of amounts of grinding in order to get the same thing in-game.

    People are cheap. Economies are rough. Hence, people are even cheaper.

  6. Bronte says:

    Flaw: I am being asked to pay $14.99. Cancel sub, wait three months.

    Since the company has lost a $14.99 sub, does that mean someone who was paying in the next tier, say $10.99, would be automatically bumped up to $14.99, for surely that would suck!

    I simply return a short while later. I am now being asked to (for the sake of the argument) $4.99. Yay for me, sucks to be you if you got your sub raised!

  7. [...] over at We Fly Spitfires is still a fan of subscriptions, and offered up his idea of an adjustable subscription rate based on the number of active players. I’ll just go on record here and say that my own [...]

  8. vortalism says:

    Personally I’d think that keeping it simple with a standard subscription model would do nicely. This all seems a bit too risky. Once all the hype has gone what’s stopping people from leaving the game and bumping the price up for people who chose to stay. Also it demands a lot out of everyone to keep playing in order to keep the price down for everyone else. (This was probably mentioned above)

    But yeah. I’m sticking to my standard Blizzard subscription. And when Guild Wars 2 comes, I’ll be enjoying that too. Just buying the box, with no subs. Like Skyrim.

    (Best part is, I can still play WoW without feeling subscription pressure)

  9. Fumbles says:

    I think people are misunderstanding Gordon’s idea or maybe I am… =)

    an example on my understanding:
    100,000 players all pay $15, next month 50,000 more join-
    150,000 players all pay $14, next month 50,000 more join-
    200,000 players all pay $13, next month 100,000 leave-
    100,000 players all pay $15, next month 200,000 more join-
    300,000 players all pay $12, next month 200,000 more join-
    500,000 players all pay $10, next month 500,000 more join-
    1,000,000 players all pay $8 a month

    • Leah says:

      this is the way I understood it as well, but… imagine this. you bring with you say 5 of your friends to play the game. but at one point, you are just not having fun anymore. but if you unsubscribe… you are directly increasing THEIR subscription, because the rate is dependent on the number of people playing.

      more people leave, price goes up… people don’t like it when prices are raised on them. they will just go play something that’s free or keeps its subscription costs stable. and yes, there is absolutely no reason for them to cap it @15 if you consider operating costs. they would either keep raising subscription costs in case the playerbase keeps shrinking… or they will shot down the game support all together, with second being inevitable outcome, unfortunately, with only difference being exactly when shut down will happen.

  10. Scott says:

    Ah yes, but why would you assume they would cap the subscription at $15? If they’re going to allow players to pay less with a lot of players, the opposite must also be true. As much as gamers love to fool themselves into thinking the developers just want us to have a cheap, fun, game, that’s only partially true: they want a fun game so they we will pay and the company will be profitable so the developers can eat, send their kids to school, so the company can pay its investors, and get funding to stay in business and make more games.

    EQ was $15/month back in the day as I recall. Now it’s 2012. Can you name *one single service* you pay for (electricity, phone, cable, internet, water, etc.) that has maintained the exact same price in the past 12 years? I doubt it. $15/month isn’t as profitable as it used to be. If it were, Sparkle Ponies would be free in-game special quest rewards, but they’re not. Server transfers would be free because “it’s just a simple matter of changing a database value” right?

    • Gordon says:

      This is a good point… and maybe why so many MMOs are keen to make money through other streams such as cash shop items. I’m not sure if there would be a cap on the sub in my scaling model but it raises a good question – would fewer, more loyal players be willing to pay more in order to keep their favourite game alive?

  11. UnSub says:

    The model doesn’t work because it assumes the player base can never shrink. That’d be a heck of a community announcement: “You all used to pay $12 a month for the game, but the player base has shrunk and we are now charging you $15 a month”.

    And if you are going to be pedantic on the “free-to-play isn’t really free” point, then most pure subscription-based titles cost more than the subscription since you have to buy the box too (this changes as they go to a hybrid payment model which means the player gets the client for free).

    • Gordon says:

      Depends on the game. You can buy the WoW battlechest for £6.97/$10 in Europe and you still get your initial 30 days free with that. Don’t forget that F2P games still make money but just through different means. You might not need to buy the box or pay a monthly sub but forking out $10 for a few new races? Or more classes? It all adds up. Plus you still need to buy expansions. Reality is that the money still leaves your pocket, just in a different way, and you have to suffer cash shops and wallet nudges through your entire gaming experience.

  12. Quin says:

    I agree with UnSub. A rise in price on a declining population will only do one thing: make the population decline slightly faster! It’s a good idea, and one heading in the right direction, but unfortunately there’s a few key flaws in it in my view.

  13. Overflow says:

    Your subscription method would work fine, Gordon, as long as the payment decrease for all players was permanent. Others seem to believe that the sub would have to increase in cost if the game were to lose players, but that’s not necessarily true.

    For example, a game could launch with a standard $15 dollar subscription. Then, they could have a population ticker on their website to show their active subs, and have a message encouraging people to get their friends to play in order to reach a subscription milestone. Once they reach that milestone, say 100k, they lower the sub cost to $14. Once it’s $14 it will never be raised as the 100,000 box sales gave the company enough profit to afford a slight decrease in sub cost. They may cap the subscription decrease at say a $12 fee, but the decreases would be an initial incentive to have people talk their friends into buying the game.

    This way the players aren’t forced to continue playing if they’re tired of the game since their friends will still only pay the lower subscription fee. Also, it encourages the super fans of the game to create their own word of mouth marketing campaigns to get others to play and hopefully reduce the overall sub cost. The biggest flaw I see is one where the developer wouldn’t want to lose money by lowering their sub rate, but hopefully they’d be willing to see the long term benefit of promoting a friend-driven subscription base.

    On a side note, the refer-a-friend promotions which usually award players with free hours or months of play time could be used to lower subscription rates instead. $1 off your monthly sub for life per referred friend would be a pretty nice reason to annoy your friends into playing haha :-D

  14. hordemaster says:

    I think your model presupposes a world in which everyone who plays also has friends who are gamers and willing to join the game, or a big pool from which to recruit gamers into a game. What about the guy who games, but also works 30-40 hours a week, maybe only has time for the sporadic game session on a week night and is a “weekend” warrior. Perhaps his real friends are not gamers, and eschew gaming, this guy has no friends to recruit and can only hope the rest of the gaming community takes an interest in lowering the price of the game’s subscription.

    • Overflow says:

      Is that a bad thing though? At least there’s still a possibility for this guy to have his subscription price lowered. If he was playing another game with a $15 sub and no possibility of it lowering, wouldn’t he be happy just knowing his sub could get lowered if the game gained in popularity? And, who knows, maybe he’ll talk his non-gamer friends into trying it. I’ve converted a few console-only friends over to the MMO market by enthusiastic badgering on occasion. :-D

  15. hordemaster says:

    I think if a game is good, there is no need for you to badger people into playing. Look at Skyrim, people gravitated to it because of the game’s quality. Of course, it’s not an mmo, but it has some of the elements mmo players like.

  16. toxic says:

    3.75/hour is rather a lot of online entertainment.

    The reason hardcore people don’t like F2P is because they know that if they paid based on their level of commitment the game would be a lot more expensive for them. They like a flat fee where they get to play for .25/hour and some guy who plays two hours a week subsidizes them by paying 15 times as much per hour for the same access, and gets to get pissed on and dominated by the same people he’s subsidizing.

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