MMO Subscriptions

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I was privy to a conversation the other day where a few people were talking about how the MMO subscription model was completely dead. This conversation happened in World of Warcraft, where all participants were actively paying a subscription.

The people against subscriptions made their stance very clear: Any MMO to release with a subscription is destined to fail, and it will fail because it has a subscription. They offered up no reason why, or how games without a subscription would succeed, or any counter to why WoW could have a subscription and be just fine.

I have a very strong opinion about subscriptions.

Subscriptions are Alive and Well

Our world operates on subscriptions. We pay subscriptions for many things, and most of the time we do so willingly. Sometimes it’s because we are captive and have absolutely no choice, but many times we seek them out.

Here are a few of my subscriptions which I willingly pay in order to gain access to a product or a service:

Xbox Live
Adobe Creative Suite
Amazon Prime
Office 365
World of Warcraft

That’s just a few. I’m not even including things like cell phone data plans, internet connections, tv plans (or subsequent added channels), marketing tools for my businesses, game servers, website hosting, or my Disneyland Annual Pass.

Why Do We Pay Subscriptions?

This one is simple: We value what we receive.

The opposite is also true. We cancel subscriptions when we do not enjoy them, or when our price sensitivity threshold is breached and what we pay no longer justifies the fun/utility/service we receive. When someone says, “I can’t afford that” they often mean “I don’t want to pay that much.” The people who truly “can’t” afford the subscription are often a very, very small percentage.

MMORPGs and Subscriptions

Subscriptions for MMOs became taboo during the great F2P movement.  The marketing weasels spent millions on campaigns to brain wash people into thinking that games should be free, and that F2P MMOs can have the same amount of depth and scope as any subscription game. I’m still waiting I’ve been demanding proof of that now for over 6 years.

At the same time, games releasing with subscriptions were absolute garbage. They tried so hard at being themepark clones in order to act as cash grabs to pay investors, and never — ever — had a plan to last longer than a year. They all had built-in exit strategies, and their employees often had new jobs lined up weeks after they launched. No one would or should pay a subscription for crap.

Afraid for their numbers, or under the thumb of ignorant executives, many long-standing subscription MMOs also turned F2P in order to appeal to this new “market” of “MMO gamers” who would be the “future” of the industry.

The F2P movement, combined with garbage games, created this perfect storm of misinformation. With the F2P marketing weasels telling people subscriptions were bad, and subscription games sucking eggs, it wasn’t hard for ignorance to spread like wildfire. Before we knew it, subscriptions were “clearly” to blame for why these games failed.

Now the “future” of the industry and those “MMO gamers” have mostly all moved on and retained their ignorance about the subscription models being bad for games.

I’ll Gladly Pay

I will happily pay subscriptions to multiple MMORPGs. Any MMO with the scope and depth I’m looking for, with great mechanics gameplay, that can keep my attention deserves my money. To simplify, I will pay a subscription for a great game. I absolutely will not pay a subscription for a crappy game or service. That’s not unique to MMOs.

There is no data anywhere in existence that contradicts the idea that people are happy to pay for something of quality that they actually want. So when I hear people preaching that subscriptions can never work — especially while having that conversation in a game they’re paying a subscription for — it’s simply no wonder the industry is where it’s at.

Climbing Out of the Hole

The MMO industry is slowly climbing out of the hole it dug itself into. It’s going to be a long climb. We’re going to see a lot of indie devs taking a stab at things because there aren’t a lot of juggernauts to dominate the headlines. MMO news sites are covering anything they can get their hands on, desperate for a story.

I fear that low budgets will lead many down the path of low quality, and there will be an unfortunate (and inaccurate) association between quality and niche. Indie devs will try to make niche games, and we’ll see another wave of “niche games don’t succeed” when once a gain it’s a case of quality being the issue. Anyway, I digress.

Value will return; Subscriptions will return with it. Groupthink will continue to fail. Indie games will rise and fall as always, and the wheat will naturally separate itself from the chaff. As in all things, it’s simply a matter of time.

Subscriptions are dead. Long live subscriptions!

  • That’s a somewhat selective rewrite of history. As a gamer as well as an MMO player, surely you remember the complete abhorrence with which MMOs were viewed by the general gaming public prior to WoW? EQ might have been the biggest MMO pre-WoW but it was held in contempt by gamers at large for being a) pointlessly repetitive (aka grindy) and b) needing a subscription to play it.

    I agree that subscriptions are commonplace outside of gaming but to say that people welcome them is a stretch. People put up with them because they don’t have more palatable alternatives. Subscriptions are by and large seen as acceptable for services but not for products. MMOs have long struggled with those definitions. they operate as services in that the companies running them have to maintain servers but players regard them as products in that they require constant new content to be added. It’s always been an awkward situation and adding a monthly charge into the mix just exacerbates the sense of entitlement players feel.

    Clearly there is and never was a true “Free To Play” option for any MMO intending to operate commercially. Just as the inclusion of the word “game” in the acronym MMORPG hasn’t helped understanding or development of the genre, so a return to subscriptions won’t either. They aren’t, primarily, games and they aren’t, primarily, services.

    On the other hand, the quasi-subscription charges that most MMOs require for “Premium Access” of some kind *are* service charges. They are much more easily understood in that context and therefore more acceptable to both sides. You can pay $9.99 a month for “Premium Membership” and get little more than a few buffs and some play money to spend in the company shop and people will be satisfied. Call it a “Subscription” and they expect new content every month.

    I think the best payment model for the genre is probably buy-to-play with regular paid-for content, plus an optional “Premium Membership”. Split the Product and Service offers, market them clearly and separately and charge accordingly. That’s not to say there won’t be successful niche MMOs that survive with a subscription but they will be small, niche MMOs. Which is fine, but don’t be surprised if virtually no-one other than the handful of players playing them knows they exist.

  • Optional premium memberships and ‘regular’ paid content updates create a conflict of interest. There becomes this gray area and an immediate distinction between “you pay” and “you don’t pay”. Players are then segmented, gameplay is designed around the segmentation, and suddenly the business model drives design changes.

    Everyone buys the box. Everyone pays a sub. The sub being on-going forces the developers to continually provide justification (value) for the price. If they stop providing value, players can cancel their subscription. It’s cleaner, it keeps the focus honed in on the game.

  • I don’t have a good explanation for this, but game companies are bad at managing a lifecycle beyond the initial box sale, whether it’s a subscription, DLC, season passes, expansions or add-ons. Others industries have found solutions that suits their business model while game companies only seems to raise the ire of the players regardless of the route taken. Maybe because it’s a very fragmented market with a lot competition while VOD services, for example, are only a handful.

  • There’s one problem with your list of willingly paid subscriptions. Creative Suite. There is no real alternative to it at the professional level. When you compare costs to what you receive by getting constant “updates” (not much new stuff, just fixes and tweaks, with the occasional real changes coming at about the pace of the previous release model), the cost has roughly doubled. That was a cash grab pure and simple.

  • @Jo from Kokomo: I gladly pay it because I use Adobe Sign, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Is it Adobe’s fault no one can compete? No, it’s really not. And I feel way more comfortable paying a monthly fee than dropping $1000 on software upfront.

    @Maljjin: Too true. Though look at WoW. Have they really done much to manage the lifecycle? I’d say they are as bad as it gets. They even often fail to release new content and go months or a year before new updates yet manage a million+ people paying them $15/month. Somehow the value is there.

  • Even in (Especially in?) WoW the subscription model is dead. I paid for one month. I’ll never have to pay again. I make enough in game gold playing the game regularly that I don’t have to pay anymore.

    From my understanding (I skipped WoD entirely) anyone who played has buckets of gold, and will probably never have to pay again as long as the game exists.

    The true subscription model is entirely dead in MMO gaming, and it’s fine that it is.

  • Whether you bought your subscription with gold or dollars makes no real difference. Someone paid $14.99 (ish) for you to access the game for ~30 days. If it wasn’t you, then it was someone else.

    I didn’t make money in the 3-4 months I played WoD, therefore I can’t coast on that windfall. I can however work for about 10 minutes in RL and pay for my month’s sub. I consider that an equitable trade.

    I hope you can provide more proof of the subscription model’s death. Otherwise you’re another WoW player paying for a subscription while stating the model is dead. It’s just not convincing.

  • I love Bhagpuss analysis of Service VS Content. And you are right when you say that the main issue is Cost VS Value.
    On Content :
    The issue is that the MMOs are competing with Single Player games for the coop/single player market, and they have bad values for us. 15$/month is 1 – 3 single player game by month, and this means a lot of value for coo/single player. Content in MMO are two to threefold the content of single player game, thus are not such a good value.

    As a service, as a social network/games, MMO has no competitor. And thus for this, they are able to fix the price they want, with all the network effect on value – the more player, the higher the chance you have to find Good People, the higher the value for you.

  • It might seem a subtle point, but perhaps the F2P push might have been a symptom of “absolute garbage” subscription MMO’s, that is something new filling a vacuum of demand, as opposed to a marketing scheme that occurred simultaneously and favored degradation of public opinion against subscription MMO monetization models (which is how I interpreted your statement).

    Why this is important is in recognizing the primary problem to the subscription model system, which is a dearth of games worthy to pay a subscription for, as opposed to the subscription model being degraded by F2P philosophy.

    In this context time spent decrying a F2p philosophy is potentially pointless as it is only addressing a symptom of the primary problem, inferior implementation of subscription models, which until the latter is resolved may functionally mean the subscription model is dead.

    And it is important to recognize that the longer the primary problem exists, the overall situation may unfavorably evolve, further working against MMO subscriptions.

    For instance I used to be a true MMO devotee (I still remember a girlfriend handing down an ultimatum that if I didn’t step away from WoW I could forget about sex, a true wake up call for me), but as MMO’s degraded in quality or at least failed to provide enough novelty to maintain my interest, I moved into a phase of cancelling subs as I couldn’t justify wasting the cost and time anymore. At this point I would still purchase EA for new sub MMO’s with an addict’s hope based on what turned out to be empty promises from hype spinning AAA representatives.

    The next phase was me becoming disillusioned with EA and shifting into a mindset that I would instead wait a few months after launch to assess favorable reviews, at which point I stopped playing most MMO’s altogether, something that was not problematic given the rise of STEAM and dirt cheap games in general to fill my gaming needs.

    Then came the rise of F2P and some I initially loved some such as Allods, until the hidden P2W wall was reached, but at least in principle I could see the potential for a successful F2P model, even if that never truly came to pass in my experience for a MMO format (though cheers to PoE though for demonstrating the model can succeed in general).

    What I mean by an unfavorable evolving situation against subscription MMO’s is that I was converted over the years from a daily compulsive, albeit well entertained, MMO subscription believer to my current status of no longer even following new MMO releases, buttressed by a huge wall of games constructed by STEAM who got me to pay to build it.

    So in this mindset, what are the chances of someone like me now reverting back to paying a monthly subscription when the industry has a far more basic problem of getting thoroughly disillusioned people such as myself to even take notice of new MMO releases?

    And once again this conversion was a dramatic reversal from my initial love for the genre, which unrequited degraded to frustration, and eventually disinterest.

    As far as your successful examples of paid subscription services, I would just keep in mind that such a viewpoint may be somewhat overly rosy as customers can feel exploited and turn to other options. Perhaps this is also an inadvertent F2P analogy, but after years of paying Microsoft for their Office Suite, I drew a line when they said I now must rent their software from them. Such a heavy-handed overtly greed motivated monetization scheme caused me to shift my business to use FreeOffice on my computers without preexisting Microsoft Office software.

    So when a certain concept such as subscription MMO’s or even a dominant Office Suite are in ascension, at the moment the threat from any other alternatives may appear negligible, but ignoring the slow grind of dissatisfaction over time may evolve such an unfavorable community that simply improving your product and/or monetization model may not be enough to win back your audience if they are no longer listening.

  • @Keen I did state “true” subscription model, as we old guys new it. Pretty much every game now has an alternate payment method (except FF14 maybe?) that you don’t have to give your cash to play. Plex, Kronos, Tokens, whatnot.

    I actually don’t know many people that pay real money anymore, which really makes me wonder who in the heck are buying it all up?

    A subscription model is one where I pay for a service. I don’t. I used to spend a lot of money to play this game, now it is free *to me*. I am fine with that, and prefer it over paying a subscription.

  • Another characteristic I don’t have a good explanation : gamers tend to review their subscription dollars and cancel if they don’t find the right value or are no longer playing. That’s what happened with Gankatron for example. We see this with other subscription services, but there seems to be a lot intertia too, many people not thinking about the few dollars they spent each month while not really using the service. This applies to VoD like Netflix, but to some degrees to cable bills.

    @Isey : This is anecdotal. I could argue that all my WoW guildmates are paying dollars not gold to keep playing, it would be against your point but doesn’t tell us anything about the bigger picture. We would really need a glance at the overall data to conclude one way or the other.

  • @Isey: Most people I know still pay the monthly sub. I know 3 who made a few mil in WoD. They’ll play for 15 years free. I think it’s all mostly irrelevant.

    If WoW did away with the tokens, i know without a shadow of a doubt that those 3 would pay $15 a month. They don’t play WoW because it’s “faux-free” to them. They play because they like it.

  • @keen that is a fair observation. I personally probably wouldn’t, so that is the context I am looking at it through. As a “Free” game for me it’s worth the time I sink in. As you mentioned, the company is getting paid (by someone else) so it’s a win for them too.

    I just don’t call it a subscription in the literal sense because it’s not costing me anything personally. So, subscriptions are dead *to me* probably should have been the qualifier I used earlier.

    @maljjin – that data woukd be delicious. I’m really curious if it’s a 1-1 purchase / sale or if they run a token deficit / surplus. Since it is a digital good, it’s not like there are inventory issues. We’ll never really know the inner workings unless they come out and share that information.

  • That’s the brilliance of the tokens. They get the people who would pay anyway AND the people who are price sensitive. They get whales AND guppies.

    I would pay money for access to the data. I’d have a marketing nerdfest with it.

  • @maljjin –

    Perhaps a difference for many other entertainment subscription services is they don’t provide only single product. So if there a relatively dead month on a Showtime or HBO type of service, one will likely be OK as they can anticipate a variety of future shows they know they like from experience as well as the promise of a slew of new ones.

    If WoW was part of a larger umbrella of games offered under a subscription service people would likely be more inclined to maintain their subs in months where they had lower in game time especially if new games were scheduled to roll out in the coming year.

    And necessity subscription services such as phone plans are not directly comparable to entertainment ones as one will likely not just decide to cut them due to lack of interest.

  • @Gankatron: SOE’s All Access Pass was a great idea. Though only 1 or 2 were worth playing and the rest not so much. If a company like Blizzard had a subscription for multiple games I’d pay it.

    HBO does offer one product: Shows.

    HBO having different shows could be like WoW having PvP, Raids, Quests, etc. A better example would be a game with great crafting, great pvp, and great pve like UO. Play your way.

  • That is a far too optimistic perspective of WoW even considering it is a themepark type game.

    WoW is a single game offering different experiences within the WoW-verse, as any themepark MMO needs to provide even the inferior ones, which is not at all the same as a service offering different products.

    Isolate quests as a single stand alone component from the holistic WoW game experience and one would have an irrelevant minigame that wouldn’t survive long on its own; now compare removing Game of Thrones from Westworld and both still function as complete entertainment entities apart from one another, both that are part of a greater multiple “Shows” provider.

    Your analogy to SOE All Access Pass is comparable to HBO as it offers different games, even if the selection of games was more limited in number than HBO’s line up.

    Classifying HBO as offering a single product is a lumping semantic-based argument as each different show is a separate self-contained unique entity and not a component required for the service to effectively function.

    One could form a similar false analogy to basically any single entertaining activity through a reductionistic approach and thereby ignore context.

    WoW (a single game) ≃ HBO (multiple shows) ≃ SOE’s All Access Pass (multiple games), …do you really believe that?

    If I wanted to I could similarly argue that the SOE All Access Pass was directly comparable to WoW (analogous to your HBO – WoW equivalence) as both offer gaming experiences, leading to a false equivalency of a single game is equivalent to a service providing multiple games.

    Alternatively I could reduce a single show, such as a personal favorite of mine Game of Thrones, into the components that make it a holistic entertainment experience and discusses the differing environments, characters, and situations that offer a multitude of different entertainment experiences and then try to claim it is equivalent to the entire HBO service as they both offer one product: Shows

    Also don’t forget the plural in your analogy…

    “HBO does offer one product: Shows”

    Wow on the other hand offers one product: Game, not games


  • TL;DR:

    WoW is a single game offering multiple entertainment experiences.

    SOE All Access Pass is a multiple game provider offering multiple games, each offering multiple entertainment experiences.

    HBO is a multiple show provider offering multiple shows, each offering multiple entertainment experiences.

    WoW (a single game) ≠ HBO (multiple shows) ≃ SOE’s All Access Pass (multiple games)

  • WoW (a single game) ≠ [HBO (multiple shows) ≃ SOE’s All Access Pass (multiple games)]

    …perhaps this is a better order of operations format?? 😛

  • I guess I just don’t get the argument.

    You’re stating that different kinds of shows offer different entertainment experiences. I agree.

    You’re denying that PvP and PvE (Battlegrounds and Raiding) aren’t different entertainment experiences? I’d disagree completely if that’s the case because I hate the battlegrounds but don’t mind the raids (even like them lately). To me that’s no different than liking some shows over others.

    You subscribe to the channel, not the shows. You subscribe to the game, not the activities. Bottom line: it’s a subscription to something that offers you value you enjoy. In both cases, successful enjoyable value.

  • Problem is a game has to be pretty amazing to draw long term subs away from WOW. Till a game like that is made, F2P with an affordable Premium monthly is likely all we are gonna get for now.

  • Perhaps I misunderstood you, by stating that “HBO having different shows could be like WoW having PvP, Raids, Quests”, I was under the impression you were trying to equate WoW (a single entertainment source) to a service that provides multiple entertainment sources such as HBO or SOE’s All Access Pass, and therein justify paying a monthly sub for the former by comparison to the latter.

    I do agree that questing, PvE, or PvP in a single MMO are different entertainment experiences, but they aren’t functioning as independent/stand-alone parts anymore than editing together a single character’s screen time as an independent/stand-alone story would be a complete experience outside of an HBO series.

    It appeared like you were trying to equate two quantitatively and qualitatively different examples by stretching their definitions to forcibly meet, i.e. stretching up by overemphasizing entertainment value of WoW by stating a single game has multiple entertainment experiences, while simultaneously stretching down by being dismissive of the vastly greater range of experiences offered by a provider of multiple entertainment sources (games or shows), each which in and of themselves also offer multiple entertainment experiences, resulting in a false equivalence.

    By analogy a claw-handed boy can be entertaining by offering a range of entertainment options, but I wouldn’t directly compare his entertainment value to an entire human oddity road show, as I could envision myself paying to see the road show once a month as they added new acts and players to their roster, but probably not so much paying a monthly admission to see the same claw-handed boy occasionally changing up his show; it is a matter of differential magnitude of entertainment variety that leaves your analogy feeling forced.

    So by failing to acknowledge a substantial difference in magnitude of variety offered by a service of multiple entertainment opportunities versus a single opportunity, one would lose the point that such a quantitative difference functionally equates to a qualitatively different experience, one that might warrant long-term maintenance of monthly recurring fees, as opposed to the single entertainment source, unless perhaps you happen to be someone who predicts over the course of years the claw-handed boy’s act will imminently be shut down by the producers, while simultaneously repeatedly returning back to see his act over and over again?

  • Keep in mind that this is analyzing only one of your points, “HBO having different shows could be like WoW having PvP, Raids, Quests”, and is not meant to invalidate your overall argument.

    Although we both initially had great passion in playing old-school WoW, we now express two substantially different viewpoints where you find value to still justify paying a monthly sub to play WoW, where I couldn’t even bear to finish out a offer of free WoW playtime back in the Panda days due to my sheer boredom with their revamped product.

    I guess if one has enough love for something to completely immerse themselves in the experience, the potential of significantly greater entertainment value in other pursuits can seem irrelevant as your needs are already being satisfied.

  • @Gankatron: So don’t make this about WoW. Would you pay a subscription to a game just as good as the old-school games you had a great passion for? The point isn’t to defend WoW here at all. It’s to point out that the subscription model works, and can work, because people are willing to pay for great games.

    @Solarbear: You touch on the most interesting perspective yet. It’s the idea that subscriptions can’t work because WoW does it too well.

    In the beginning that attracted lots of people to say, “I want a piece of that pie.” Then they realized they had to make a great game, not just release something and charge a monthly subscription. So they failed.

    None of this is the fault of a subscription model.

    If no one tried to compete with Apple because Apple already made a great phone, that would not be Apple’s fault. The iPhone would not be flawed because no one else tried to make a smartphone. If no one ever tried to compete with Netflix for the VOD streaming service model, that doesn’t make Netflix a broken business model. In both cases, competition is quite strong and there are great options. Not really the case in the MMORPG industry, and that’s not because the model is flawed. It’s because no one has stepped up with a product that can compete.

  • Sure, but please realize that you made it about WoW by stating “HBO having different shows could be like WoW having PvP, Raids, Quests”, which I addressed and you countered by saying “So don’t make this about WoW”. 😉

    In answer to your follow-up question, yes, I would absolutely pay a subscription for a game that I could feel passionately about, although my gal and pets probably would prefer I didn’t find one. 🙂

    Now having said this, any MMO that theoretically could fit that bill is up against a far higher threshold of acceptance on my part given years of validated frustration, and devs can pretty well forget about tempting me with any EA bonuses because I now will flat out disbelieve that illusion on principle.

    I think that is one marketing approach that F2P MMO’s could have an advantage in that if I hear positive initial feedback from a game adopting such a model I would be far more likely to load it up and take it out for trip, as opposed to paying for a box and sub when internally I now assume any MMO most regardless of monetization scheme will almost be guaranteed to end up as a disappointment, something that seems vindicated by following your thoughtful blog over the last 8 years.

    And over the last 8 years the only constant in your MMO repertoire appears to be WoW, which is no longer appealing to me.

    So I do take your point in theory, but in reality my high level of skepticism bred over the last 10 years of disingenuous lackluster MMO products has me grounded in disbelief that will take far more than a cool cinematic video or EA “bonus items” to overcome.

    Perhaps if you still express genuine excitement over a newly released MMO for more than 3 months I will join you on the battlefield once again.

  • Subscriptions make supporting an MMO from a dev perspective possible, without the downsides of F2P influencing the design. It’s the only model viable long-term, and long-term is what an MMO should be aiming at.

    As I wrote over at my blog, right now the circle of thinking is coming back around to subs. Even the average gamers has caught on to the F2P trap, so that won’t work anymore on a large scale. Models like what GW2 is trying aren’t working either, because while it seems great for the player, it doesn’t bring in enough for the devs without pushing people hard into the cash shop.

    If a game is good, it will benefit most from some version of a sub model, be it a pure one, or something like EVE, where the sub gets you all non-fluff content, there is a fluff shop, and there are also multiple ways to ‘skip ahead’ in terms of character skill points purchased from other players. Most people end up paying just the $15 (direct or indirect), but you also catch some whales without really needing to sacrifice anything to get them.

  • F2P Pricing models are a crutch to excuse some really abhorrent business practices. There are a few that are very respectable and fair. Yet even so, over all pricing models are not the reasons games fail. Games fail because they reach a saturation point, a plateau, from which they are not capable of improving upon. It all becomes lateral expansion. Variations of light and textures upon the same themes. Eventually the gaming public’s eye will get caught up in some other shiny thing with new as yet unknown content to consume, to eventually reach the same point, rinse and repeat.