I came across this article by Paul Tassi this weekend and had plenty of time to think it over. Overall I agree with his conclusions, and believe he arrived at them justly. I do however think it is such a vast issue that can be attacked from so many angles that there is no single answer as to why a subscription based AAA MMO title can’t succeed in 2014. Actually, I can think of quite a few.
The first thing I hope the readers of this blog have already accepted is that the free-to-play model is dead in the water, at least where AAA titles are concerned. I interpret the following statement from Paul about Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play to mean he agrees: “instead of being the blockbuster EA needed it to be, it’s a cautionary tale of overestimating your brand.”
1998 was the first full year two members of our household subscribed to Ultima Online, so I will use it as an example. In the 6 months prior I had already spent $100 or more on the game. I now had my brother playing too though, and his box copy of the game plus both of our subscriptions for the year meant we had spent nearly $300 on MMO titles from a single distributor that year.
2013 is a year I spent a lot more on games than usual, but by no means atypical in terms of online games. When I thought about online games I paid for in 2013 I cobbled together a short list. I remembered all those stinkers I had paid for that still stung a bit…Diablo 3, Guild Wars 2, and the latest FFXI expansion–except the problem is that only the last of that batch came out in 2013.
You see as far as MMOs went, I had actually played some pretty terrible ones in both 2012 and 2013. Ragnarok 2 and Anarchy Online to name two of the more pitiful ones from last year. The important thing though was that some hard fought losses in 2012 caused me to be even more cautious with my wallet in 2013. I scoured my carefully organized mint.com account in researching this post, and unfortunately, I didn’t come up with much. This is largely because there wasn’t much there. 2013 wasn’t a compelling year to spend money on something you can literally get for free. Let me caveat that by saying that if the paid games were any better than the free games I might have to eat my hat. But they’re not!
Online games I spent money on in order of dollar contribution:
EVE Online — $35 ( Starter pack + 3 month subscription )
FFXI Seekers of Adoulin — $20 ( total garbage, did not even subscribe )
Anarchy Online — $15 ( badness of game totally unparalleled )
Path of Exile — $15 ( money well spent, but I played for over 4 months )
Online games I tried but did not spend money on, in order of badness:
Warframe, City of Steam ( both distributors ), Firefall, Neverwinter, The Secret World, Marvel Heroes, Ragnarok II
As embarrassing of a list of horrifyingly bad games as the above is, I think it does highlight one important factor: there are many people out there like me who are going out and trying to play these games, they are just that bad it’s impossible to even stick with them long enough to want to make a purchase.
Path of Exile is a notable game in the list above because it is 100% free-to-play and yet I actually spent money on it. I spent money on it because I wanted to patronize the development team. I only believe that further highlights a problem that has compounded onto itself many times over: if I really like a game I am willing to pay hundreds of dollars if demanded to, but very little if only suggested to.
Nearly half of the $85 I spent on online games last year ended up just being expensive mistakes. Only in the case of EVE Online and Path of Exile did I truly believe I had exchanged tender for services rendered. I can promise you that this not insignificant detail is responsible for feeling positive about the customer experience, regardless of what industry we are talking about.
The important thing to understand here is that all of the games I didn’t spend any money on have one thing in common. As soon as I realized that my time had been wasted, some knee-jerk mechanism intervened to make sure I didn’t waste my money too.
The harsh reality is that the bad games I played in 2013 by and large were anemic in entertainment value, however just as demanding of my time–which is why I gave every single one the axe.
15 years ago it was possible for MMORPGs to demand both a lot of money(relatively) and a lot of time from their players. 10 years ago it was thought to be prudent to demand only customers’ money, but shave down the investment required to “get to the good stuff.” 5 years ago the conventional wisdom was to demand neither, but offer “optional” shortcuts for a nominal price. The difference between the first(Everquest), the second(World of Warcraft), and the third(see my list above) is that the former two strategies are time tested monetization schemes that made the corresponding producers of each game a lot of money. The third has very little to show for itself.
I really question when these companies are going to get their act together. I recently participated in two “member’s of the press” weekends with the current version of Wildstar. Their monetization strategy is being called a “hybrid” model. What this means is that you ignore the past 5 years like I mentioned above, and instead you simply copy CCP’s monetization scheme.
This move is easily just as clueless as the TESO subscription model Paul Tassi bemoans. The reason is because EVE makes two considerations of the player’s time: 1) That it is precious, yet also finite and 2) That it has some intrinsic value that can collectively be harvested.
What I mean by that is that the brilliance of EVE’s monetization strategy is that it is custom tailored around the unique gameplay characteristics of the game itself. For one thing, it is very much a game where time is money, and the players are the content–the world is simply the arena they interact within. Time is what fuels all interactions within the universe, but it is also the only ingredient in this recipe that can’t be skipped. You can buy money in this game, but you can’t buy time.
When you pay your subscription to CCP, what you are actually buying is an allotment of time in which you are able to access the game. In that regard CCP is simply a service provider. You are front-loading the cost of a month’s worth of game time which you are not yet in receipt of. But one thing you can never buy directly from CCP is a shortcut to save you that time. Every company that has ever tried to sell both either regretted it, or was just too stupid not to have.
In many ways I see that Path of Exile has a similar outlook. Your achievements in the game are really a function of the time you put in–whether that be attending many of the smaller race events, or going in for the long haul. One thing is for certain, it’s not a game where you ever pay your way out of playing.
If you are looking for my prediction on what the next 5 years will be like, well I can’t be certain. If anyone with a brain were running the show though, we’d see a player’s time be put at a premium again, and with any luck game companies could go back to selling actual products and services again instead of snake oil.
So it will be interesting to see if CCP can get $120 from me in 2014. They’d dwarf what I spent on all online games combined in 2013.