Monday, August 24, 2009
Booking into Hotel California
As some readers suggested, World of Warcraft is a bit like Hotel California, where "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." That is because probably the biggest single reason why people quit World of Warcraft is that they ran out of things to do. Blizzard simply can't produce content fast enough. So every major content patch and new expansion results in a surge of resubscriptions, proudly presented in a Blizzard press release; and then over the months which follows, without any comment from Blizzard, subscription numbers slowly decline. Note how the last press release, on the announcement of Cataclysm, was curiously free of the usual "WoW now has X million subscribers" phrase, although the footnote explaining what exactly is counted as subscriber was still in it. As far as I know the Chinese servers are still not up again, and in the US and Europe there is a distinct lull, related to Wrath of the Lich King getting old, and the summer holidays. This is most visible via measures of player activity, be it from sites like Warcraftrealms, or services like XFire.
Of course decreased player activity is not identical to decreased subscriptions, it is completely possible for players to be subscribed to World of Warcraft and not playing it. But that is something most people wouldn't keep up for very long, so there must be millions of people who unsubscribe while taking a break from WoW, and resubscribe later.
And once you look at it, you'll notice that unsubscribing and resubscribing isn't all that painless in the context of the monthly flat fee business model. Already the question for how long you should subscribe poses a problem: If you subscribe for 3 or 6 months, you pay $1 / €1 or $2 / €2 less per month. Nice saving? Not if you don't perfectly time your burnout with your subscription period. Getting fed up and losing the will to play is usually something that happens unplanned. So statistically on average you'll still have half of your subscription period left the day you decide to stop playing. You'd need to have played for a year on the 3-month deal, or a year-and-a-half on the 6-month deal, for your savings on the monthly fee to equal the cost of the time you pay for and don't play.
Of course the one game where you are most likely to need one doesn't offer a lifetime subscription. In hindsight it is very obvious that a World of Warcraft lifetime subscription would have been a sweet deal back in 2004. Less obvious is that it could still be a good deal now, for the millions of players who'll often come back to World of Warcraft after having taken a break, or tried another game. At the typical lifetime subscription rate offered by other games, $200, which is equal to about 15 months of monthly fees, it is still quite likely that you'll spend this much time in World of Warcraft over the coming years, even if you just play 6 months after each expansion. While it is possible that WoW has peaked by now, the servers will be running for many years to come, and Blizzard can easily keep their current "live team" churning out content patches and expansions for another decade. So personally, if Blizzard started offering a lifetime subscription to WoW now, I'd take them up on it immediately.
The even better deal for most people would be the one that the players on the Chinese servers are already enjoying (if the servers are up): Paying the equivalent of 5 cents per hour. Now of course the purchasing power in China is less high than in the US and Europe, so if a pay-per-hour business model came to here, it would probably cost more. But even at 15 cents per hour, you'd need to play over 100 hours per month before this became more expensive than the monthly fee. And on a pay-per-hour plan you don't pay anything if you go on holidays, or take a break from WoW. Also there is no more hassle of unsubscribing and resubscribing.
The one thing that World of Warcraft does well with regards to people taking a break, is that Blizzard never deletes your characters or other virtual possessions. Other games, like Final Fantasy XI, had the habit to delete your characters after 3 or 6 months of inactivity, then found that this seriously hampered any "come back to us" marketing efforts, and had to furiosly backpedal and offer character reactivation services. Games with player housing, if that housing isn't completely instanced, suffer especially from that, because the alternatives are having either having neighborhoods of abandoned buildings, or resubscribing players finding their house gone and their favorite spot taken.
I wonder whether Blizzard will ever offer better deals to people who frequently take a break. Of course the very notion that a deal could be better for the subscriber implies that the deal is less profitable for Blizzard, so this isn't all that likely. But I'd love to see alternative subscription deals, like a lifetime subscription, or a pay-per-hour alternative payment method. And once the second Blizzard MMORPG comes out, I'd sure be interested in a deal where subscribing to both costs only a little more than subscribing to just one of them.