Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 13, 2014
 
The subscription business model is alive and well

While I generally agree with Keen's sentiment: "Good games can be ruined by business models, but bad games can never be helped by them.", the reply of Ryan Dancey (developer of Pathfinder Online, a game with a subscription business model) to the Forbes article I discussed last week is worth reading. Ryan has a very nice table with numbers which show that in the Western hemisphere subscription games make about $100 million per month. That is give or take, based on some assumptions about numbers, but I don't want to nitpick on the details. Rather I would like to point out two major things from that table:

1) More than half of those $100 million is made by a single game, World of Warcraft. Every time WoW loses a million subscribers in the West, the number in that table goes down by $15 million as well. As many of the people who are cheering FOR the subscription business model are also cheering when WoW loses subscribers, this is worth pointing out.

2) Every game other than WoW and EVE in the list has two different numbers in the columns on "Estimated monthly players" and "Estimated subscribers". Or in other words, they are all games that do offer a subscription OPTION, but are otherwise Free2Play.

So in the end the whole discussion is one of semantics: What exactly is a "subscription business model game"? I very much agree with Ryan Dancey that IF you count every Free2Play game which has a subscription option as a subscription business model game, then the subscription business model is alive and well, and will still be continue to be so for many years to come. But then of course statements like "subscription games are more fair, because everybody pays the same" do not apply any more.

And I very much believe that the Forbes article didn't use that definition. Nobody believes that The Elder Scroll Online would be hurt by its business model if it had a Free2Play model with a subscription option. It is very much in question whether TESO can be successful if subscription is the ONLY option. But of course as Keen reminds us, TESO might simply fail for being a bad game, regardless of business model.

Comments:
Whether the Elder Scrolls Online can sustain a subscription model or not, only time will tell. All I can say at this point is that having played the weekend beta, I expect I'll be subscribing.
 
I watched my wife in the beta this weekend very carefully. I honestly felt the game evoked the ES feel, and am really quite excited about it now....must have been in a bad mood or something when the last beta was on. I think it was when I realized that they were dealing with environmental issues, combats without targeting and "where you moved and what you did mattered" that I realized that ESO may have a secret weapon in its grasp over the current competition.

As for Dancey....well, he's the guy behind Pathfinder Online currently, which is going to stake it's lifeblood on a subscription model on the expectation that Pathfinder fans and/or renegades from Darkfall will come over so they can murder each other in open-world unrestricted PVP (or so it seems). All in the Unity Engine, that fine game engine used to design lower spec requirement graphics for tablet games.
 
"Nobody believes that The Elder Scroll Online would be hurt by its business model if it had a Free2Play model with a subscription option."

How can you say this with a straight face? Do you honestly believe that a F2P model does not have a detrimental effect on the design of a game?

On an related note, I have several bridges for sale.
 
Do you honestly believe that a subscription model does not have a detrimental effect on the design of a game? Where do you think all that grind is coming from?
 
Wow also has a free-to-play option at this point (or did they can that?), but it is so crippled that it can rightly be regarded as a demo and it's fair to say that everyone who actually plays pays the same amount.

That's a way you can have a free-to-play games that is really a subscription game.
 
Sthenno: a Chinese subscriber is paying about $3 a month. More than half of WoW subscribers are paying way less than everyone else.
 
More than half of WoW subscribers are paying way less than everyone else.

You could argue that as a percentage of their disposable income, the Chinese players pay way more than everyone else.
 
Dancey's article was a lot more rational than I was expecting. But both of your points are quite cogent.

Another issue is how nimbly the game transitions to F2P. But in 2014 more people expecting f2p conversion than in the past inhibits the extra revenue from the fewer early adopters. If f2p becomes more expected, then it may be easier to launch f2p than deal with the conversion. Ofc TESO and WS could be phenomenal successes and expectations change. I'm guessing probably not but we shall know a lot more in 2015.

tl;dr: you can believe that TESO can not sustain a sub and also that launching with box+sub was the most profitable strategy - if the conversion is handled well.

I also think that currency is under-discussed. I don't get the "sub makes all equal" argument in almost all sub games where you can buy unlimited ingame currency with RL$ - be it mandatory sub games like EVE and Wildstar and technically WoW or optional sub like Rift, SWTOR, et al.

And of course the Chinese customers who are counted by Blizzard's published criteria as subscribers can not and do not subscribe.

 
"Do you honestly believe that a subscription model does not have a detrimental effect on the design of a game? Where do you think all that grind is coming from?"

The difference is the fact that splitting your playerbase into "favored" and "unfavored" classes (with varying degrees even of each) has an obviously negative effect on the quality of your content because it forces your content to mirror the split in the playerbase. Thus, instead of being able to design content as a cohesive whole with a shared vision and common goals, your development is motivated entirely by the question "What can we do to get people to pay for stuff?"

In most cases, the answer to that question is "make not paying for stuff less fun."

That. sucks.
 
"Do you honestly believe that a subscription model does not have a detrimental effect on the design of a game? Where do you think all that grind is coming from?"

Grind is a subjective term, without any real meaning. If we attempt to define it, we might come up with 'grind is when the developers attempt to make content replayable through association with extrinsic reward.' If the content is worth replaying, then grind is a good thing. If the content is not, then grind is not a good thing. (This is still a subjective definition which one can deal with with qualifiers, but only on one level, instead of on every level) So yes, I honestly believe that the subscription model does not have a detrimental effect to the design of a game, some of the time. Now, to address the same question for F2P games, we again need a real definition of what qualifies as an F2P game. Does EVE count? Does LoL count? If so, then I also believe that going F2P doesn't always, in past experience, have a detrimental effect on a game. Many people use F2P model in a way where I do believe that their definition of the term indeed has always been detrimental to the design of the games it was found in. The discussion here in this thread, where the terms aren't being carefully defined, will result, in it always does, in both sides being correct, but while discussing completely different things.
 
I disagree with Adam on many points.

MMOs already spit their player base: PvE vs PvP come to mind. It varies by game but say half only PvE and a sixth PvP with minimal PvE to gear/level/fund and a third do both.

If you nerf a class because they are OP in one aspect (PvE/PvP), the players who mostly care about the other tend to get quite upset.

There are many things that some love and others ignore: Raiding, crafting, Pet Battles, Wormholes, losec, leveling is the main game or a waste until the real game starts at endgame.

I see MMOs as cafeterias with many subsegments trying to keep enough people paying something before the new content comes outs.

---

Every subscription game I know off has a cash shop. Almost all sell items for RL$ that can be sold for in game currency. I am cynical enough to believe that this might cross the minds of the people who develop the sub. Is it a coincidence that Eve rewards having multiple accounts and that the average per player is over 2? Do you think the studio puts their max efforts towards subscriber mounts/pets when there are $25 ones in their store?
 
Hagu:

MMOs already spit their player base: PvE vs PvP come to mind. It varies by game but say half only PvE and a sixth PvP with minimal PvE to gear/level/fund and a third do both.

But the crucial difference is that that in the absence of an RMT shop they aren't forced to split them in terms of the quality of service they receive.

If you nerf a class because they are OP in one aspect (PvE/PvP), the players who mostly care about the other tend to get quite upset.

This was probably most famously an issue in WoW, but it wasn't an issue because it's inherently impossible to maintain PvP and PvE experiences in the same game, but rather because WoW's developers were notoriously braindead and stubborn in their approach to it. They'd already committed to fairly standard MMO PvE gameplay, but when introducing PvP they refused to consider fully separating the effects of abilities and stats in PvP vs PvE. This led to countless issues, as happens with any half-assed attempt to do something complicated. As time went on they began introducing the separation they steadfastly refused to acknowledge was necessary more indirectly (see: resilience, as one example). The limits of this separation were seemingly arbitrary: crowd control sensibly lasted far less time in PvP meanwhile raiders with no PvP ability wielding high-end PvE weapons could one-shot the best PvPers because bosses had millions of HP and players only had a few thousand. So there was a constant back and forth of nerfing and buffing and new stats and tweaking stats and formulas and everything else, all of which pissed everyone off and probably could have been avoided if Blizzard had simply realized that they needed to finish the job of separating the two sides instead of stopping halfway.

Either that, or they needed to throw away their PvE model and make it more like PvP (ha! fat chance!).

There are many things that some love and others ignore: Raiding, crafting, Pet Battles, Wormholes, losec, leveling is the main game or a waste until the real game starts at endgame.

I don't see what this has to do with splitting your playerbase on socioeconomic terms as opposed to preferential terms. The former directly results in crappy game design; the latter results in more stuff to do.

Every subscription game I know off has a cash shop. Almost all sell items for RL$ that can be sold for in game currency. I am cynical enough to believe that this might cross the minds of the people who develop the sub. Is it a coincidence that Eve rewards having multiple accounts and that the average per player is over 2? Do you think the studio puts their max efforts towards subscriber mounts/pets when there are $25 ones in their store?

Still not seeing how this refutes my point. Pointing out that something exists doesn't demonstrate its effect.
 
Adam,

So if I understand you right, you do NOT count games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online as subscription games? These games obviously have favored and unfavored players.

Hmmm, come to think of it, even in World or Warcraft and EVE you can spend more real money for some advantage, e.g. buying mounts and pets (and soon levels), or exchanging PLEX for ISK. What MMORPGs do you know where players are absolutely equal and no amount of money can change anything to their character?

Still not seeing how this refutes my point. Pointing out that something exists doesn't demonstrate its effect.

We are pointing out that something DOESN'T exist: The perfectly fair game you want. And that fact does refute your point.
 
Tobold asked Adam "you do NOT count games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online as subscription games?"

It would be unusual to count these games as subscription games. They are primarily free-to-play games.


 
I agree, but tell that to Ryan Dancey!
 
There are three kinds of players.

Players who would rather save the money than have the preferential treatment. Seems to me that is their business.

Players who enjoy the game and are willing to spend some money for speedy leveling and other services that make the experience fun and doable for people with more money than time.

Players who spend an enormous amount of time in the game, and dislike FTP because it creates the second class of player, which threatens their feelings of accomplishment. They also know that they will spend a small fortune on the game every month because of how compelled they are to play.


They therefore use those poor non-paying people's mistreatment as a pretext to argue that FTP isn't fair. They ignore the fact that the non-payers would either not be playing at all (since they aren't willing to spend any money), or spending as much or more on a traditional sub game. Then they act like the non-payers are an oppressed class and use their suffering as cover to advance their own class interests, which is that everyone should pay a flat fee so that they can go back to dominating the game with their lavish expenditures of time at a reasonable monthly fee.

 
Tobold,

Let me start by saying that, to be fair, not every F2P game is worse for it. TF2 could also be considered a F2P game but its RMT shop consists entirely of cosmetic items. I'm fine with that. But in the MMO space, generally speaking, F2P makes a game worse.

So if I understand you right, you do NOT count games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online as subscription games? These games obviously have favored and unfavored players.

Well, certainly both those games have a F2P + RMT shop business model. If a game also has a subscription model, then it's a different case. Such "hybrid" business models are more fairly judged on a case-by-case basis and that judgment would depend on what you get for your money.

Hmmm, come to think of it, even in World or Warcraft and EVE you can spend more real money for some advantage, e.g. buying mounts and pets (and soon levels), or exchanging PLEX for ISK.

First of all, yes, I believe such RMTs degrade the experience of a game in the long run, though I have no evidence to back that belief. I believe RMT shops divert resources away from a "grand vision" approach to development and toward an "à la carte" style of development. I prefer a grand vision.

What MMORPGs do you know where players are absolutely equal and no amount of money can change anything to their character?

That's how WoW was, for a long time. That's how the vast majority of MMORPGs were back before the oversaturation era of today. UO, AO, DAoC, EQ, etc. Those are the games the veterans look back on as classics. Whether or not they were "better" is subjective, but it certainly seems clear that the dev teams of those games were creating content designed to keep players playing the game long-term rather than content designed to compel impulse buys. Be honest: what kind of content would you prefer?

We are pointing out that something DOESN'T exist: The perfectly fair game you want. And that fact does refute your point.

What perfectly fair game? I'm not asking for a "perfectly fair" game. I'm simply stating that F2P models result in a fundamentally different approach to design, one characterized by short-term rewards, instant gratification and high churn rate. If you want to argue that's not "worse," then we have different definitions of what that means.
 
Whether or not they were "better" is subjective, but it certainly seems clear that the dev teams of those games were creating content designed to keep players playing the game long-term rather than content designed to compel impulse buys. Be honest: what kind of content would you prefer?

I prefer neither. I prefer specific, non-exploitative games over specific exploitative games. I had many cases in MMORPGs where I felt that the devs needlessly forced me to repeat the same content over and over, e.g. daily quests, for the purpose of making me subscribe longer. And I had Free2Play games that shoved paywalls in my face after a minute. But I also had Free2Play games like World of Tanks or League of Legends where there is no discernible negative effect of the business model on gameplay. And I'm struggling to find an example of a subscription MMORPG with zero grind.
 
UO, AO, DAoC, EQ, etc. Those are the games the veterans look back on as classics.

Let me also point out that while the veterans "look back as classics" on these games, they don't actually play them, in spite of the fact that they are still around. And, having been there at the time, and not wearing rose-tinted glasses, I can assure you that the reason why so few people still play these classics is that they pretty much sucked and would be considered unplayable today.

I very much mistrust the "grand vision" approach to game design, which gave us games like Vanguard and Warhammer Online. I prefer the craftsman approach to game design, making first sure that everything works perfectly and is fun, and worry about vision later.
 
I prefer neither. I prefer specific, non-exploitative games over specific exploitative games.

And I prefer that no children ever be abused and McDonald's cheeseburgers make me healthy. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about what business model is more likely to lead to exploitative game design.

I had many cases in MMORPGs where I felt that the devs needlessly forced me to repeat the same content over and over, e.g. daily quests, for the purpose of making me subscribe longer. And I had Free2Play games that shoved paywalls in my face after a minute.

Again, I'm not arguing both models can't lead to "player abuse." I am arguing that F2P is more readily exploitative.

But I also had Free2Play games like World of Tanks or League of Legends where there is no discernible negative effect of the business model on gameplay.

Sure, but those are the exception, and they aren't MMORPGs--which, let's be honest, is what we're really talking about here.

And I'm struggling to find an example of a subscription MMORPG with zero grind.

Grinds are not inherently bad game design. Grinding can actually be a lot of fun, depending on the type of player you are and depending on the way the game plays, so using "grind" as an indicator of exploitative game design is misleading and at best an inaccurate measure.

Let me also point out that while the veterans "look back as classics" on these games, they don't actually play them, in spite of the fact that they are still around. And, having been there at the time, and not wearing rose-tinted glasses, I can assure you that the reason why so few people still play these classics is that they pretty much sucked and would be considered unplayable today.

While all that is true, it's not really the point I was making. Those games were all we knew at the time, and nobody is going to argue that they didn't have some really crappy features. They also had some really wonderful features sorely lacking in MMORPGs today. Anyway, I only brought them up to illustrate examples of games where how much money you were willing to spend had no bearing on how much value and content you got out of the game. And, whatever their faults, you can't say that people didn't get a lot of value out of them.

I very much mistrust the "grand vision" approach to game design, which gave us games like Vanguard and Warhammer Online. I prefer the craftsman approach to game design, making first sure that everything works perfectly and is fun, and worry about vision later.

That's fair, although I'm not sure you can claim that the reason Vanguard and WHO weren't good games was because their grand vision was flawed and not instead because their designers were simply bad at their jobs.
 
I am arguing that F2P is more readily exploitative.

I'd argue that some F2P games are exploitative, but ALL subscription MMORPGs are. As somebody else said in a later thread, we just don't notice that, because that form of exploitation was the first one to we experienced, and we consider it "normal" gameplay.
 
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