Tobold's Blog
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Payment models and game design

It is sometimes surprising how different the conclusion of two people can be even if they start out from the same premise. Green Armadillo is writing about how payment models affect game design. As a fan of behavioral economics, I totally agree with that premise: Game companies will strive to design games that maximize the earnings potential of their game. But where I disagree is his idea that: "Under a subscription MMO model, customers are relatively equal in value." Because companies aren't so much interested in revenue than they are interested in profit; two customers with equal revenue of $15 per month are not of equal value if one of them causes a lot more cost than the other.

The monthly subscription model combined with today's game design is deeply flawed: Casual players subsidize hardcore players. They all pay the same, but consume vastly different amounts of resources, both in terms of content and in terms of server load / bandwidth. The reason why the monthly subscription model is currently dying a slow and painful death is that it is advantageous to only a small minority who pay a lot less per hour played, while a much larger number of people playing less intensively are driven away by a comparatively huge cost per hour. Furthermore developers often ended up spending the majority of their time creating content for the minority of players, which was never a good business plan.

Free-to-play has its own problems, but they aren't that clear cut. As Rohan says, there are lots of very different Free2Play payment models. And each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Players tend to like those models best in which they can play the most for the least amount of money, but obviously a "too free" game can't sustain itself, and a closed-down game of a bankrupt development studio isn't much use to anybody.

What is really curious is how Western game companies adopted Free2Play payment models from Asian companies, but completely failed to adopt some of the game features that make those models work. In Asian games it is common that veteran players get advantages from helping new players, which makes starting those games a lot more pleasant. But apart from Asheron's Call 1, with its vassal/liege relationships that is something that is never seen over here. Instead of leveraging social network effects, MMORPGs are being developed into a "massively single-player" direction, where players simply have no use for each other. I think that there is a lot of missed business potential in creating better relations between players, and have gameplay elements where players can work together without being forced to be online simultaneously in 4-hour blocks.

I don't think we have seen the end yet of the development of MMORPG payment models. Right now a lot is rushed, or the game is designed with one payment model in mind and then switches to another. Once big game companies design Free2Play triple A MMORPGs from bottom up, the fit between payment model and design will become better, and new game features will emerge.

I for one would love to see more games designed around player interaction.

I met, and still have, many friends from EQ. We've moved from game to game and now, even though we don't all play the same MMO anymore, we still chat online together and do multi-player in other games.

Currently I am playing GW2, I'm in several guilds... and have yet to group with a single guildmate, most don't even chat in guild chat. How can people create friendships when you don't "need" the other players outside of a few dungeons?

People stay longer in games when they have not only content but also relationships. Give players a reason to band together and they will build those relationships and keep playing longer.
the problem with the free to play models that already exist though is that the average player that play a little he will still pay the same money to have access to the content he had in a subscription MMO but the player that play a lot he will need to pay much much more...

In my opinion the player that play less hours, maybe 1-2 hours a day have nothing to win from a f2p model. Also that type of player with the limited free time he has is the player that stick in 1 MMO game rather than play 3-4 at the same time. So again f2p model does mean he can play more games too.

If you see only through hours played/money payed yes it is unfair for the player that play less, but as I said, in f2p model none of the 2 players win, just the many hours gamer lose more..
I wanted to say "So again f2p model does NOT mean he can play more games too."
Giannis, oh, but I win from f2p model of WoT, and also will cancel WoW subscription, cause I cannot justify paying money for activity I do not like trying to reach activity I do like. And I play WoT 1-2 hours per day, more on holidays. And I dont need to pay for anything there, since one-time purchase for 50 bucks is all you need to comfortably play it forever.
Also, I am playing Dota 2 Beta, so I do play other online games too.
"Casual players subsidize hardcore players."

In a way, yes, but the common counter-argument is that hardcore players create "content" for casual players: guilds, raid groups, world PvP, RP events, a constantly populated world, a range of items on the Auction House.

Would a casual really want to play a game in a world populated by 30min session players?
I'm not convinced that players who put in more hours cost the company significantly more.

And if you compare with a F2P game where the idea is millions of non-paying customers basically provide content for the rest, I'd struggle to say that the casual F2P players don't cost companies a lot more than hardcore P2P players do.
I think for a lot of players the issue isn't whether F2P or subs are the most economically rational choice but the feel of the payment model. Sub-based has the advantage of being extremely unobtrusive. (Arguably too unobtrusive, a few times I've left my card being billed for a game I've stopped playing). F2P on the other hand has to be in your face, with little price tags popping up all over the content. Not very immersive.
If you are reasonably well-off, subs have a lot of attraction, as Stabs suggest. Buy a 6-month woW subscription for the same price as a night on the tiles, and it's out of the way. You don't really care about the details of $/hour or logging in every day or even every week to use your subscription, because if you play any reasonable amount it's cheaper than most ways you might entertain yourself.

If a sub is a lot of money to you, the FTP model looks attractive. But in that case, are you attractive to the developer? Yes if his FTP model is based on genuinely economical prices; no if he is really looking for whales and you will basically be playing free.

Three-month subs for $10 or so that unlock most non-cosmetic featurers look like a possible future model to me.

GW model is a good compromise IMO: charge a good price for the box and that is actually more like a sub than a typical FTP.

Subscriptions aren't dead while the most profitable MMORPG is subscription-based. In 2011 I believe gross revenues were about equally split between subscription and free-to-play games, and I would think that the far less fragmented subscription market must convert more of its gross revenue into net profit.
"Casual players subsidize hardcore players."

You forget some things here:
- hardcore players often have several accounts
- hardcore players often are subscribed a long time without interruption

For example I already had two accounts back in EQ, and have two active WoW-Accounts. And I know several other players with at least two accounts.

Tobold, you surely see yourself as casual, and you usually play WoW for some months, then do longer breaks and return to play for some months. I was subscribed to WoW without break since release.

So, who is subsidizing who here?

Rolo--- that's not especially common (the multiple accounts thing). And even if were, you with two accounts is probably the equivalent to three or four normal players.

A sub might feel less obtrusive but that is largely because people are used to it. I remember the idea of paying 12.95 a month made me very uncomfortable back when UO and EQ were out. Seemed like an awful lot of money just to be able to play a game when you already paid full price for the box. People will get used to F2P, and for most of us it will be the cheaper option.
I know a casual player who had several accounts, so that he could play his alts all on the same server. I don't know many hardcore players with multiple accounts in WoW, they aren't all that useful.

Of course if you extend that to other games, your point is valid. EVE Online basically defines casual player as somebody who has only one account, while every serious player has several of them.
Ah Tobold I knew you would have trouble convincing those that are subsidised to accept it.

I quit raiding to become a casual player and since then I have paid for multiple accounts as I acquire the RAF mounts & cross faction trade, I cross realm trade and pay for server transfers, I use SoR on my accounts then pay for account transfers to move toons to my main account and I have also bought pets/mounts on the store as well as paying for name and race changes.

Plus of course I ceased consuming the horrendously expensive raid content.

I agree that WoW is not EVE though. They are polar opposites in that respect. As far as WoW is concerned the casual players rather than the dedicated raiders are doing the subsidising. Blizzard did mention that the raiding was hogging most of the spending they do on development in between expansions.

I don't know whether Eve is unique in the respect that the hardcore players do the subsidising? Although (correct me if I am wrong) aren't their additional accounts actually paid for by casual players who buy some form of subscription currency from them?

So in terms of injecting real money into the game isn't it the casual players providing most of it? As I say I don't understand EVE so apologise if I am wrong.
Although (correct me if I am wrong) aren't their additional accounts actually paid for by casual players who buy some form of subscription currency from them? So in terms of injecting real money into the game isn't it the casual players providing most of it?

I don't think it is that easy. There are certainly very serious EVE players who play a lot and don't pay anything, because they can pay for their subscription with the virtual currency they make. But I am not certain that this is true for every hardcore player of EVE. I could well imagine somebody playing EVE very hardcore, but not making tons of ISK, and thus having to pay for his subscription with real money.

It would be quite interesting to see what would happen if somebody released a casual-player-friendly PvE MMORPG with a similar spacefaring, mining, crafting, trading, questing system as EVE. Could EVE handle the loss of the casual players financially? I'm not sure.
Woody: Meh, I'm a fairly casual raider and I've never felt the need to have multiple accounts or server transfers. If I stopped raiding, that wouldn't suddenly change. I'd either pay the same as I do now, or stop playing for awhile.

ie. There's no reason to think that casual players spend more than core players on the game, in general. For the most part they probably pay the same, although hardcore raiders are more likely to have done server transfers to get to more progressed guilds.
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