MMOs and Pricing Models

Since I’m bored and I want to discuss the genre of game that takes up the bulk of my time, but have no real desire to do iteration number 4e+31 of the “grind” discussion, I throw this out for discussion:

MMO publishers, especially if they want to really capture the “casual mass market”, absolutely need to offer other pricing models than the “all or nothing” $15/month.


I’m currently paying for 3 MMOs. I’m not currently playing 3 MMOs, of course. I play CoH regularly, EQ regularly 1 day a week, and DAoC whenever neither of those appeal. Since CoH is newer and really seems to have captured me, that means that I haven’t played DAoC in the last month at all. I can handle a month of fees just to avoid the hastle of closing/reopening an account. However, if I don’t burn out on CoH really quickly, I’m going to have to look at closing one of the others down. Not because I literally can’t afford 3, but because my innate sense of frugality dictates that it’s silly to pay for full-time access to something I don’t use anything approximating full time.

However, if I could pay something like $8 (over 50% of the monthly fee) for 40 hours/week (50% of the projected “casual gamer average play time” numbers from EQ), I’d happily keep all three accounts open indefinitely, at most switching whichever game had the “full” account option based on wherever I was drawn at the time.

I don’t know if I’m unusual, but I find it much easier to remain away from these games once I’ve made the initial step. Thus, closing an account down for the first time, even with the idea that “I can always come back, since they don’t delete my characters for X months”, is tantamount to me giving up the game completely. I doubt I’m unique, or even out of the majority on this (although I suppose I could be out of the majority in being willing to play more than one MMO in the first place; I’d argue that this is a pretty strong sign of the fabled golden cash-cow “casual” gamer though).

So, anyone want to comment on why it’s an all or nothing price model on every game, and whether or not this ought to/needs to change as the market space becomes saturated? I can’t think of anyone who would lose out by having a player indefinitely paying $7/month or so, per game, to play 5 different online games, vs. a player playing 1 game a month at $15/month instead.

(Unless, of course, you believe your product is the mythical MMO juggernaut that will make all other MMOs pale in comparison. If you believe this, however, I have some oceanside property near the AZ/NM border I’d like to sell you, since the combination of desert heat and fine sea breeze produces all sorts of lucrative possibilities for increased machine performance.)

Cheap shot of the day: Burn out of CoH and you’ll find that your problem disappears very quickly. Hell, it’s going to happen eventually, no sense in standing around. :)

Uh, yeah, something actually on topic:

There are a lot of arguments against the $8/month for half play concept.

  1. Having any fee at all means that you’re constantly forced to get over the “Pay or not pay?” barrier. It’s been argued that this is what doomed the micropayments concept. Every time you ask someone to pay for something, no matter how small, you’re asking them to make a mental decision, and the cost of that decision needs to be factored in. No matter what you do, “free” is always going to be substantially more appealing than ANY nonzero price because there’s no monetary decision to be made. So the difference between $8 and $15 isn’t all that big, really.

  2. A large fraction of the costs of an MMO have no relation to hourly usage. Content consumption almost certainly isn’t linear with time, since the sort of person who wants to play on a casual time-budget is going to focus on content and not grind - so content costs don’t go down. The servers will be under less load - except that most people who want to play casually are likely to play in the same eight-hour window, so that the average load goes down but the maximum load stays roughly the same. This means that bandwidth and server costs remain just as high. For obvious reasons the cost of the database is unlikely to change, since you have just as many characters.

  3. As you say, being willing to play more than one MMO at the same time already puts you out of the “casual gamer” category. I’m not even vaguely a casual gamer and yet the time demands of the typical MMO are high enough where I would never be willing to pay for more than one at once.

  4. I would suggest that anybody who’s willing to pay for more than one MMO account is already doing it.

The $8 concept might help to get casual gamers onboard in the first place, but it would soon become nothing but a marketing tool, because the $8 line would probably be placed fairly low - say, 10-20 hours a week or something small like that. I doubt the suits would allow half-price for half-time under any circumstances and as per (2) there are very good reasons for that.

Well, except that MMOs have at least two distinct “pay up” moments:

  1. When you buy the software and get the included “free” month
  2. When you decide whether to renew (and how) after that first month

And I’d argue the opposite. The $8 vs. $15 becomes important when you’re asking folks to throw in for the long haul. If I’m waffling about whether or not I want to continue playing, it does matter how much it will cost me to continue. If I’m absolutely certain I want to, chances are this game has my “full on” investment of time so I don’t care about the $15. Likewise, if I’m already tired of it, no amount of discount matters.

  1. A large fraction of the costs of an MMO have no relation to hourly usage. Content consumption almost certainly isn’t linear with time, since the sort of person who wants to play on a casual time-budget is going to focus on content and not grind - so content costs don’t go down.

Not sure I buy this because (unsurprisingly to you I’m sure ;) ) I do think there’s a reasonably direct (albeit not linear, no) relationship between content consumption and time invested. It’s just simply easier for the exact same thing to feel more “new” if you only experience it once a week, vs. once a day. And that’s basically what I’m arguing there needs to be a model for: The once a week player. I don’t think these players are going through content that quickly. I just don’t see fundamental compatibility between the type of player who would be happy playing only once a week, and the type of player who spends all their time devouring content.

  1. As you say, being willing to play more than one MMO at the same time already puts you out of the “casual gamer” category. I’m not even vaguely a casual gamer and yet the time demands of the typical MMO are high enough where I would never be willing to pay for more than one at once.

Actually, I argued that being willing to play more than one at the same time puts me in the casual gamer category. I don’t care about my rate of progress in game, therefore I play the game to enjoy myself. This means if something comes along that sucks away my attention, I’ll abandon my MMO until my attention wanders back. This is how I work for regular games as well. This is (arguably) a reasonable definition of casual, I think. The difficulty comes in because MMOs require me to play to be able to play, and I find the concept of repeatedly canceling, un-cancelling accounts to be not only tedious, but also worrisome (sure, they say they won’t delete my character if I quit for a month, but…) There’s really not a pricing option in games to allow folks to play MMOs as a leisure activity. The question is whether or not there are people who would do so if there were. Inasmuch as I always seem to see things that indicate that the leisurely, “Maybe a couple of times a week” type players are the mass market that MMOs really want to attract, I’m stymied by the complete lack of not only options to address this, but even consideration of such options as far as I can see.

  1. I would suggest that anybody who’s willing to pay for more than one MMO account is already doing it.

Heh. That’s probably completely true. But I’m wondering how well that will work out in the future as the MMO gamespace becomes increasingly crowded. It seems to me that anyone would rather have folks paying 1/2 cost to play their game 1 time a week, while playing the flavor of the month game the other 6 days, than these same folks going “Okay, I can get 6 days a week of fun out of FOTM for $15, or 1 day a week out of Old Game X for $15. Must be time to cancel.”

Of course, maybe the genre is structured so that no other folks really play multiple ones. I find the idea odd when we’re discussing games which have so much social interaction. Certainly I resisted starting CoH because I didn’t need another MMO to pay for, but when all of my friends from EQ popped over there and kept telling me how wonderful it was, it was hard not to try it out. Now, by retaining my social network, I face an issue of having to decide which of the other games is most feasible to quit paying for. I think this model will hit everyone in time as the number of MMOs out there increases and social networks fragment. When your friends are all on 4 different games, you really want to play all 4, even if only 1 night a week or so, to keep up with them. But the pricing models don’t support any way of easing this transition.

I’m pretty much like the original poster in that once I cancel a MMORPG subscription, I rarely come back, even though I intend to. I would GLADLY pay half price for 10-20 hours/week of playtime, since I very rarely have more than that to commit on a single game anyway. That would retain me as a subscriber for much longer, easily twice as long as now.

I just love the whole MMOG thing. You all casually toss off comments like a 10-20 hour a week commitment being low cost??? I know there are people addicted to this crap but you do realize 80 hours a month is a hell of a long time to be sitting in front of a pc playing a game for an average adult in todays world! I would think a low usage account to be something like 20 hours a month! For a non-catass that is! :lol:

Its not a bad suggestion at all.

Somewhat ironically I remember when hourly was the norm for online games and the monthly fee price point was regarded as the way to get more users.

Good luck getting the MMORPG business people to pay attention to you; their business model, in general, seems to be built on milking 80 hour a week users.

I think to a degree stuff like the SOE All Access pass is intended as a way of doing what you suggest as well.

Well, when the vast majority of your subscriber base consists of people who put in obscene amounts of time, 20 hours a week is a low-usage account. When an entire genre is founded on obscene time commitments, 20 hours a month starts to look extremely small. In City of Heroes, the “casual” game, that would get you to the level cap in roughly two years of play.

40 hours a week for your “secondary” games? Good lord!

Yes, but the thing is, where before (in the days of the big three), even the casual player was an 80 hour a week user, I think those days are going away. I don’t really want to get bogged down in why folks play MMOs, or why it’s okay to devote the 20+ hours a week to other games, but not MMOs, so let me simply say that, much as there can be substantial differences in game type that lead to wanting to play different FPS’s or different RPG’s concurrently, there are the same in MMOs as well.

In my case I play EQ for the large group, kill big stuff oriented gameplay. DAoC fills my masochistic click button until wrist hurts crafting need (oh, and has the RvR/PvP game mechanic too! ;) ), and CoH is my “kick-back and do something somewhat less mindless than watching network TV” basic timewaster of an activity.

If I give up any of them, I’m giving up something specific that I can’t get in the other games. (Neither EQ nor DAoC are really good for the time-wasting aspect; no game has EQ’s high-end content/raid oriented gameplay; no game has DAoC’s tightly integrated and fundamentally balanced PvP model.)

Raph is right, in that the Sony all-access pass is a type of addressing of this issue, however it still doesn’t allow for the possibility to easily cross to other games.

I think it comes down to whether any company can reasonably expect to utterly dominate the market going into the future. If they can, they’d be a fool to dial back their monthly revenue. If they can’t, they’d be a fool not to offer enough choices so that customers can choose a pricing model that works for them.

(All of this is assuming that the actual option of offering limited hours would be reasonably easily supported within the games themselves. I’m assuming it will be since even the oldest games out there seem to be able to differentiate between online and offline time for a player relatively easily. Tying billing to such things would be more problematic, but I’d imagine a very low break-even point for such costs.)

A lot of it comes down to whether MMO is a game type of a genre. If it’s a game type, then I expect we’ll only ever really have 1 or 2 to worry about, and flat fees per month will never be a problem. If it’s a genre, however, the first company that allows a person to more easily move horizontally between this high fantasy MMO, that sci-fi MMO, or the other horror MMO at their whim, all other things being equal, may get a significant leg up.


That was meant to be per month, sorry.

And I’m talking absolute caps here too, not average play time. Basically a hardcoded time limit that says “Occasionally, I may really be taken with this game for up to a month, but generally it’s not my #1 priority game. However, I’d like to be able to play it a bit without having to commit whole-hog.”

Maybe 20 hours a month is more reasonable. I figure 1 night a week, 4 hours a night at a minimum, so in a month that’s 20 hours. Bump it to 30 or so to cover the inevitable downtime/maintenance/“Damn, I logged in to play with my friends and they’re 30 minutes late, do I log out to preserve my remaining time or hope they show up soon” events.

And while we’re at it…

I just love the whole MMOG thing. You all casually toss off comments like a 10-20 hour a week commitment being low cost???

I covered this, a while back, to much amusement by all. To me (and lots of people) MMOs aren’t something to be wedged into a schedule in addition to everything else. Instead, they take the place of other stuff that I’m not as interested in as other folks. You might enjoy watching a 3 hour baseball game. To me that’s utterly boring, but there’s 3 hours I can play a game instead. You might watch 2 hours of TV a night. I prefer CoH to watching whatever crap the networks put on the television (exception: The West Wing). Etc…

Lots of people have a lot more “free time” than they believe they do. They just use it up in spurts and dribbles doing things as equally unenlightening and un-worthwhile as playing MMOs. Some people prefer the MMO route. C’est la vie.

I can’t really write an essay on why, but I think the MMORPG genre is fundamentally stuck in the “very simple gameplay, lots of time, make virtual friends and follow them from game to game” rut, and that market is a) already maxed out and b) not paying for fundamental gameplay changes.

The business people are perfectly happy with milking the obsessives, so I don’t know where change would come from; the users aren’t demanding anything new. Where are the gameplay innovations? It’s just the same pellet-feeding today as years ago, with incremental graphics improvements. Young men go in one end of the leveling tunnel and pop out burnt-out thirty-somethings on the other side. The entire market is designed around capturing those long-term subscribers. I’d imagine it’s like cable service - it costs a lot to attract a new user, so you want to keep them as long as possible, and hey, they don’t notice that we’re just tacking extra time onto leveling.

I kind of have a similar theory about how FPS makers are just recoding the same game with better graphics to hit the market of everyone who’s turned 14 or older in the last few years.

Anyway, I think requiring you to keep shelling out full price is a conscoius decision here. If you want to play another game, you either need to give this one up entirely (which is agonizing; all that lost development!) or you continue paying full fare. They don’t have a business incentive to make it easy for you to come back when they can keep you from leaving in the first place by threatening to take away the carrot entirely.

Some people have more free time than others; don’t bemoan the fact, just agree they exist and move on :)

— Alan

Mouselock. I strongly agree with your sentiments about entertainment dollars. I do not watch TV anymore, in fact I cringe at the idea. Although we may be a minority now I think our numbers will grow over time.

We are the future etc :)

Don’t forget Guild Wars, which is totally eschewing the monthly fee in favor of frequent, higher priced expansions.

Actually it seems the ideal MMO user is someone who continues a paying membership but doesn’t actually put much time into the game. Less time equals less load and less bandwidth. So anything that keeps people subscribed is good, but even better is something that keeps people subscribed but not obsessive, or at least, not acutely obsessive. Chronic obsessives are ok, though.

That’s me, Mr. Sucker. I tend to keep memberships active for about 6 months, at least, after I stop playing the game, on the grounds that I’ll eventually want to jump back in (but never have).

Don’t feel bad Desslock, I’ve done it and I think many others too. Once you put time into a character you don’t want to run off and leave it.

Really? When I quit EQ I did so with great vehemence. In fact I recall cancelling my account, nuking the CDs, throwing them into the trash, and taking the trash out to the compactor chute.

I may have chanted the ritus exorcizandi obsessos a daemonio, flung salt over my left shoulder, and flagellated myself with an extension cord for good measure… my memory’s hazy, it’s been a couple of years.

After selling my characters for about $5500, of course.