Listening to the second interview with Mark Jacobs on the MassivelyOP podcast the other day, I was reminded of the imminence of this long-awaited MMO release this 2016. I haven’t been a big follower of Camelot Unchained but ever since they started rolling out information on specific class approaches, I’ve found time to check back on the official webpage every so often. Whether you’re into CU at all or not, Mark Jacobs answers some very interesting questions about general MMO development on the podcast, how he deals with player and forum feedback and what lessons were taken from older titles like Warhammer Online and Dark Age of Camelot. It’s not just his gigantic experience with the industry but his straight answers to sometimes tricky questions that make him such a rewarding guest to listen to.
Part of what appears to be CU’s clear vision is its niche existence and clear-cut target audience. With this goes the choice of the subscription payment model on which Jacobs elaborates quite a bit. For a game that’s not aiming to appeal to everybody and that’s decidedly created around the idea of player commitment, a subscription is the straightforward thing to do. With that in mind, I believe there are three general rules for games that want to survive on monthly subscriptions alone in the future:
- A niche title that does not face much competition
- Content that is designed with smaller communities in mind / does not require critical mass
- A budget in accordance with above rules / no need for seven digit player bases
Today in very successful subscription MMOs, we are looking at the following subscription trinity: World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and EVE Online. WoW aside, both EVE Online and FFXIV do in fact cater to more niche audiences. I wouldn’t call FFXIV small game but similar to WoW, the Final Fantasy franchise has unique momentum going for it: a die-hard fanbase across both Asia and the western market and a very unique flavor and flair which allowed it to thrive and distinguish itself “despite” being another AAA-themepark. Well that and the game has been delivering serious content and expansions consistently.
The Struggles of Everyone Else
Not every game can belong to the above group and certainly other AAA-MMORPGs like LOTRO, SWTOR, ESO or Wildstar were unable to pull off subscriptions in the past. Others like GW2 didn’t even try. There is a conundrum here for titles that are up against a lot of competition, some of which is also free-to-play or buy-to-play. If an MMO wasn’t designed to appeal to a distinct few but requires more critical mass, if it attempts to accommodate many playstyles and costs too much in order to achieve this goal – well, then developers are facing problems when asking for monthly subs. Players can get much of what these games offer anywhere and there’s nothing so distinct about them to maintain an interest past three months. Well-intended ideas flatline due to this particular market’s mutual exclusivity; how many players out there will pay for several subscriptions at a time?
In many cases free-to-play has come in as a substitute model, for better or worse. Few struggling games like LOTRO were “saved” or rather, given a few more years playing around with freemium models that offer both a free-to-play and subscribed experience. However, as Wildstar illustrated transforming from subscriptions to a meta-currency first and then to cash shop free-to-play, trying to monetize audiences that already fell through the cracks of subscriptions is tough: You’re dealing with the gals and guys who didn’t think it’s worth paying for your game regularly. How do you make an audience out of that? Should you? Well, it’s a bit cynical to suggest you shouldn’t try.
As explained in an insightful Gamasutra article from a few years back, MMO free-to-play models have been through an evolution: from energy models to convenience models, as the article’s author calls them. For titles outside the chosen few, the problem with subscriptions is two-fold and impacts negatively on social gaming especially: On one hand, subscriptions create a barrier of entry that reduces your potential player and customer base. On the other hand, they keep you from leveraging the potential behind a special player X that does not exist in free-to-play equations of most mobile and solo-centric games: the “freeloader”.
In a highly competitive market of MMOs which all count on a bigger number of players to cooperate and play together, you cannot dismiss non-paying players nearly as easily as other games can. We all know the effect that follows a single key member or two within an MMO community leaving. And we’re familiar with the troubles of a group of friends who can’t play together because not everyone wants to pay for another sub. We know too, that even a non-paying player still contributes to server life in other ways such as group activities and ingame economy.
This is where it starts getting very complicated. We can dismiss free-to-play and mixed buy-to-play models as the plague of the genre, but to dismiss them means dismissing a whole lot of games that cannot compete with WoW or FFXIV. Losing a big part of a potential audience already at the doorstep is not something many MMOs can afford, unless they kept things small and niche from the get-go like Camelot Unchained does (and I expect will be successful with).
Now we can declare that the future of MMORPGs should be small niche anyway and maybe that’s how it’s going to be. Yet, for all the non-dedicated MMO grazers out there who are surely the majority of today’s players, several subscriptions across different games, even niche games, don’t cut it. I personally like niche MMOs for their spirit and clear vision – I can even see myself paying for several. I would however admittedly miss the AAA-titles that brought so many of us together in the past, that much is for certain.
MMOs are too cheap
At one point during the Camelot Unchained interview, Mark Jacobs mentions how MMO subscriptions have by and large cost the same since Dark Age of Camelot. Fifteen years later and we’re still paying what we’ve always paid, in a world seemingly untouched by the economic forces that rule other products on the market. Videogames in general haven’t responded to inflation the way many other products have done. Today, AAA-quality games cost more than ever to make, yet pricing hasn’t kept up. This goes doubly for multi-player online games which are expected to run and keep adding content way into a distant future.
Now one of my gripes around subscription and free-to-play MMOs has always been lack of transparency. In all the blog and forum debates around different payment models, players lack the crucial information to do more than guesswork maths. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that there is no cost truth in an unchanged 12-15$ monthly subscription any more than in Black Desert Online costing 30$ on buy-to-play. That is less than I pay for any dinner out which lasts 20 minutes on average.
MMOs jump through all kinds of hoops and come up with more or less intrusive ways to convince us they are worthy of additional payment. We look at our personal bottom line and never wonder how this is halfway accurate pricing, when it’s obviously harmful pricing down the line. But it shouldn’t be on us: the onus of knowing what a complete game should cost in order to steer free of other nonsense, that is on those who make, market and publish said games. Which is easier said than done for any single enterprise to go against the tide.
But what we as players can do rather than just going on and on about different payment models, is to have a conversation about what games and MMOs are worth to us and their social and cultural value. Why are Korean players willing to pay twice as much for cash shop items than we are, in a place with much lower average-income than many countries here in the West? And how much more would we be willing to pay for a one-time purchase MMO (per expansion), maybe even more than just one or two of them, if it secured their future and also freed us from cash shops, subscriptions and other shenanigans?