Subscription MMOs Encourage Good Game Design
Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 27, 2008
I got some good responses to my post Sunday about subscription-funded MMOs. I posted some reactions in the comments, but it seems I was reading the Guild Wars numbers wrong. It’s likely that Guild Wars has fewer active users than I was saying before, but I can’t find anything concrete, as there are no public user numbers available. Also, there’s some other good discussion down in the comments, take a look.
For instance, Sulka Haro proposes in his post a hybrid system that combines optional subscription and microtransaction currency. This sounds great, but the general problem is “if you give players too many choices, they end up choosing none”. As an example of how this can go wrong, take a look at this interview with Hellgate’s Bill Roper: “We wanted to get people who’d never subscribed to a game before to play it by themselves, then go online and play it with their friends, and then they see all this new content and want to subscribe. But I think that was a model that caused a lot of confusion and caused a lot of division amongst our community, too.” By splitting your community into two (or more) segments you fragment the commonality and generally create customer confusion.
The other interesting bit was when Lum posted a general meta-response to responses to his transcribed interview. His general argument is that “subscription” at least partially implies “catering to hardcore”, and this leads to a bunch of bad design and business decisions. I generally agree with his concerns on targeting the hardcore, but I think he’s wrong on a few points about subscription-based games:
They have favorable Decision Points. Lum talks about the concept of a decision point, where you have to decide rather or not to spend money on something. He claims that microtransaction-based games have easier decision points, because they take place once someone is already invested in a game. However, when playing a microtransaction game, instead of one simple decision, you are confronted with a shitload of complicated decisions. “Is this sword really worth $2? What about this other sword that costs $5? Oh crap what about that haircut?”. When presented with microtransactions, my eyes usually glaze over, and I end up buying nothing. Obviously this will differ from person to person, but I don’t think it’s automatic that the decision points are better with microtransactions. The other huge factor is that the single decision point in a subscription game is inherently tilted in the favor of the game creator. Generally, when you start a free trial you have to enter your credit card information, so when it’s time to stop the trial, the decision isn’t “Do I want to pay for this?” but “Do I want to not pay for this?”. The same thing happens every month, and the normal human tendency to choose the easier solution means that people on the edge between paying and not paying end up paying. This is a huge part of the revenue in subscription-based MMOs. I would feel guilty about this, but…
They encourage good game design. Lum starts out arguing that subscription-based games encourage level grinding, but sort of gives up when realizes it happens plenty with free game. In my opinion, the subscription payment system should discourage it. In a pay-for-play system it’s clearly in the financial interest of the developer to make a game that gets played as much as possible. I argue that this is one of the reasons the Chinese and Korean-designed MMOs have a bigger problem with addiction than Western-developed ones. The optimal user in a subscription-financed MMO is someone who feels involved enough in a product to keep their subscription going, but not someone who is so involved they will burn themselves out and quit. What keeps people paying is involvement in a community (which I discussed Sunday) and near-term expectations.
If an MMO is designed correctly, there should always be something cool next month that people want to engage in. The player should be thinking “well, if I quit now I won’t be able to do the cool winter event, and I REALLY LIKE the winter event”. Seasonal events, frequent updates, and dynamic game worlds (like Eve’s) contribute heavily to this. People can’t stand to miss out on something awesome, and it’s the job of an MMO creator to keep the awesome stuff coming. Players who quickly grind to a level cap are actively working against this, and are NOT the kind of player a dev generally wants. They tend to burn through content very quickly, and upon reaching the current max, see nothing interesting in the future. These players will then quit (or some of them start hardcore raiding). It may seem like this is the majority of players, but certainly in CoH, 95% of people never reached the level cap. Players who progress at a reasonable pace always have something to look forward to, and they’re much easier to deal with from a support perspective. They’re important for advertising and creating content/interest for others, but having a large percentage of hardcore, addicted players isn’t good for an MMO.
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