Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

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.


5 Responses to “Subscription MMOs Encourage Good Game Design”

  1. ravious said

    Good point, on eyes glazing over with microtransactions. I totally feel that way (with the very few I have played). I usually end up shrugging and thinking, ‘I don’t understand, I am just going to go play until it’s not fun.’

    I was thinking if microtrans games shouldn’t work to take that feeling away. Like let’s say you play in a public event/public quest and win the chest. You open it up, and you get your “free,” “earned” loot, but above that loot is an option to upgrade your earned loot for $1 right then and there.

    That is something that I would feel a lot more comfortable with because the decision point is so focused. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with microtrans MMOs enough to know if this is already done.

  2. Tesh said

    There’s a world of difference between the microtransactions in Maple Story and those in Puzzle Pirates.

    Yes, subscription models should encourage strong design that makes all levels of play interesting, and the world continually engaging. That the 800 pound gorilla WoW more closely resembles a Korean game in a mad dash to the endgame and hardcore raiding is something that has warped the expectations of gamers and designers.

    A subscription is a service payment, with the implication that the devs are making the whole game interesting for as long as people are subscribing. The game world should be based more on skill and sociality, rather than loot and levels. It means constantly staying on top of things as devs. Devs need to keep the game interesting by changing the world regularly and frequently. Yes, that means that the devs don’t just create the world and forget about it; they make it an interesting place to live. That’s what players are paying for on a monthly basis, and the whole premise of an MMO virtual world.

    Paying every month for the same treadmill is exactly the sort of “fire and forget” mentality that has warped the genre, and why Guild Wars often makes more sense for those who have the self-control and fiscal discipline to pay only for what they are gong to use, rather than paying for the option of having access on a whim.

    It’s like a gym membership when you know full well that you won’t go often. The money spent could have been better used on a personal treadmill, which you can either use in perpetuity, or sell if you don’t want it. The wanton consumerism of the service economy inherent in a subscription model may well be in line with current American mentality, but it only makes real financial sense when the service offered is actually worth the expenditure.

    Also, when discretionary spending contracts, as we’re seeing lately and will continue to see, the ROI is increasingly important. $15/month adds up, and it’s going to be one of the things that is on the chopping block, right after Starbucks and cable service.

  3. Tesh said

    Sorry, as an addendum:
    If the sub model really encouraged good design, why is WoW abandoning their old world content? If anyone has the experience to demonstrate that aspect of the sub model, Blizzard should be doing it. Their old world is practically dead; the game is afloat because of raiders, farmers and people puttering around at the level cap.

    Their player base got addicted, and the devs got lazy. Players are given just enough to keep them subbing, but the money that Blizzard is raking in just doesn’t get applied to making the whole game better.

    I suspect that a large part of their WoW money is going to StarCraft 2 and Diablo 3. That’s just a pure business decision which is neither here nor there. Still, just looking at WoW as a huge model of subscription “success”, it nevertheless does not live up to the ideal of a sub model promoting good game design. Their old world stands on design done years ago, long before the sub model came into play. The expansions are paltry compared to what could be done with the money coming in.

    While I can conceptually agree that a sub model should make devs more involved in keeping the world and the service relevant and interesting, WoW just doesn’t hold up to the ideal. As such, number monkeys looking for a trend to follow are going to be looking to replicate WoW’s “fire and forget” success, rather than making devs keep the world interesting with good design. After all, if people are still compulsively (or habitually) paying their subscriptions, why go the extra mile and actually work for that money? It’s coming in anyways.

  4. […] closing, I offer this link to an article I found a while back that suggests that the subscription model promotes good design.  I offered a […]

  5. […] games. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that subscription-based MMOs are uniquely good at building communities, so I think the Twitter phenonom goes a long way to explain something that has mystified me for […]

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