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A (measured) defense of the subscription model
by Isaac Knowles on 09/17/13 03:46:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Much has been made of the riskiness of Zenimax Online’s decision [4] to have a subscription-based revenue model for Elder Scrolls Online, whose release is expected early next year. Naysayers point out that almost every company to publish a subscription-based MMO in the past few years has converted to F2P within a year or two (or less). The poor or sub-par initial performance of games like SWTOR, The Secret World, and Lord of the Rings Online, and other subscription MMOs is still fresh in our minds, as is their subsequent success upon conversion to F2P or freemium. Despite the shadows cast by these case-studies, I believe that subscriptions can be a robust – even first-best – revenue model, under certain conditions. At the very least, some critiques leveled at subscriptions rest on shaky economic reasoning. My goal in this post is to respond to three criticisms that I have seen forwarded against game subscriptions, in general. Many of these criticisms can be found in posts and articles in Gamasutra in the past year. [1][2][3]

These criticisms are as follows:

  1. Subscriptions incentivize players to rush through content as quickly as possible so that they will not have to pay again next month. [1][3]
  2. As a consequence of 1), keeping players engaged requires a steady release of content, which is expensive to produce, and again gobbled up in just a month’s time. [1][3]
  3. Subscriptions prevent game companies from being able to price discriminate – that is, everyone pays the same price for access, rather than being charged for how much they value that access. [2]

These are not all the criticisms I’ve read, but they are of a class that draw conclusions about the demand side of subscriptions that I think are suspect.

What’s a subscription?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, ESO’s planned revenue model – as far as we know so far – is as follows: The customer pays in advance for unlimited access to the game for a fixed number of months. Typically, the charge is $15 per month, with quantity discounts offered if the customer pays for three, six, or twelve months in advance. For example, a customer paying for three months in advance would only pay $14 per month ($42 total, a 7% discount), if she paid for six months in advance then it would cost her $13 per month ($78 total, a 13% discount), and so on.

Do subscriptions encourage players to rush through content?

The answer is that some – but not all – game players will rush through content in a subscription game. The reason is that a large number of players have neither the time nor the flexible schedule necessary to effectively rush through that content. A subscription game’s average audience is in its early- and mid-30s, and on average, that same demographic is married (or co-habiting), working full-time, and has kids.[5] In other words, it is a group without a lot of free time, and which is minimally able to re-allocate a significant number of hours from other commitments in order to play games.

So it is more correct to say that subscriptions incentivize certain segments of the player population – the segments with flexible schedules and lots of free time – to rush through content. Still, those certain segments are important for revenues. Aren’t they going to depart quickly? And isn’t that a reason that subscriptions are a poor revenue model? This brings me to the second question:

Do subscriptions require a steady infusion of expensive content to keep players engaged?

I’ll address this in two parts. First, the question should not be “Was this content expensive to produce;” rather, it should be “Did this content generate enough revenues to make it profitable?” For a subscription service, the profits are obtained from the number of subscriptions to the service relative to the cost of providing content to get players to subscribe. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was expensive to produce the content. It only matters whether the number of subscribers justifies the production costs. If the content is poor quality, or not much is provided, then not enough players will pay for enough subscription time to cover it. So providing bad content, or not enough of it, is expensive, indeed! But providing good content in high enough quality will generally be a profitable venture.

Second, we need to ask who, exactly, needs newer content in order to stay engaged. Here it’s important to have a clear idea of how players decide whether or not to pay for an extra month of access. So let’s digress for a moment:

Digression: How much did that subscription really cost?

You might think that you’ve paid $15 for your month of access to your favorite MMO. And you have. But more importantly, you’ve paid $15 for the time you expect to play that month. That means if you plan to play 30 hours in a month, you’ve paid $0.50 per hour of play time. More generally, if you pay for M months of unlimited access at a price of PM, and during that time you expect to play H hours, then your expected cost per hour of play is given by:

That means that no matter what kind of content you’re experiencing – new, old, high quality, or low quality – you’re paying c to spend an hour playing the game. Players will play a game until the value of an additional hour of play (call it v) falls below c. Then they will quit.

The number of months of subscription the player pays for will then reflect the number of months where v ≥ c, given the constraint on the number of hours a player can play in a month, as well as the price of a month of play.

Returning to the Question

If you come and go from a game based on whether there is new, expensive content to complete, then you play the game for a lot less time than people who are happy to return to daily questing and mat farming once they’ve completed the latest raid. That means you’re paying a higher c than the other cohort. And if you’re paying more per hour, then a developer is justified in providing you with expensive, higher-quality content. In other words, players who demand the more expensive content the most are compensating developers for it.

Moreover, we can infer that people who pay higher values of c are, on average, willing to pay more for their play time. The converse is also true: people who pay a lower c have a lower willingness to pay for their play time. So the question is, who’s leaving this game once the expensive content is consumed? I’d argue that it’s the people that don’t have a lot of flexibility in their schedule. Their time is worth more, which means lower quality and older content is relatively less valuable to them compared to the more flexible cohort. In other words, the segment that is rushing through the new, expensive content is more likely to stay once that content is finished.

To summarize what I’ve said so far: People who can’t rush through content are forced to subscribe for more months in order to experience that content. However, those same people usually have a higher opportunity cost for their playtime. Thus content quality matters for this group. As content quality falls over playtime, players with a high opportunity cost of time will start to exit. The overall effect on subscription months is ambiguous, but high-quality content is an effective way to keep these players.

Conversely, players who can rush through content will subscribe for fewer months. However, this effect is mitigated by their comparatively lower opportunity cost of time, making lower quality content relatively more attractive. Again, the overall effect is ambiguous, but quantity of content matters relatively more for keeping these players (compared to quality).

So yes: Subscription games need more content, but not because people rush through the game. Rather, they need it to keep players who can’t rush through the game.

Do subscriptions prevent developers from price discriminating?

Let’s first just be clear what price discrimination means. Price discrimination is the practice of charging customers different prices for the same, or very nearly the same, product. If a firm is price discriminating, it means it is capturing additional value from its consumers and converting that into revenues. The video game industry price discriminates all the time by, for example, selling standard and “deluxe” editions of games and consoles. Players that have higher valuations of what is essentially the same product can be induced to pay more for it. Price discrimination is quite frequent in the F2P market, especially in single-player games where players are unable to verify whether they are paying the same price as everyone else for a particular virtual good. F2P games also discriminate between more and less devoted players.

What about unlimited access subscriptions? Are they price discriminatory? 100% yes, and extraordinarily so! The reason goes back to the concept of cost per hour, above. Remember that while a player might pay $15 for a month of access, the actual cost per hour, c, depends on how many hours she actually plays.  Thus a player who plays one hour in a month is paying $15 for that hour, while a player who plays 50 hours is paying just $0.30 for that same hour. The company has captured the higher value that the first player places on her play time.

A non-discriminatory alternative to unlimited access is the pay per hour scheme that was common for MUDs back in the early 1990s, when they were hosted on services like Sierra Online. In those games, you paid as much as you valued your time in the game, and no more. The switch to unlimited access subscriptions, beginning with Ultima Online and Meridian 59 has been misconstrued as a failure to capture consumer value. In fact, it is an excellent way to capture that value. If the game was pay-per-hour, and the price per hour was $1, then we just gave up $14 from the player who was willing to pay $15 for that same hour.


The ability to price discriminate depends on many things, but in the game market the single most important determinant is market power. Games that dominate a particular market (such as WoW’s domination of AAA MMOs) are able to capture more value from consumers precisely because consumers face very high switching costs. Moving to SW:TOR from WoW, for example, requires dropping a social network, buying a new game, learning a new combat system and lore, and so on. By contrast, it is comparatively easy to leave SW:TOR (or another MMO) for WoW because the switching costs of doing so are low in a world where the WoW-style is foundational, and especially if you already have a social network in WoW.

The failure of other recent subscription MMOs has been misattributed to their revenue structure, while ignoring at least three factors: game quality relative to the dominant competitor (Blizzard’s WoW), the high switching costs for players to move away from the dominant competitor into the new competitor’s game (due to social network effects), and the fact that the dominant competitor is successful, in part, because its dominance gives it the ability to price discriminate. It is therefore able to capitalize on players differentiated valuations of the game in a way that upstarts could not.

I’ve tried to address and inject some subtlety into the argument over subscriptions. By no means am I claiming that subscriptions guarantee success, nor that all games can be best monetized through subscriptions, nor that subscriptions should not be mixed with other revenue enhancers. However, the choice of subscription as a revenue model over another can be justified by the market structure that a company is competing in. In particular, with WoW now on the wane, there may be an exceptional opportunity for ESO to take WoW’s place – and appropriate its advantageous position in the market – by  providing a high-quality game backed by a venerable IP.







[Crossposted at]

[Edit: Corrected a calculation of total price of a six-month subscription]

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Robert Green
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One thing I find interesting is how many compare F2P with $15 a month, as if that's the only price you could charge for a subscription model. Perhaps, instead of trying to compete directly with WoW, Zenimax (or any of the other challengers) might have tried to lure people away at $12 a month, or $10. If you can hold onto players at those prices, I'm sure there's still a lot of money to be made, and if you can't, then it didn't really matter either way, did it?

Isaac Knowles
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It's not totally clear why $15 is the price point. One possible reason is that the firms engage in what is called "tacit collusion", as in the firms tacitly agree to charge the same price. The reason is as follows: The market for MMOs is relatively concentrated - that is, there are just a few firms (mostly one) whose revenues make up most of the market. Under that condition, firms compete in a more strategic way. If a major MMO like ESO were to drop its price to $12 or $10 a month, Blizzard would have no choice but to drop its price, as well. Both firms are losers - profits fall for everyone. Meanwhile, no firm has an incentive to charge more than WoW; they would just lose profit. Thus, everyone chooses to charge $15 a month.

Robert Green
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That could well be it, though I'd expect collusion to be less likely to happen in a market where one company has such a dominant share of the customers/revenue. In this scenario Blizzard would only be forced to drop their prices if a competitor did take a significant share of their players, and even with a monthly fee of $0, I'm not sure anyone has managed to do that yet.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I completely agree with Isaac here that this is tacit collusion at work.

Isaac Knowles
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It should be pointed out that there are many MMOs that charge less than $15 /month. FFXIV is charging 12.99, SWTOR charges 11.50 or so (though that may not be a fair comparison). So companies do charge less than 14.99. However, it will probably not behoove Zenimax Online to do so (unless things go horribly awry for ESO)

[edit: FFXIV, not FFIV]

Maxwell Means
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Well, I think it may be more precise to call this particular phenomenon "price leadership", but that is still a form of tacit collusion by most people's reckoning.

Richard Black
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The problem I see is you aren't exactly colluding with the gamer. Yes there's an industry standard and you aren't breaking from it one way or another, but if it's not an appreciated standard of the consumer you're not scoring any points with them. Yes if I hear monthly subsciption I think 15 dollars a month automatically, but I don't think on it positively.

I might be pleasantly surprised if you told me 10 dollars a month, but likely I'd end up doing the math in my head and coming to the conclusion that if I'm even interersted in the game I'd be spending 20 dollars instead of 30 dollars to try it out before the next thing is out.

The price for most games in the box seems to have been universally colluded to be set at 59$... but an awful lot of articles have already addressed how unpopular this is with consumers who've begun to find the value of most games slightly shy of the 59$ mark.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Isaac, this is a very interesting take on the subscription debate. While I agree in theory that players will quit when v<c (I use some permutation of this myself internally), in most cases players are paying for a month or more in advance so they be already "on the hook" well past that extinction point. This is why companies are moving to sell larger subscriptions, "lifetime subscriptions", and founders packs so that (due to hype and marketing) consumers will overestimate v in advance. Thus, without perfect knowledge (and possibly false knowledge) they make a poor purchase decision.

I found your use of the term price discrimination odd in that while the cost per hour may be variable here, the whole point of cost discrimination is not to vary the price of a product without purpose. The object is to use price discrimination to capture as much of an individual's budget as possible. Proper use of price discrimination allows you to charge richer or more motivated consumers more for the same product. In this case, with heavy subscription users their c is lower when they are (imo) more motivated and thus have a high enough v that they will endure higher c's, not lower c's.

I am not opposed to the subscription model, just the unlimited subscription model that is currently still in use. I am actually a huge fan of subscriptions, but I believe they need to be not only integrated into game design, but actually a part of the strategic elements of play. I would love to go into more detail, but since I am currently in the process of deploying models to Wargaming's products, I cannot at this time.

A good article, and I enjoyed reading it.

Isaac Knowles
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Gameplay is fundamentally a time-use decision, so the price discrimination for selling a game subscription must come (at least in part) from players' differential values of their time. Players who have higher opportunity cost of spending time in the game will have lower H, and so they will pay more for their time. Players who have relatively lower opportunity cost of their time will have higher H and therefore pay less for their time. That is price discrimination: the seller of the subscription is capturing the additional value that the low H players place on their time.

An anlogous, textbook example of price discrimination is that practiced by grocery stores that mail out coupons. Coupons can lead to significant savings at the register, but they require an equally significant expenditure of time to find and clip. People who do take the time to do that have a lower opportunity cost of time, and so it is worth it to them to use that time to save money at the register. People who don't take the time to do that have a higher opportunity cost of time. It's not worth it to them to clip coupons, so they will pay more at the register.

It is true that players who value a game's content more will spend more hours in it than players who value it less. I've focused on the relationship between the value of time in-game vs the value of time outside of the game, while keeping fixed any preferences over the game. That's partially to keep things tractable. However, it's also important to keep in mind that companies already discriminate over players' preferences by selling standard and deluxe editions. It's also mechanically difficult to price discrminate in a world where access cards are sold at retail.

If there are other ways to price discriminate due to player preferences - with respect to subscription games - I'd be intereted to hear it. But here I've focused on discrimination according to time value - and that is, indeed, a form of price discrimination.

As for the first part of your comment: First, I want to point out that longer and lifetime subscriptions are quantity discounts, which is another form of price discrimination. Second, I don't think people are making poor decisions about such a relatively simple product. There is uncertainty, in that any estimate of future time availability will have a standard error. But no one has ever accused a subscription game of using psychological tactics to coerce players to buy more time, and for good reason. Flat rates for unlimted access are no more taking advantage of psychological biases than ISPs, telephone companies, or news websites. My decision to pay for a subscription is not "poor". It's just not as good as it would be if I knew the future with certainty.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm sensing this discussion could get very long and boringly academic for most of our readers, so I will just make one point. I do believe strongly that game companies are attempting to misrepresent the value of their products to consumers, and then have them make long term purchases of time/content based on that faulty information. This was the point of this article I wrote a few months ago:

In fact with the Marvel game, while they claimed the game had a certain "value", once players got a chance to see the game and determine that the game did not have that value, those prices were slashed by 50% or more. In such an environment it is very difficult for a consumer to predict v, and this is intentional on the part of many (if not most) developers. I point out the same mechanic at work in Candy Crush Saga in a more recent paper on Top F2P Tricks.

Isaac Knowles
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Well, so much is the loss of people who don't read the comments! I welcome any discussion of this issue, and I think other people would, too, even if it did get a bit dry.

In any event, I am specifically addressing those criticisms of the unlimited subscription revenue model that I think are unsound, or lack subtlety. My point is simply to show that the model is not so weak as has been claimed. It is, moreover, quite an honest revenue model: players know exactly how much they have to pay to access the game for the amount of time they want to access it. F2P "tricks" are neither here nor there on this particular issue.

Richard Black
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I'm largely in agreement with Ramin's analysis, especially when it comes to the value of what you're expected to pay to enhance your gameplay. I also agree with you that gameplay is frequently a time-use decision but you seem to only apply that to game under consideration. I would put to you that happens to be too narrow a view. Quite simply their are a plethora of games to draw any gamers attention at any conceivable moment. When considering the time-use in that light you need to factor how much time I'm willing to devote to your particular game over others. To me that further complicates the idea of a monthly subscription because thats an extra monthly charge I play just to access your game when I have others on my mind I may have already purchased and essentially play for free at that point.

Given how a like most games are these days how many truly unique aspects are a part of your game that I can't get elsewhere in my collection or for free?

Eric Salmon
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I didn't quite follow your argument about price discrimination. It's fun to say that we just made $14 from the person who paid $15 to play for an hour... but more than likely, they didn't pay. They just quit. You are, in reality, losing a lot of customer value by scaring off customers who'd pay less to play less. You're probably also losing value on the other end, from the really dedicated customers who'd pay more to play as much as humanly possible.

To be completely honest, our industry feels a bit behind the times as far as selling non-essential services. It seems that practically every other industry doing that has adapted ways of sustaining a large market without giving away stuff for free with little chance of return, and without being deceptive about the upfront value proposition. The most applicable, I think, is the cell phone service industry. As a consumer, I would love to see the infrastructure created to be able to have a Pay-as-you-Play plan, incremental contract subscriptions, discounted or free games upfront with a subscription contract, and load-balancing incentives with reduced rates for off-peak hours.

Game design is also a concern, though, because these games tend to be created with huge timesinks that are rather obviously made just to keep me around, and not because they're actually fun or interesting. Subscriptions definitely tend to ruin games for me because they suck the fun right out of even the activities I'd normally enjoy.

RJ McManus
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I guess it comes down to whether price discrimination is about balancing for how much the consumer values the service being provided, or how much they value their opportunity cost (i.e. how it's presented in this article). Those values are inversely related, and as such they would seem to produce opposite effects in this context. My assumption was that price discrimination would entail charging higher prices to people who care more about the product, and lower prices to those who care less, but the example in the article seems to represent higher prices to those who care less (by virtue of caring more about whatever the opportunity cost of their playtime is). Perhaps someone could clear this up for me, but at first glance it would seem to me like the latter is achieving the opposite of price discrimination.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi, Eric. Thanks for you comment; I'm sorry I wasn't clear.

To be very precise, suppose we have a pay-per-hour scheme where each hour costs $1, and that we have a person whose first hour in game is worth $15 to them. That person will pay for the first hour, because $15 > $1. If the second hour of time is worth less than a dollar, then the person will not pay for a second hour. In that case, the pay-per-hour scheme has made $1 off of someone who would've paid $15 for that same hour. On the other hand, if the second hour was worth $8 and the third hour was only worth $.50., we would've made only $2 off of someone who would pay $23 for those two hours. You could lower the hourly price so the person will stay longer, but then you get less revenue per hour they stay there.

Returning the unlimited access model, note that you could raise the unlimited subscription price to $23 so that you capture that person's 1st and 2nd hour of value, but then you will scare away people who value the game less. Or, you could lower the price to $10 a month, but then you'd lose revenues from people who would be willing to pay more per hour. The price, in other words, is a compromise between the capture of additional value without losing too many customers who have a lower value.

Subscriptions are not perfectly discriminatory, but then perfect discrimination is almost always impossible in reality. Most firms cannot just charge whatever they want to whomever they want and still be profitable (and those that can are heavily regulated). The kind of complicated price structure that you propose might not be optimal or even possible for the game industry, which is significantly more competitive than the the mobile phone industry.

Richard Black
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The thing is you're playing into something I think more and more gamers are growing wary of. The whole pay ahead for a reduced rate is very similar to the current practice of pre-ordering to get in game bonuses for a game you may not find you even like.

I understand the philosophy to lock in customers and upsell them, but all it takes is getting burned once or twice (which I think most of us have been by now) to be leery of the whole process. The buy before you play methodolgy may look wonderful on paper but I think actively upsets your client base. Much like any good money making scheme you can make a lot of money on that bubble before it burst, but eventually it's gonna burst and you don't wanna be that last one holding onto that bubble.

I support you defending a business model but you should consider that your very need to defend a business practice pre-supposes people have grown suspicious of it. You site that most subscription models have failed recently, for which I agree, though I would likely dispute your reasoning as to why. The very fact that you need to defend subscriptions however makes the discussion moot to me however as you're already conceding that whoever starts a subscription model right now BEGINS with an established negative track record. That's not a great place to begin. Whether the industry has moved on or not the perception I believe is that it already has. Fighting your way back up from that would not be the ideal, though I'm sure would be quite a success if done.

Isaac Knowles
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The price discrimination comes by comparison to the alternative pay per hour scheme. At that point, look at the response to Eric. Specifically, if a month of subscription time costs $15, then if any person:

1) Values their total hours per month in a game at more than $15, and
2) would make payments in the pay per hour scheme equal to less than $15,

then the pay-per-hour scheme loses money compared to the unlimited access scheme.

The price discrimination is over the value of time, not over relative preference for the game. See the grocery store coupon I example I gave to Ramin for a similar form of discrimination.

Price discrimination can also be over how much you like the game. For example, through the sale of more or less expensive versions of the client software, with the more expensive one including a book of art from the game.

RJ McManus
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Thanks, I understand your reasoning now.

Rebecca Warren
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From my experience playing MMOs, I feel that the hybrid (F2P/In-game Purchase/Subscription) model is the best route. F2P allows players to try the game and get a feel for the combat, story, etc. It allows a player to know whether they are willing to pay money for the game and if so, how much. There are several games that have transitioned to a hybrid model that I have considered downloading to try that were not even on my radar when they were solely Subscription-based. Some people on a limited budget will use the store to purchase select content that they want and ultimately pay more than someone with a subscription. For players that are not as limited financially or prefer to unlock all of the content, the subscription is the ideal solution.

Personally, if I get into a game, I prefer to pay the subscription. Because of my limited time, I am only subscribed to Lord of the Rings Online at the moment but I have no intention of getting rid of my subscription any time soon. I have interacted with many players in-game that believe that they have paid less than me because they are purchasing everything separately which is better for Turbine because they are making more revenue. Even if they were getting the better deal, I would still be willing to pay the subscription because going to the store to purchase the quests for the region that I just entered would get annoying very quickly and very likely cause me to leave the game.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for your comment.

It's probably true that a hybrid is the best route; indeed, that's the way almost all MMOs seem to be going and I doubt ESO will be any different.

Having said that, I think there is a certain level of game quality and size where having F2P elements is simply less profitable than avoiding F2P altogether. Big, AAA games compete in a fairly concentrated market which allows them all to extract more value from players than games in the relatively competitive market for lower quality (read: less expensive) games.

Somewhat tangential to your comment, I would argue that developers that release AAA games are actually engaging in what is known as product bundling - forcing people to purchase all content even if they only want access to some aspects of it. For example, WoW's inclusion of a pet battle system in 5.0 directly competes with such diverse games as Pokemon and Puzzles and Dragons. Call of Duty's inclusion of both campaign and PvP modes are clear cases of bundling. By providing both campaign and PvP, Activision competes with anyone who wants to sell just one or the other, or both. In either case, bundling keeps upstarts out of the market, while attracting customers from more or less different markets.

By contrast, LotRO has very little market power, and so must offer many different kinds of access methods to be competitive. I think that's why there are so many different ways to pay for it.

Richard Black
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I think LOTRO is a wonderful example of what to do correctly with an MMO and has been since it launched. They've consistantly released new content and upgraded their graphics engine since the game launched, largely without the introduction of bugs when doing so unlike many other games I've played. I actually question the subscription side of their hybrid model however.

I myself bought a lifetime membership to LOTRO when it launched and have been quite happy doing so. Essentially I became a VIP subscriber for life when it switched to f2p and have never been limited or experienced a loss of content. I even preordered and purchased all the expansions even during periods of the game I wasn't actively playing simply knowing eventually I would.

Being established in the game I've often tried to bring friends and lately my wife to play the game with me. The subscription aspect has actually made that more difficult. At best it has inspired them to be episodic while playing with me when they want to concentrate on the game engaging in the monthly subscription they are forced to purchase for the unlimited content I enjoy for free. I can enjoy the game anytime I'm in the mood. i still have to purchase expasnions when released, as do they and they do not seem to mind, but the monthly subscription they have to pay for mid-level content limits and discourages them. Even if it's cheap. On the other hand they've spent far more than they would for the VIP monthly on in game items and outfits they find endearing. LOTRO actually has a great in game shop for outfits, steeds, and convenience items to enhance play or allow people to play the way they want and THAT is the true strength of the game. I myself have probably spent more on such items that they could have gotten from me if I subscribed monthly from they day they opened the servers, and I continue to do so even if I play irregularly and briefly. If anything they probably could have gotten more money out of the people I've tried to bring to the game to play with me without the monthly subscription dissuading them. The freedom to play when I want without considering ever subscribing and to instead spend my money on things I want or think enhance my time in the game is the true strenght of the game, and one that I think would appeal to more people.

Saying that LOTRO lacks market power I think rather illuminating. They have an enthusiastic player base and likely the best behaved of any game I know of. They seem to make more than enough money to keep things going likely at significant profit and have already said they make far more f2p than they ever did under their subscription model. They have a built in and avid fanbase of Tolkien fanatics who would likely support the game in any form but seem fairly happy in the one that it has taken. They may not be as numerous as star wars fans but they seem a hell of a lot happier with their product as well, and I can't say I blame them. If you don't see them as a success, I'm not sure what you would see as a success and I can't think of much that has shown their kind of consistent wear with all.

Guild Wars 2 is much the same with their buy to play model and they have a decent in game shop system. The purely in game economy is rather messed up, as Ramin has pointed out, but you can largely circumvent it with the shop or through the game itself to get what you need. They have a lot of frivolous items you can buy but some simple convenience items you might consider enhancements of your game play that can really get you to invest your cash into a game that has no monthly subscription at all. Hell I don't like buying new crafting tools all the time and recently was more than happy to pay 10$ a pop on three tools per character on like 6-7 max level characters for harvesting tools that never break. That's nearly 300$ on a game a largely just play with my wife these days. On convenience. I don't harvest any better than anyone else, I just don't have to bother with new tools anymore.

Then you have SWTOR which I think has one of the most laughable f2p systems I've ever seen. Besides the subscription model which is practically required with all the inconveniences they laden you with as a free player they shop is horrendous and often has you engage in a paid lottery for customization items. It's sad because the story is often quite involving, at least up to a dissapointing endgame but I just find it inconceivable how much money they must be turning away from star wars fans who'd love to be able to flat out buy light saber colors, outfits, speeders, or star ships to customize just the way they want to look and likely have always wanted to look when they thought of being in star wars. The idea of having to buy boxes and hope things you want in them is just silly to me rather than letting people impulse buy till their credit cards start declining.

To me the freedom to play when you want to play, and how you want ot play is the ultimate enticement in any online game. By limiting your player you limit how much they're ever willing to spend with you. Time played is the absolute worst way to limit how someone games. Your very time-use diagram should tell you that. Do you really want me to think about how much I'm playing your game? At all? Or do you want me to just play and then think about how I best want to play? And how much I'm willing to pay to play just the way I want?

Simone Tanzi
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I really think MMOs derailed as a genre from what promised to be at first.
Expecially when I read "Subscriptions incentivize players to rush through content as quickly as possible".
Your statement is true, is the state of the MMOs that is completely wrong.
MMOs shouldn't focus on providing pre-made content to the players but rather ways to turn audience into content.
Player driven stories, Player driven challenges.
you don't need to create a wrath of the lich king if you build in a way for a player to become the lich king and for other players to stop him.
MMOs Gameplay should be player-driven and emergent then subscription has a sense because the game change every day through player interaction.

Allan Munyika
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I agree with this view and I would like to add to it. We can argue about pricing models until the cows come home but the truth is this would be merely addressing the symptom but not the root cause of declining subscriber numbers in most popular subscription based MMOs today. What I envision as the root cause of these dwindling subscriber numbers is genre stagnation. It doesn't make any sense for people to pay the same amount of money to play a WoW clone, especially after the huge time investment that they'd have put into WoW. I think more people would be willing to pay a suscription if game developers offered them something that was markedly more different and more compelling than WoW.

James Yee
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/Agreed with both Simone and Allan.

This is why I'm looking forward to seeing what the newer sandbox games like Pathfinder Online do with the EVE Online style of world building.

Richard Black
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Well I think part of the problem is counting on subscribers to begin with. I should be clear people rarely want to play a deserted game and a healthy player base is a requirement, but too much emphasis is placed on subscriber tallies. I don't think many people just play one game to the exclusion of all others anymore. Putting your emphasis on keeping people playing month after month is doomed to failure as your numbers are bound to decline after your initial release. The emphasis should be placed instead on a persistently amusing world that people will want to continuously return to over the years. Have ingame events and things to look forward to. Let people enjoy other games and distractions and give them reasons to return to you afterwards. As of as people keep coming back to your game, are happy with your game, give good word of mouth about your game then you should count yourself as successful. On the other hand if all you emphasize is keeping people in your game non stop month after month I think you're bound to lose what youre after, ie people willing to keep playing your game.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for writing this; it's a thoughtful, objective contribution to the discussion of how to help games be profitable.

1. The history of pay-per-use should not be forgotten. I used CompuServe, Prodigy, and The Sierra Network (TSN, later renamed to the ImagiNation Network, INN), and I recall very clearly the immediate delight with which subscription-based, unlimited-access payment was received. Virtually everyone saw unlimited access as a huge improvement over hourly rates. I believe that reverting back to pay-per-use (via increasingly extensive microtransactions in F2P games) once again creates opportunities for the right kinds of subscription-based games to be commercially successful as gamers once again feel nickled-and-dimed.

2. Environment matters, surely. But what about play styles?

Among the 30-somethings with jobs and kids, some will naturally prefer zipping through content in whatever time they can spare, and they'll probably be pretty good at it. Similarly, there are students and others with free time who enjoy exploring all the details of a world at a leisurely pace. Some years ago I started describing these two styles of content consumption as "locusts" and "grazers," respectively.

From that observation, I suspect the key factor in whether someone will be OK with a subscription model can be summed up in a behavioral word: investment. The content grazers who naturally invest in a distinct gameworld as a satisfying place will be fine with a recurring service fee because it's a financial investment in a product to which they've formed an emotional investment. (In fact, invested players are likely to *prefer* subscriptions because they perceive it as discouraging the disruptive locusts from playing.) This investment is why "switching cost" is a retention factor.

3. Another way to explain why players who invest in MMOs as worlds prefer subscriptions over F2P/microtransactions is because paying real-world money for in-game features breaks the magic circle. F2P affects the design of the game. The subscription model doesn't; that money exists entirely outside the world of the game. That immersiveness-by-design matters enough to some gamers (again, because they want to invest in a world) that they're willing to pay a recurring service fee for it.

So, regarding The Elder Scrolls Online, here's my prediction based on the "investment" model. To the extent that TESO is generally perceived as being a very worldy, story-and-exploration-friendly Elder Scrolls game with some MMO features, it will attract grazers who are just fine with the subscription model. To the extent that TESO is perceived to be a conventional grindy MMO with some Elder Scrolls flavoring, it will attract mostly locusts who will guarantee that it goes F2P after one year.

Check back with me a year after TESO launches and see how I did. :)

Isaac Knowles
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HI, Bart. Thanks for the insightful comment.

Surely a more complex model of video game demand, in general, is needed. There is an impressive number of ways to monetize games, and an infinite number of ways to mix those different monetization methods. Each will appeal more or less to different players. What I've tried to focus on here is the specific relationship between willingness to pay and the opportunity cost of time. But there are absolutely other dimensions of demand, and different ways of classifying players.

I'm glad you brought up the magic circle. That term has fallen out of vogue as the industry has had to face the realities of RMT, but I still think that the idea of it is quite important to a lot of people. I think people are willing to pay for it, but preserving it is easier said than done.

As for TESO: I just hope it's awesome, no matter what!

Mike Jenkins
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Spot on with #3, Bart.

Subscriptions are fantastic for a virtual world, where any outside influence would break your immersion into it. A one price fits all scheme is the only way to maintain the sense of a meritocracy. Subscriptions don't work for video gamey "theme park" design, which happen to be the only MMOs released in the past 5+ years. The idea of paying $15 per month to play SWTOR is as ludicrous as paying $15 to play Super Mario Brothers. EVE is a service, SWTOR is a video game with cutscenes to watch and levels to play through.

The subscription model hasn't failed. The games industry has just failed to make a subscription MMO in a very long time.

James Yee
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I agree with all you've said Bart. Mainly because I'm both a Locust and a Grazer depending on the wife. :)

Richard Black
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Eve is a good point as it can support a subscription model, largely because there's nothing else truly like it. I believe they are attempting to supplement a f2p shooter, however, I imagine for the dual reasoning of to broaden their player base and because there are plenty of online shooters out there. That's the key. Eve is the orginal niche game and has always defined itself that way. For that niche a subscription model is probably the smallest investment you're likely to make in a game designed to be a substantial investment. What else is there to compete with the level of micromanagement that is Eve?

Nothing else is really competing with Eve but on the other hand they do not capture a large market of players either. If Isaac is dismissive of LOTRO's market power I doubt he ascribes much more of it to Eve. If market power is your goal I very much doubt you'll achieve it with a subscriptive model anymore. To achieve larger market shares games have moved to appeal to the casual gamer, and I think casual players are more often than not dismissive of a subscription. Eve sets a threshold to maintain what it is for it's own, but if Eve is what you're after it's the only game in town and can afford to do so, while those who try to appeal to a wider audience cannot maintain those same standards.

Dane MacMahon
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I think big time MMO fans are fine with subs, even prefer them. It's the more casual MMO players that are turned off by subs. One clear reason for this is the anxiety of not playing the game you're paying for by the hour, basically, which rational or not just drives me up the wall.

Brian Lewis
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I believe that there may be a few incorrect assumptions in this (otherwise) good article. Let me give an example:

"The reason is that a large number of players have neither the time nor the flexible schedule necessary to effectively rush through that content. A subscription game’s average audience is in its early- and mid-30s, and on average, that same demographic is married (or co-habiting), working full-time, and has kids.[5] In other words, it is a group without a lot of free time, and which is minimally able to re-allocate a significant number of hours from other commitments in order to play games."

This description, used to define the subscription based player.... is also the same description that would be used to define the micro transaction based player. The reason that many players have decided that micro transactions are better for them, is because of the lack of time, and the availability of money. They are no longer kids without jobs (excess free time/lack of money) and would prefer to play a game that allows them to make more choices about where they spend their money.

Another example is this:

"In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was expensive to produce the content. It only matters whether the number of subscribers justifies the production costs."

The cost of content creation vs. the return on said content is not as dependent on the method in which it is monetized, as much as the amount of players willing to pay for it. This one of the main reasons that developers decide to go F2P (sub vs. micro transactions aside) vs charging up front. This is not really relative to sub vs. micro transactions, but rather a result of how the product is marketed.

I believe that this was an honest attempt to show that subscription is still a valid model... but none of this really did that. Subscription has worked well for many games for many years. However, many of those games have added micro transactions (dual/hybrid models) because it allowed them to monetize better. We can see that the market has decided that hybrid models are generally more efficient than models with a single method.

It is reasonable to believe that the choice of TESO to go with a subscription only model is a higher risk decision than going with a hybrid model.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi , Brian. Thanks for the comment.

The thing is, I think you are assuming that I'm assuming things that I'm not assuming. You are correct that what I say about subscription customers also applies to F2P customers. In fact, that is the underlying assumption: all players are making time-use decisions, regardless of revenue model. That doesn't make what I said about subscription customers incorrect.

While I agree that people with extremely restricted time might switch over to games that are free or which generally charge less than MMOs, it wasn't my goal to address that issue. Instead, I was addressing whether or not subscriptions incentivize players to rush through content, and I think I gave some reasons why that would not be true, especially for older, time-restricted, and/or wealthier MMO players. [Furthermore, the demographic that plays MMO is quite old, and I cited a paper to that effect (see [5]). ]

Monetization methods and willingness to pay are not substitutes to be weighted as you seem to suggest. Rather, willingness to pay is expressed via the monetization method. I have focused on the unlimited access vs. pay-per-hour subscription models, and discussed how the variation in players' willingness to pay for content can lead to price discrimination over the opportunity cost of players' time when the unlimited accesss model is used. Marketing is neither here nor there in this analysis. Marketing is an entirely separate issue.

Finally, I specifically stated at the end of my post that none of my analysis obviated the possibility that microtransactions + subscription could be more profitable than pure subscription. Neither have any of TESO's announcements denied the possibility that microtransaction will be in the game. My goal in this post was not to argue that subscriptions alone are the best revenue model for any game. Rather, it was to demonstrate that the three criticisms of the sub model that I listed are suspicious or outright spurious.

Richard Black
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Well I'm not really sure anything beyond there actually BEING content incentivizes players to play though it any faster. If something is there it's an invitation to check it out. Studying the motivation behind doing so would seem to me to require a psychological study rather than an economic one, but whatever.

As to TESO's decision as to why to apply a subscription model I would likely ascribe it to corporate business motivation. It's simply fundamentally easier to ascribe a set dollar value of income to an expected player base. I'm sure the math is eaasier to digest, especially when viewed optimistically. The problem doing so is the caluclations will likely assign longer subscription terms than they are realistically likely to see.

Subsisting off of initial purchase price backed by continued microtransactions is in all liklihood far harder to deduce, let alone explain to stockholders. If you don't have positive initial projections I imagine it's harder to secure funding and support. That I think overall such models provide more funding and reliability long term is my opinion but is unlikely to have much behind it until more developers take that plunge. Subscriptions and subscriptive 'encouragement' are largely a life vest that you hope to rely on and show consistent overall income, and they may do so to an extent, but while you're not really sinking I don't think you're swimming either.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Isaac Knowles
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I definitely agree with most of what you've said. I think there are important reasons to choose a sub model that affect demand, but which go beyond the basic price structure. Its probably the case that sub models act as a signal to potential consumers about the quality or kind of game they're paying for, and that is part of why it is chosen.

Nicholas Lovell
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Whether I agree that there is a role for subscriptions, I fear this article is riddled with flawed assumptions. Picking just a few of them:

- it assumes that a player measures their sense of value on a time basis. The evidence for this is poor. It is an economist's simplification to enable models to work, paying no attention to other social sciences like psychology and anthropology (e.g. people paying for social status, for self-expression, due to a fear of loss, due to the sunk cost fallacy and so on)
- it ignores the deterrent cost to the MMO in terms of customer acquisition of its customers knowing that this a monthly commitment (and there is evidence that over a certain number of subscriptions, people start becoming uncomfortable adding another one)
- it ignores the key element of working capital. An MMO is an enormous fixed cost investment. The marginal cost of supplying one more customer is very low. So the idea that a $15 customer can ever pay for the extra content he or she values is just plain wrong: an MMO has to bet that large numbers of $15 customers would value something, not work on the marginal value to the consumer
- The idea that price discrimination is based on c (price per hour) not the actual dollar value that someone pays is nice in theory, but makes no difference to the ability of the MMO company to pay its staff and its bills. Whereas someone paying $10, another paying $100 and another $1,000 makes a very big difference to that ability.

I fear that you have constructed an argument based on a set of assumptions that are deeply flawed.

Isaac Knowles
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HI, Nicholas,

This would not be the first time I've been accused of being an economist! I plead guilty, but let me respond to your four points.

1) I do assume players are rational and think about the value of their time. When prices are known ($40 or $50 or whatever for client software, + $15 per month), and when people can develop a reasonable expectation of the time they'll have to spend in a game, they make pretty good decisions.

2) I've said that if the month is worth it, you pay for it. Otherwise you don't. Are you referring to something else that would deter a subscription besides the price? (Please do cite your evidence.)

3) Any good analysis of a firm would start with the understanding that fixed costs are not recoverable; only marginal revenue over marginal cost matters. I ignore initial fixed (read: sunk) costs because a firm ignores initial fixed costs. But I never implied that it would not take a large number of customers to drive marginal cost down and to therefore make every $15 customer a profitable one.

4) People who play longer pay less money over marginal cost per hour, while people who play less pay more money over marginal cost per hour. You could also think of it this way: If two customers pay $15, but one plays 30 hours and the other plays 60 hours, and if marginal cost per hour is constant, then the company has expended twice as much to provide the service to the first customer as they did to the last one. OR another way to think of it is that the 2nd customer received a quantity discount. However you view it, it is price discrimination, and the company is making more marginal profit per hour off the second customer than they are off the first customer. In other words, they pay more bills with the low-time customer than they do with the high-time customer. In any event I never said a company with a subscription couldn't have microstransactions. I'm just arguing against the critiques I listed.

[edit: ahem... 4 points]

Luke Papaj
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There is another cost that is just glossed over in article: the cost of getting into game, time needed to level a toon to end-game, which usually involve fixed amount of time spent on repeatable tasks in outdated content. And that time need to be spent on every alt. Even if you enjoy that content, there is no real reason to prolong that experience, since mechanics make that old context trivial (at least in WoW context).
Nevertheless this content acts as gatekeeper and time sink before user will get to what is "current". This might not be a problem for one with much time on one's hand, but for one with little time- not so much. Actually, I think it is quite a deterrent - because most of social interaction is in end-game.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi, Luke. Basically, I'm assuming that playing the game is worth a player's time. (I haven't even assumed the game was fun!) It's worth it if the benefits of your time outweigh the costs, whatever those costs are.

Curtiss Murphy
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Two issues:

1) What about families? MMO's that require a large initial purchase (ex $40 per expansion) plus a subscription cost, are almost exclusionary of family based play. My wife, and 2 kids love playing games together when the 4*($40 + $15/mo) is not a factor. I was perfectly happy to pay $5/mo to have premium content in Rift - the game was free and $5/mo was a fair price to have a fun game to play. When the initial $5 entry point was no longer an option, we went back to LoL. We've done similar when WoW runs HUGE discounts near XMAS - for $20*4, we get a few months of game play for the entire family. As much as we love Elder Scrolls, it's hard to image any game is worth 4*($40 + $15/mo) anymore.

2) What about Expectations? Your model does not consider human decision models. For years, economists believed our purchases were based on rational logic. And now, we're learning that's not entirely true, as the wants, desires, costs, are all balanced against problems such as biases and expectations. FREE is one such expectation. With the race to the bottom nearly complete, MMOS, mobile apps, internet content, and many, many games are free. Players are not deciding if X time is worth Y investment, they EXPECT that X time is free and that Y investment is an exception with an extremely high bar that cheats, coins, clothing, upgrades, or premium are increasingly struggling to overcome. The value of an hour has less impact than expectations, which is why high-income earners ($50K+) tell me they aren't willing to spend $0.99 for an app they've been playing for 3 weeks, even while their licking the last bits of chocolate from that $1.99 candy bar off their fingers.

Isaac Knowles
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Hi, Curtiss. Glad you posted. I remember you making some similar comments on the Gamasutra news article that was published about ESO's plans a few weeks ago.

1) I don't think family plans are a bad idea; I'm sure publishers would like it if they could sell them, too. The problem is a technical one: If I'm a publisher, how do I verify that I'm selling a quantity discount to a set of gamers who cohabit, or who are related, or who are close friends? Or put another way, how do I verify that you're not someone who's just buying a bunch of discounted accounts to sell at a markup, or to use as gold farmers/mules? Unfortunately, I can't veryif that, so I can't discriminate between families and individuals. Otherwise, I'd probiably be happy to give you the discount.

2) Economic rationality has a very precise definition. If:
I) Given a choice between products A and B, you'll choose A instead of B if you prefer A to B; and
II) Given products A, B, and C, then if you choose A over B and B over C, then you'll also choose A over C,
then you're considered to be behaving rationally in an economic sense.

Human decision-making tends to conform to these rules so long as its very clear what the products are and how much they cost. Once you introduce uncertainty , or complexity, the rules start to break down. In the case of subscription for access + client purchase, there is very little uncertainty over the price, and the plethora of video game reviews leaves very little uncertainty about what it is your buying. So I think that purchase decision is quite rational.

I actually disagree with the statement that "players are not deciding if X time is worth Y investment". Regardless of whether its games, work, time spent doing homework, or responding to comments on a blog, people make decisions about how much their time is worth vs its alternative uses all the time. (I clearly think this is worth my time!)

Finally, while it might be true that I expect my mobile game to be free, it does not follow that I expect my AAA content to be free. I don't think anyone was begrudging Rockstar its decision to charge 59.99 for the standard edition of GTAV. Neither will anyone begrudge Zenimax its decision to charge $15/mo plus the price of the client for TESO. It is expected that they will do that; indeed, they've told us as much!

Marc Schaerer
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I think the subscription model itself does not really need to be defended.
Its great and it has its uses.

The reason why it has come under serious pressure is not because of F2P but because many successful subscription MMOs applied the model in a totally broken way, due to which users left the moment an alternative existed (either a new MMO or nowadays F2P).

When talking about a totally broken way, I'm talking about the fact that subscription based games have expansions that are being sold at an extra fee even to ongoing subscribers.

The users already pay a monthly fee for support and ongoing content creation, the fee is not only to pay the hardware (and as all MMO players know, its definitely also not used to pay an adequate amount of staff for support and live quests) but also to pay the ongoing development of story, world and changes of the same and trying to sell them as addons for a fee is effectively asking the user to pay for it at least twice if not more.

People who pay for a subscription, independent of what its for, expect to get the latest and greatest.
You don't subscribe to a magazin to get issues from 12 months ago or only until they change the front cover design. That would be as if Microsoft ask MSDN subscribers for massive extra fees to get the latest Visual Studio, if Autodesk asked for massive flat fees to get the latest maya / 3ds max while you are under a paid support contract ...
Its so obvious why that one aspect is totally broken and impacts the whole model, as no developer and artist would pay a subscription fee .

Luckily there are also other developers applying the subscription model properly, in a subscriber friendly way, like CCP with EVE which gets 2 extensions a year and weekly+ updates through the subscription.

I think basing on what took place the last years, the MMO sector is likely going to converge towards a hybrid MMO model:

1. A monthly subscription where you get access to the whole content now and in the future, for as long as he is subscribed.
2. F2P (or call it large scale trial with unluckables) where some content is locked behind cash, or if the developer cares about viral spread and guild migrations, behind 'massive time investments". On top whole new game environments, dungeons etc are being sold at a flat one time fee similar to addons / extensions in current subscription games.

Some MMO managemetns have already experimented with such hybrid MMO monetizations, though I don't recall that anyone shared their experience when applying it.

Isaac Knowles
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It sounds like what you're saying is "MMOs with subs failed because they charged too much for what they were providing." You'll get no argument from me on that.

Richard Black
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You have quite an in depth article but if I was to be honest, which I am, I think you are missing the forest through the trees. More specifically you're engaged in the study of a single tree and going into an in depth analysis of all the ways to access that tree.

You see the thing is that game audiences today are nomadic. You try to capture their attention through just one game and you are doomed to fail. It doesn't matter how you break down the price point or value of playing that one game, you are unlikely to convince the majority of gamers to stick with that one game because of the plethora that are out there. It's not a matter of playing WoW or Everquest anymore or sticking with Ultima Online. If you feel like playing a scifi game instead of a fantasy game you are no longer confined to playing Anarchy Online and only Anarchy Online. There are dozens of games capturing players attention and most mmo players probably have endgame characters in a dozen mmos at any one time and it's just a matter of what they are playing at that particular moment.

People have options and more likely than not the only preference they have towards those options are there mood at the time.

A monthly subscription model is outmoded because why pay for access for a single game when you can play a dozen you are already entrenched in and have community involvements with essentially for free?

It's like subscribing to a porn magazine these days with the glut of free porn on the internet. Maybe a few people still read the articles but last I heard the Playboy mansions heavily mortgaged and Penthouse is bankrupt.

And all you hear in most games online chat is what next big thing is coming out, no matter what that thing is, everyone wants to try something new but that's a need that will never be sated. There will always be the next big mmo on the horizon and people will always drop to go try it out for a month or two before in all liklihood going back to where all they have the most entrenched community. You hear people all the time addressing complainers should go back to WoW in every games chat, which is largely silly as it deprives your favorite game of potential paying customers, but is also where a lot of gamers end up going back just because that's where they still have the most friends or where they are most familiar or known. You hear it all the time that so and so once big in the next best game out will no longer be updating their builds or whatever because they've gone back to WoW or {insert other games name here} and if you've built on a subscription model you feel that loss.

Quite simply I can't see any subscription model succeeding in this day and age. Niche games always maintain a player base as long as they keep appealing to their niche but most business models do not seem to view a small vibrant niche as a success and the wider market is incredibly transitory now.

You need to plan for that transitional gamer as most f2p games that succeed do now. Regular events and new content timed to continually bring people back to check on their games. You simply cannot count on people sticking with your game for a six month stretch anymore. You can count on an ebb and flow of interest. If you keep that interest lively and give people things they actually see as worth paying for to improve thier game experience whether they play hourly, weekly, or monthly they you will see continuous revenue. The amount of money individual players will sink into a game they only play every couple of months can be staggering as long as you're giving them the opportunity to enhance those few hours they play. Who cares if they stick around they whole month? Evidently you if your business model relies on that continuous monthly revenue, but in that case you're screwed regardless.