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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Subscriptions vs Microtransactions

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

Wars of Religion, Redux

The argument between subscription and microtransaction (MT) proponents reminds me of the old PvE vs PvP debates years ago. Each side had passionate proponents. Each insisted their approach was better than the other side. However, business realities encouraged game developers to create titles that supported both PvP and PvE, although typically one must be emphasized (for example Warhammer emphasizes PvP while Conan emphasizes PvE).

Some people believe that MT is already the victor. However, cogent cases are still made for subscriptions. The always insightful Eric Heimburg has interesting arguments in Don’t Throw Out the Subscription Model. He argues that MT-based games require game operators to ignore the majority of players in favor of the minority who actually pay. However, looking under the hood at MMOs like Silk Road, Rappelz, Perfect World, or Runes of Magic reveals that the benefits of using MT-acquired items requires a deep understanding of the game’s systems. To land those wealthy MT-spending “whales”  the game casts a wide net of WoW-ish gameplay, hoping enough players stay long enough to learn the game well enough to buy things.

Another plus for subscriptions is their relative simplicity. Simply performing a microtransaction can be a gigantic headache. A player must alt-tab from the game to a website, there the player must jump through various credit-card or paypal hoops to buy “Diamonds” or “Silk” or “gpots” or “Zen”, only to find that can’t be used for anything obvious like a coveted +5 fire sword. Instead the player must alt-tab back in the game, figure out how to recover the recently purchased diamonds/silks/gpots/zens, take them to the auction house, sell them at a constantly floating rate for game gold, then exchange that gold at another constantly floating rate for the +5 sword. If it’s still there. So much for instant gratification, or even simple understanding.

On the other side. MT proponents justly point out that players are ready, willing and able to spent more than $15/month for a better gaming experience. Especially if this helps them look cooler, do better or advance faster. If the game operator isn’t ready to fulfill those desires, gold-sellers will happily take up the slack. The business logic is impossible to refute.

From a game development standpoint, it is much easier to design a game for MT at the start than to add it afterward. Retrofitting MT into a game designed for subscriptions is possible. Alas, getting a subscription-oriented design department to perform the necessary rework can be a hopeless endeavor, not to mention the potential for customer revolt. In fact, as any significant play of Asian MT MMOs will reveal, even a game designed for MT can have difficulties.

A New Peace of Westphalia

In 1648 after more than a century of religious persecution, bloodshed and depopulation, Europe ended constant Catholic-Protestant warfare at Westphalia. How? By setting up a system where both sides could peacefully coexist. In MMOs, it’s simply a matter of time before the business side forces designers to make subscriptions and MT coexist. There are hints of this in Free Realms. Like PvP and PvE, there is no reason why both can’t exist. The design tenants for such an accord are as simple as those at Westphalia. Of course, like Westphalia, there are a million nitty gritty details just as complicated as the various territorial realignments of 1648.

Personally, I am all for making MMOs as profitable as possible. Otherwise I might have no games to develop or play. Therefore I advocate a Westphalia for subscriptions and MT as soon as possible. Here’s my vision for it:

(A) Design games so that in-game gold can be purchased with real money without disrupting player advancement or core gameplay.

(B) Design a subscription plan that is a superset of the MT system.

(A) Design Adjustments

New game designs are already simplifying the MT purchasing system by eliminating intermediary limited-use currencies. Players can now buy the main game currency, the in-game gold. Better still, when the game operator sells gold they will eliminate black market gold farmers and sellers. This is because it costs the game operator nothing to “coin” more gold, while the gold-seller must pay farmers to “harvest” gold.

Of course, directly selling gold in-game does require design adjustments. Some items critical to advancement must be unbuyable. Acquiring gold can no longer be a factor in character advancement. But after all, shouldn’t XP, skills and levels be the proper “currency” of advancement? Didn’t WoW prove the value of limiting advanced equipment to characters of a higher level? Challenge the design team to create a game where a filthy-rich level 40 warrior (who spent the max on the best stuff) can enjoy grouping with a poverty-stricken level 40 priest (who spent extra time grinding or crafting to get equivalent equipment). Why even try to “balance” in-game economies that are inherently hyper-inflationary? Instead, make sure the fun and pleasure of the game don’t depend on how much wealth players have. The original design of City of Heroes and City of Villains is a great example of how to do this.

(B) Subscriptions in an MT World

Most MT systems have “package deals” where a player gets extra and/or bonus items for buying a higher dollar-value package. It’s simply good business sense to codify these “packages” into a “recurring monthly package deal” Of course, this “recurring monthly package deal” must be too sweet to ignore. Anyone who enjoys the game and has the spare cash available will want to get this deal. This makes MT a way station on the road to subscriptions.

How to make such a deal lavish without unbalancing the game? Does the game requires players to use ammo and/or heal pots (like Silk Road)? If so, offer players 30-day access to a special NPC with unlimited, free, non-transferable stacks of ammo. Character inventory limits still apply, so profligate shooters will need to return for their free reloads. Next throw in a non-transferable 2x experience multiplier potion that lasts 30 days. On top of that, give the players 500x their current level in gold pieces every 30 days. Oh, don’t forget to give players a few non-transferable pots of a unique clothing dye so they stand out from the crowd.

The actual deals included in a “recurring monthly package” will vary from game to game. Obviously it’s best if the game is designed around this possibility from the start. This maximizes the chances of players moving from F2P to MT purchases to recurring purchase (subscription). Even that isn’t the end. Remember to preserve a few reasons for subscribers to make MT purchases.

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4 Responses to “Subscriptions vs Microtransactions”

  1. Dennis Sustare said

    I understand your logic from the game business perspective. However, as a player, I have no interest in playing in an MT environment where certain RL rich people will always be immensely more powerful than me. I’d rather just move to another MMO where that is not the case. I have no problem with MT for personal adornment alone, but where it directly affects gameplay, it is just not for me. I’ll spend my dollars in the real world instead of the virtual world, in that case.

  2. […] Subscriptions vs Microtransactions […]

  3. Stabs said

    “However, as a player, I have no interest in playing in an MT environment where certain RL rich people will always be immensely more powerful than me.”

    Let me give you an example of such a game: WoW at the time of Naxx40.

    The top raiders were raiding 6 days a week and long into the early hours each night. Consumables stacked so most of the bleeding edge raiders had a string of potion buffs as long as your arm. Moreover most bleeding edge guilds were on servers with a lot of other very competitive raiders and the zones that spawned needed herbs were heavily camped. Repair bills were very heavy and raids wiped all night long.

    Even paying your repair bills required hours of farming let alone providing consumables.

    For most people who were that into it the solution was to buy gold from gold farmers. Of course players who could play full time could herb all day and wipe all night.

    For most players you simply couldn’t operate at that level unless you could play full time or were buying gold.

    I just think it’s interesting that when people say I’d never play a game where rich people have an advantage they forget that WoW was like that. And of course there’s Eve and its plex system.

    • Gareth said

      But for WoW players who buy gold they can (in theory at least) lose their account unlike in a RMT game, so I wouldn’t say real life money was a direct advantage there. I say in theory as I’m suspicious there how so gold sellers can thrive in a digital environment where everything is recorded, I can only assume that Blizzard have decided that pursuing gold sellers heavily is not worthwhile in revenue terms.

      For me I’m totally against buying power with real money, and so any money trading game is a no go, there are several personal reasons, while not an RPer it does break my immersion to know that XYZ item costs real money, and also that playing more costs me more.

      In EQ2 (that I play) there is the station cash though, on one hand the fluff appearance items I’m ok with, I’d even buy some myself if I saw something I liked. But there are also pots that increase your XP gain for a set period, ridiculously expensive for the meagre benefit but in a perfect world I’d get rid of these.

      Long term, even if a real money game had the same or lower cost as a subscription game, I’d be suspicious because of the way that RMT games encourage the developer to alter the game to increase revenue. In the case of EQ2 there is a risk that a decision will be made not to make XP gain easier when for gameplay reasons it makes sense since it could harm their RMT sales, in this case I’d expect the bulk of the subscriptions revenue to guide this decision, but its still there as a conflict of interest.

      While in comparison subscription games encourage the developer to only do things to keep hold of the player, a subtle difference and one that long term I think will keep the big money coming from the subscription model because the games will be better quality.

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