Yesterday I talked about my decision to purchase a lifetime subscription to Funcom's The Secret World and it seems that this topic has generated quite a bit of discussion both on my blog and around the MMO community as a whole. So I thought I would make a follow up post today on the issue of lifetime subs and MMO business models in general. I've talked about some of these issues before, mostly in the context of "free-to-play" or "freemium" games, but the concept of the lifetime sub has not received much attention. I think it is absolutely a discussion worth having because as much as we talk about the mechanics of the games themselves such as combat, crafting, PvP, etc., when you are talking about MMO's, the payment model is as vital a "mechanic" as anything that is actually happening within the game itself.
I Find Your Lack of Faith... Disturbing
As I mentioned yesterday, my primary concern with games that offer lifetime subs is that it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the product. If you think your game is good, why would you offer people a way to not have to pay for it after a given amount of time? This is why I would be shocked if we ever saw World of Warcraft adopt a "freemium" model or something like a lifetime sub. Blizzard is absolutely confident in their product and are sure people will continue to pay to play it over time. To offer a lifetime sub is essentially giving up long term profits in exchange for more money up front. Assuming TSW continues for more than a year, Funcom will not be making a dime off of me unless they can encourage me to make purchases from their online store, which I can tell you right now is going to be a hard sell. I have never purchased additional services from an MMO except for account services in WoW. I am not the kind of person who will shell out real money for a fancy mount or a spiffy looking jacket.
Another "flaw" in lifetime subs to me is that you are losing money from the people most likely to support you over the long term. Rohan made this point in the comments and I absolutely agree. Think about it, who is most likely to invest that kind of money up front in an MMO? Your biggest fans. Your best supporters. But also think about this, who is most likely to stay subscribed to your game over the long term and continue to provide those monthly fees? Again, your biggest fans. A casual player of your game is not going to be enticed by the prospect of a lifetime sub in the first place. He may buy the box. He may sub a month or two. But the concept of dropping $200-300 up front is not going to interest them. So in a sense, you are almost "leaving money on the table" by giving your biggest supporters a way to stop supporting you after a given amount of time. Yes I know, the cash shop is supposed to be the "answer" here as well, but that leads to another issue that TSW seems to have.
Double Dipping is a Party Foul!
Funcom announced many months ago that TSW would be a subscription game but feature a cash shop as well, so this is not a "new" concept. But it is a valid criticism of the game to consider this to be "double dipping." In their defense, Funcom argues that only "cosmetic" items will be offered through the store and no actual gameplay benefits. The information released with the pre-order announcement leaves this somewhat ambiguous. Among the pre-order packages are experience boosting potions and improved weapons. Will these be available for purchase through the store? Or are they package benefits only? At this point we cannot be certain, but it is worth pointing out that many other MMO's that offered pre-order benefits later offered those same benefits for purchase through their websites or in-game stores. So it would be a valid concern to say that at some point, gameplay advantages could be had through TSW's cash shop.
As a major supporter of subscription based payment models, this idea really concerns me. I truly believe that if you are going to charge a subscription, the developer is obligated to do two things. First, you need to have the ability to participate in all the content in the game. Nothing should be blocked to you without having to pay more. Now don't confuse this with guaranteed access to the content itself. I have no problem with "elite" content like hard mode raids, rated PvP, etc. And by no means is a developer obligated to give you an easy path to that content. What I am saying is that nothing should be inaccessible to you due to any kind of "pay barrier" if you are already paying a subscription. The second thing the developer is obligated to do if they are charging a sub is ensure that every paying player is on equal footing in terms capabilities. What I mean by this is, a player should not be able to purchase additional "power" if a sub is in effect. My sub should guarantee me the same capabilities as every other player. Again, what I do with those capabilities is dependent on me, not the developer. But another player's ability to pay more should not give them an advantage over me in a subscription based environment.
It feels like Funcom is trying to dip into every possible revenue stream here and in doing so, they are going to turn off people in each category. Subscription supporters will look at the cash shop and be turned off. Free-to-play supporters will look at the subscription and be turned off. And the lifetime sub option is setting themselves up for problems a year or so down the road when their biggest supporters are no longer paying into the system. It seems that this hybrid payment solution is leading to one inevitable conclusion... a conversion to a "freemium" model within a year to two years.
Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?!
So if I am so negative on lifetime subs, and if I can already see the writing on the wall of a "freemium" conversion down the road, why am I still comfortable with having paid what I did and get a lifetime sub to TSW? I will confess, I don't have a logical argument here. As I said in yesterday's post, it is somewhat of a leap of faith. I feel like my investment will pay off. Do I expect TSW to be hugely successful? No. Do I expect it to be successful enough to "pay back" my investment? Yes. Do I think it will be a fun game and a good use of my entertainment dollars? Yes. Could I be dead wrong? Absolutely. And if I am, you will not hear me coming back here and blasting Funcom and bemoaning my decision. I made a choice and I am ready to deal with the consequences of that choice. As I have mentioned in many posts, we are talking about games. We have to play what is fun for us. If TSW is fun, then every dollar I have spent will be justified, regardless of the critical feedback or what the "experts" think of it.
And speaking of dollars, again as a community if we truly want change, we can't be afraid to "waste" our money on something new. That is part of the reason I am still comfortable with my decision even if it does not pay off in the long term. I think MMO's have stagnated. RIFT and TERA and WoW and SW:TOR and all the other "big budget" MMO's of recent years are essentially all the same. They are all good, but like ten different flavors of chocolate ice cream, they have become tedious. The market needs to change, and to do that, different kinds of games need to be embraced. I am not suggesting that TSW is THE game that will bring about this change. It is simply the game I have chosen to support in this regard. We all have different opinions about the kinds of games we want to support and the kinds of change we are looking for. But regardless of our individual tastes, nothing will change if no one is willing to take a risk. My $250 is not going to "change the world" of MMO's, but it is the small part I can do.
I would encourage you all to do the same, for whatever you want to see in the future of MMO's, whether that is a game like TSW, or Guild Wars 2, or whatever other game has caught your eye. Take a risk. Encourage developers to take a risk. Otherwise we only have ourselves to blame when the market continues to give us the same rehashed concepts year after year.