Sunday, April 14, 2013

Scanbot Sunday - Payment Where Payment Is Due

Nearly every interview with the developers at PAX East included the question "What will the payment model be?" Carbine is not ready to talk about this yet, but they were very clear in the interviews that they are talking about it. Jeremy Gaffney said in the Wildstar Panel that the game has been developed flexibly to allow them to adapt and respond to the changing market.

I wanted to take some time today to talk about the different models that exist in the market today, some of the pitfalls and challenges with those models, and also how they impact design.

I am going to be looking at 3 primary models
  • Monthly Subscription
  • Buy to Play
  • Free to Play and Freemium

Before we get started let's first address the obvious: MMO's need money, it's a business. No matter what model is used that money has to come from somewhere. The question here is not about the money itself, but about the method of obtaining it. What provides the best experience for the player and what fits the design goals of the team and their vision for their game.

Monthly Subscription

The most classic payment model, makes sense to start here. Up until recently this was the only way to go. Under this model a retail box is sold for a standard market price, that purchase includes one free month of play. After the trial period, if you wish to play you will need to sign up for a reoccurring charge of the standard $15 a month. Discounts are usually provided for longer term commitments. Additional revenue is earned from occasional high quality cosmetic items and certain premium services such as Server Transfers, Character Name Changes, or Appearance Change. Large expansion packs featuring a large amount of content are released once every couple of years requiring the purchase of another boxed product, usually at a lower than average market price.
Advantages: For your monthly fee you will have full access to all game features. The limitations you will experience to your account are the same limitations that all players experience. When new content is added to the game all players will have access to it. Budgeting is simple because it's a set fee.
Disadvantages: Taking a night or a week off can feel like wasted money since it does not reduce your cost to play.
Effect on design: Free content updates are provided on a schedule. The primary goal of these content updates is to keep players occupied until the next content update is available. Measures of controlling speed of consumption are almost always included, such as limitations on quest progress per day or per week, or number of times players are allowed to kill a boss. The day to day in a game running this payment model is very predictable and effective. Frequently players know what is coming weeks if not months ahead of schedule, partially to ensure they remain active in anticipation.

Buy to Play

This could be said to be the classic model of most games. A retail box is sold for a standard market price. That purchase includes full access to all game content and a standard list of features. This access will persist as long as game servers are active. Revenue is earned through an in game shop that offers various perks. In almost all cases these are unique cosmetic options and various boosts (increased experience gain, movement speed enhancements, higher loot drop percentages) and a list of premium services similar to those offered in the subscription model. Additionally the store may feature unlocks to account limitations such as allowing additional character slots or increased storage space. In this model expansion packs are usually more frequent, smaller in content, and often available for a further reduced price.

Advantages: If you are satisfied with the base product this is the most economical model. Having the ability to choose which premium features have value allows you to customize how the money you spend effects your experience.
Disadvantages: If you are interested in having access to all premium features the costs can add up quickly. There is a tendency to add rare items with a high cost to the store.
Effect on design: Free content updates are provided on a schedule. The primary goal of these content updates is to get the attention of players who are currently taking a break. Frequently these will be limited time events with limited time rewards. These free updates always come paired with new items in the store for purchase. The day to day in a game operating this model can be altered when sudden changes are added shifting player goals for periods of time. The size and focus of updates will depend on their reception and their commercial success. If something earns dividends it will be repeated, if it does not generate revenue then it will not be repeated.

Free to Play

This model previously was associated with lower tier games or products that had a more narrow focus. Some full featured MMO's have started embracing this model and have shown great success. With a fully free game a box product is almost never produced. Sometimes a points card will be sold at retail outlets allowing the purchase of game currency with cash. The product itself is all digital. Revenue is entirely earned through an in game shop that functions very similarly to the Buy to Play model. In general the offerings in the store are more numerous and varied. Expansion packs take a new form in this model, they tend to be very narrow in focus and made available for a low buy in.
Advantages: Since the product is entirely free there is no risk in taking it for a test drive. You have the ability to customize your experience by purchasing the content you are interested in.
Disadvantages: Since there is no initial cost frequently all additional content is only available for a cost. Restrictions on standard features are common. The base product may feel incomplete for the advertised price of free.
Effects on design: New content will be developed as fast as possible and made available in small packages. There will be a real money cost for nearly all additional content. Features that have a proven record of sales will be the focus of future development.


This model is more like a addendum to Free to Play. Nearly all Free to Play games offer a subscription option. This usually costs the standard $15 a month that the subscription model uses. For this subscription fee the restrictions on your account are temporarily removed allowing full access to locked content and core services. Additionally a portion of your subscription fee is returned to you in the form of in game currency to be used in the store to access premium features.

Where it goes wrong

Every one of these models can be done well, and can lead to success. But it's easy to miss the mark and create a payment structure that players find unfair.

I personally find the Free to Play/Freemium model to be at the most risk for exploiting users at all ranges of investment. If restrictions are too limiting then players feel like they are being strong armed into a subscription. If too much content is outside of the subscription's benefit then players feel cheated on the investment they made.

That isn't to say that the other models have it easy. Charging $15 a month for everything comes with the risk that players don't feel that content is being delivered at an acceptable pace. Buy to Play games run the risk of providing too much temporary content that the established user base runs out of permanent content to keep them invested in the future of the world.


The game must stand on its content. If that content is delivered effectively and stands up to the quality of the initial product then it will be successful. There is a market for any well designed payment model that offers a sense of fairness between the player and the company.

In our current market I feel like Buy to Play is the most accepted model by consumers at large. Personally I'd be satisfied with a subscription fee. I've payed one for years and for a quality service I have no problem paying an entrance fee. If some sort of Free to Play/Freemium model appears, I will be extremely cautious, and nothing will scare me away quicker than the introduction of a lifetime subscription option.

What are your preferences? What payment models do you think have the best chance of success in the current market? What feels fair?  How would you design a model to suit the needs of yourself and your fellow gamer?

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