Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Can We Monetize MMO's Via DLC?

"The use of a free-to-play monetization model requires careful placement of your best content, what I call "carrots," on the other side of payment opportunities that I call "gates.""
 - "Game monetization expert Ramin Shokrizade", writing for Gamasutra
We've had a week to process the bombshell of SWTOR's sudden (albeit in development through November) planned change in business model.  Many of us, myself included, have thrown out roughly the same ideas about how the game's solo leveling story content was its best feature, while its endgame appears to be failing to retain players. 

For the sake of argument, I will assume Mr. Shokrizade means that Bioware should have monetized access to the story missions, which he calls the "best parts" of the game.  I was fumbling around the same suggestion a few months ago in light of rumors about a potential added fee for the game's forthcoming new planet - this seemed inconsistent with a subscription model, and I had assumed that they would not take the subscription off the table so early.  Could selling access to content throughout the game - perhaps on a planet by planet basis similar to LOTRO's model - really have doubled or tripled Bioware's revenues?

I'm not convinced for a number of reasons. 
  1. It would be hard to justify the $60 fee for the box if very little of the content were included.  While retail definitely ate a chunk of this revenue, we know that over two million copies were sold.  That's a lot of microtransactions. 
  2. Just as charging the monthly fee rewards players for finishing early, charging by the planet rewards players for skipping optional content or quitting outright if they're not loving the story.  Offering up opportunities to quit every few levels might not be in the developers' best interest, especially if you run into players like myself who struggle to find a class with both a good story and fun mechanics.  
  3. The real issue, though, is development costs.  Say that Bioware could have sold the base game with just the Act I stories but no subscription for the full $60 and charged some amount of money per planet per class thereafter.  This doesn't add up to much more than the revenue they get from their single player offerings and paid DLC, which cost much less to develop.  Further, adding more planets in the future may well be cost prohibitive (a theory that I suppose we are about to test).  
Alternately, Mr. Shokrizade may be implying that Bioware's mistake was developing this kind of game in the first place.  For SWTOR, we know that the subscription model did not pan out, and I stand by my initial reaction to the new plan - confusion about how a model which does not charge for story content fixes the problem of players beating the story content and then quitting.  (Tobold seems to agree.)

Meanwhile, for all the hype concerning the performance of Turbine's approach to free to play, which is roughly what we're discussing here, there are some signs that Turbine may be struggling with the sustainability issue.  We are seeing both point bundles and expansions bundled into larger and more expensive packages, while more and more power is added for sale in the store. That said, if the answer really is that we can't have games like SWTOR because there is no way to make them commercially viable, that's a pretty big disappointment for the future. 


  1. Yes, I've been wondering about Turbine's model. We don't really have any proof yet that anyone has an actual sustainable MMO monetization model (other than MUDs which are free and run by volunteers).

    "Payment opportunities" performs a bit of a piece of work with the english language. But the basic idea that people will pay for content isn't terrible. It's just been a fact of pretty much every game I've ever played that the base game has been by far better value than any later DLC. (LOTRO may be an exception to this because Moria was such a strong expansion.)

  2. The evidence for the existence of sustainable MMO monetization models would appear to be the sustained existence of MMOs. The MMO gamespace is chock-full of MMOs that use a basket of payment options from full subscription to only micro transactions, hitting a vast range of combinations of payment options inbetween.

    Many of those games have been running for years. How long does an MMO need to stay up before you call it "sustainable"? I'd have thought that once it's made back its costs and is producing an operating profit you'd have to say it has become sustainable. Unless there are a ton of companies out there running MMOs at a loss out of charitable impulses or stubborn corporate ride (and I believe there are examples of both, but not many) surely the sustainability of a whole slew of monetization options was proved long ago.

    Whether that has produced or will produced games that those of writing or reading hobbyist blogs would want to play is another matter entirely.

  3. "ride" should be pride in the above - grr.

  4. Whether that has produced or will produced games that those of writing or reading hobbyist blogs would want to play is another matter entirely.

    ROFLOL! I think I'll take this and copy-paste it into one of those read-only, non-erasable special files... ready to be pulled out when needed. Can I? I'll add a (c) Bhagpuss, promised!! :)

  5. I think starting as a sub fee game and then switching to FtP is the new norm for MMOs with high production values. You get to consume your cake and also possess it. Why leave all the money you could get from early adopters buying boxes on the table? Then a few months later, you switch to FtP and get to trumpet to the world that your revenue "doubled or tripled" compared to the meager subs you were getting once all the tourists left.

    As far as sustainability, I think we have plenty of evidence that the DDO/ LoTRO/ Wizard 101 model is sustainable. They are all still live, well populated, and putting out new content at a steady clip.

    Bioware is likely shooting itself in the foot by giving away their 1-50 leveling game for free. It's the only part of the game that is noticeably better then most competition. If you want to PvP or go raiding, there are better games available for that. I doubt a ton of customers are going to pay for access to that in SWTOR.


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