Monday, January 14, 2013

The Cost of Per-Hero Games

The Marvel Heroes "free to play MMO Action-RPG" is rolling out pre-launch prepurchase offers that include a $200 "Ultimate Pack" for access to all heroes and costumes announced for launch.  Traditional MMO's with a premium package this expensive have typically had to throw in a lifetime subscription. In the case of Marvel, the pack is very clear that it does not get you anything beyond the heroes announced for launch (some of which have since been delayed but will be included in the pack when they are completed).  Instead, they are marketing the $200 as a discounted price - "a $750 value" compared to what it would cost to buy the characters individually.

The sub-$10 character
Looking at Marvel Heroes' cheaper pre-launch packs, individual heroes are bundled with some costumes and exp potions for $20, but my guess is that you will be able to get your characters for less than the psychologically significant $10 price point to encourage impulse purchases post-launch.  There seems to be broad consensus around this type of price point across a variety of other games in a variety of genres.  A few examples:
  • Champions in the MOBA League of Legends
  • Mechs in the mech-based FPS Mechwarrior Online
  • Heroes in the Warhammer Online Spin-off MOBA Wrath of Heroes
  • Most monster player classes in LOTRO (free to those who take the optional subscription)
  • Premade PVP "legends" characters in DCUO
  • The $9 action figures that grant access to DLC characters in the popular Skylanders console game series
We live in an era of consumer objections to cash stores in MMORPG's and DLC's in console games.  In this context, it's remarkable how much customer acceptance there appears to be around business models in which companies sell access to individual pre-made characters for $5-10, even when this bumps the cost for access to the entire character roster into the hundreds of dollars. 

What you get for the money
A big part of the secret may be that you are getting something comparatively tangible for your money.  If you are playing the Marvel MMO then maybe it is worth $10 per head for you to pick up all of the Avengers who appeared in the movie.  Even the cosmetic costumes are potentially meaningful when you look at long-standing characters who have been depicted in dramatically different art styles over the decades.  Like DDO's paid content packs, it feels more rewarding to pay something to get something, compared to the model in various other games that charge players to remove restrictions that are added to make non-subscribers want to pay. 

This particular model isn't broadly transferable to traditional MMO's because our genre has focused more on vertical progression using a single character.  Games like Marvel Heroes that were designed from the ground up to take advantage of non-subscription payment methods also have a big advantage over MMO's that were designed for a subscription, only to be revamped when the market refused to tolerate that model. 

Even so, I find the concept vaguely compelling and perhaps even promising.  Most of the evidence from the last few years calls into question whether the prices the market is willing to pay are sufficient to support the development of the traditional MMO content model.  Meanwhile, here is an alternative in which studios are putting out regular, sustainable updates that customers are actually happy to pay for.  It's certainly not perfect, but it beats going out of business. 


Stabs said...

Dan Ariely, the behavioural economist, talks sometimes about how consumers depend on notional norms to decide whether a price is fair.

For example I think a cup of coffee in a cafe should be about 50p. Starbucks over here charge about three pounds. If someone who is used to Starbucks comes to the local cafe with me they may feel uncomfortable, that the coffee is too cheap and therefore probably substandard and wish we were in Starbucks instead.

The danger the games companies have created for themselves is that they have fixed the sub experience as the norm. Playing free to play in many of these games feels like the cheap and nasty version. But of course it's not worth a sub either - if it were worth a sub it wouldn't have gone free to play.

It's just a bad way to market a product and we will see more and more alternative pricing strategies. The days of sub being the top experience and cheaper options are numbered.

Bhagpuss said...

I'm quite looking forward to playing the Marvel Heroes game. The chances of me spending any money in it are vanishingly small, though. If it's "free to play" it will, presumably, have some heroes available at no cost, otherwise you couldn't play. I'll just play those.

I do agree, though, that "pay something to get something" is a far more attractive proposition than "pay to remove restrictions". It's a rare day, though, that I found there's anything I want to pay for. I haven't spent a bean in the GW2 gem store yet, for example, and I've played the skin off that game for mopnths. I might, just might, buy an extra bank slot, but really I've found the discipline imposed on me by limited storage space actually improves my gameplay experience. As for extra character slots, I bough ta second account in the first week so I'm covered on that.

The Marvel Heroes model seems more akin to a collectable hobby than an RPG/MMO hobby, anyway and collectors are notorious for paying through the nose for things that have no extrinsic value beyond their collectabilty.

Green Armadillo said...

@Bhagpuss: There are indeed free heroes, and supposedly there will be some way to get more as (presumably rare) random drops in game. It's also somewhat possible that specific heroes are largely cosmetic.

Each character will have a unique ability and a pool of shared abilities with other similar heroes. Characters are listed on the website by their primary stat (out of five total) and whether they are melee or ranged. The five free characters and their stats are:

Daredevil (Agility Melee)
Hawkeye (Accuracy Ranged)
Scarlet Witch (Will Ranged)
Storm (Energy Ranged)
Thing (Strength Melee)

One of the announced post-launch characters falls outside those five combinations, but it's very possible that free players will have everything they need to play the game. That said, this game is by many accounts a Diablo clone, with the license as a primary selling point. If you have chosen this game over the action RPG competition because of the license, perhaps it is worth $10 to swap out your free Daredevil with a paid Wolverine "costume", even if they are functionally similar.