Massively Overthinking: Is the age of the $15 subscription coming to an end?

    
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Massively OP’s own Justin Olivetti penned a blog post this week in which he muses on the lifespan of the $15 MMO sub fee, arguing that it’s continued to increase in value without changing much. Monetization, on the other hand, has changed dramatically, as MMO companies, many forced to drop those fees thanks to hefty competition, had to scramble to fund their games some other way. He even notes that some games with subs – most notable among them Final Fantasy XIV – actually charge less than $15, while World of Warcraft is technically granting access to two quite different MMO experiences for the cost of one sub.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I thought it would be fun to revisit the old topic of the subscription in MMOs here in 2019, whether we’re talking about the last few sub-only holdouts or those games with more hybrid experiences like Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR. How much longer do you think the $15 model will still be around? Should more MMOs be exploring cheaper subs? And will that “15” go first, or will it be the concept of subs altogether?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think Ben made some good points about at least larger MMO studios possibly going with package deals on subscriptions for multiple MMOs. Smaller games and studios may even band together to pull off similar models, especially on consoles. However, for traditional PC MMOs that aren’t made by large studios, I can’t imagine subs having a much longer lifespan due to cash shops, even without including abusive lock boxes.

I’ve noticed mobile games, or at least the AR ones, having monthly deals that cost about what I’d expect to pay for a monthly sub. While gacha is often involved, specific units, currencies, or avatar items are often the key point, at least for me. What’s nice about these as a player is that I don’t get locked out of the game if I don’t pay, and if it’s something I really like, I can buy more… which is probably what the company wants too.

With a sub, at this point, I’ll actually avoid even trying a game because being locked into a deal would threaten my social priorities. I love gaming, but I know I can’t devote as much time to niche games if I want to physically meet people, though I also admittedly have long commute times to work.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): It does seem like it’s important to game studios that we keep it at that $15 mark. There are probably a few factors at play here. First off, people aren’t as dedicated to a single MMO as they used to be, so spending $20 or $25 a month doesn’t make sense for most. Entertainment options in general have gotten less expensive over the past 20 years. A $100 cable subscription has become a $15 Netflix subscription. Whereas cable/satellite used to target a different demographic than games, the demo for streaming services is essentially the same as those who count games as a means of entertainment.

Meanwhile, much to the chagrin of some MMO players, studios have offset rising development and maintenance costs with other streams of revenue like cash shops.

I actually don’t think subs are going away. If anything, streaming music and video (not to mention physical mail subscriptions like clothing and meal prep) have conditioned us to be more accepting of monthly fees for premium services. Whether $15 is sustainable as a price point for a single game remains to be seen. Perhaps a business opportunity would be a company that provides access to a bundle of MMOs for $20-25 a month?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Justin’s piece was already demonstrating that the age of the $15 sub is already at an end, just without coming out and declaring it so. As he noted, the two biggest sub MMORPGs have already deviated from that model, with WoW offering two entirely different games and XIV still undercutting the $15. Even looking to games like Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR that keep the number $15, there’s always something else to it – ESO, for example, grants such a large currency stipend as part of the sub that you’re not really even paying all that much for the access part itself.

This doesn’t bother me whatsoever, nor do I think it’s a bad thing – I’m glad companies are working hard figuring out other ways to monetize, and they aren’t all identical (or evil). I’m also a big fan of smaller subs in the $5-$10 range because they feel like less of a commitment; likewise, I didn’t mind the idea of microtransactions when they were really micro, when we were still talking about 30 cents for a costume part instead of $300 for a house.

So I think the “15” is already bent and twisted into meaninglessness. But I don’t think subs will ever go away. Ten years ago, the very-normal-to-MMO-players idea of a subscription was anathema to the mainstream gamer, but with more and more online services (not just games) going that route, I think everyone’s becoming more inured to it. It’s steady income, and most mid-budget games can’t live long without it. It’s not going far.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s time the subscription-only model died altogether. The subscription model, no matter how much content it gives you, is only a good value if you have lots of time to play. The MMO genre’s playerbase is aging, and many people who played 30+ hours a week back in high school now have a lot more responsibility, leaving them with just a few hours per week to play. The value of World of Warcraft’s subscription is leaps and bounds more than it was 15 years ago, but it’s less appealing than ever. And when there are other games out there that are, in my opinion, just as good if not better that don’t require a subscription, it’s time to rethink the sub model.

I think the subscription model is also bad for gamers and the industry as a whole. Many proponents of the subscription model like to point out that the free-to-play model encourages developers to make games with exploitative or bait-and-switch tactics, but they ignore the fact that the subscription model encourages developers to create games with time wasting tactics to keep players from progressing too fast so they subscribe longer. Also, call it FOMO if you wish, but I’m glad that I don’t have to be tied down to a single game for a whole month; I’d rather have the ability to dabble in a variety of games if I wish without the guilt that comes from knowing that my subscription time is ticking down, unused, elsewhere.

To be fair, there was a kind of a race to the bottom when the whole free-to-play movement happened, with a lot of games seeing huge growth at the beginning, but ultimately struggling to keep the money rolling in after a few years because they were giving away too much for free. But it’s hard to say how these games would have done — or if they would even still exist — if they had all stayed subscription-only.

Personally, I think that The Elder Scrolls Online has the best business model right now. You can legitimately play for just the box price without feeling left behind, so if you’re only going to play a little here and there, it’s a perfectly fine option. You can buy DLCs piecemeal and play them at your own pace. But if you know you’re going to play a lot during a given month, you can turn on your subscription and get a nice value for it, with a little more than $15 worth of premium currency, the unlimited crafting bag, and access to all of the DLC zones and dungeons for as long as you sub.

Games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV do quite well with their subscriptions, and while they can get it, it’s a great deal for the company. I don’t think that adjusting the price — either up or down — is worth rocking the boat for those games. How long that will be viable for any of those games is anyone’s guess; I thought WoW would have been forced to change its model long ago, but players keep showing up with money in hand, so good for them.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Here’s a weird take made partly because I do so love deriving weird takes: Part of the drive to free-to-play in the first place was the number of games sporting an endgame-with-a-capital-E. I’ve written about this before, but there’s a difference between “this is the stuff you’re doing when you no longer have levels to gain” and “this is a game wherein you do one thing while leveling and a totally different thing when there are no more levels,” a model that WoW embraced with vigor and numerous games hoping to copy WoW’s success copied much like iconoclasts getting rid of Constantinople’s religious imagery to cope with the rise of Islam.

For those of you who may not have gotten that historical allusion, that didn’t really work.
Of course, we’ve now reached a point wherein “free-to-play” is the default and most developers expect to seek alternative schemes for monetization. That having been said, I don’t think that we’re ever going to see the death of the subscription because the model is alive and well in no small number of regular entertainment services. It seems more likely that we’ll get used to either big box subscriptions (here’s your Blizzard subscription; enjoy all of those online games one of which happens to be WoW, akin to Daybreak’s existing options) or just optional ones for more “elite” access. Then again, I tend to subscribe to whatever I’m playing even if it’s just for a month, so I may be an outlier.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I think the subscription model is on the way out. WoW and FFXIV are exceptions at this point, not the norm. Charging a subscription hasn’t prevented those games from having a cash shop as it is.

When I played UO, EQ, and WoW, I subscribed to each game, one at a time, and didn’t think much of it. In 2019, I subscribe to three different video streaming services and a music streaming service, with more media outlets jumping on the subscription bandwagon every day, trying to get a piece of my paycheck. I have subscription fatigue. I don’t mind buy-to-play, but paying every month or being completely locked out of the game? No thanks.

Visionary Realms seems to be betting that people will pay a sub to play Pantheon. I hope they succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, and I will probably come off the money for it myself. It is one of the very small number of games I am anticipating with any kind of excitement. I think they may be painting themselves into a corner, though; their most devoted followers won’t tolerate straying off that path, and the rest of the market is moving in the opposite direction.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I think the sub only model will return, but in a different form than straightforward buy the box and sub. It’ll probably be something similar to Braxwolf’s sub concept.

We already see something similar with Xbox Game Pass which is/was required to play Sea of Thieves. I can also easily picture Google Strata and the new Apple game pass being early examples in this direction. Aside from the giant companies, I think the hybrid approach where you can play for free but if you sub you get more loot faster being reasonable.

I’ve only once subbed for a game. It was three or six months of FFXI. Having that regular cost coming out whether I played or not was too much for me. I put it and all subs behind me and I haven’t looked back since. There are too many good games out there, online or offline, to be spending in excess of $100 for a single game per year, at least for me.

Tyler Edwards: I doubt we’ll ever see subscriptions vanish entirely, especially in a genre that’s so devoted to holding up the past as some kind of golden age, but I do think it will continue to be an increasingly niche option. Subscription games that don’t also “double dip” with microtransactions will be even rarer. They’re already virtually nonexistent. A pure subscription model just isn’t economically viable for most games these days.

I don’t think monkeying with prices would make much of a difference; the issue with subs isn’t that they’re too expensive, but rather the way the effect game design and the fact that they assume a level of loyalty to a single game most people don’t have these days.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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flying_dutchman

The 15$ a month sub already has gone away…..

Inflation is a real thing…. The price of the dollar as lost something like 30% of it’s value since 2005 when wow launched. So your 15$ sub, is closer to 10$ in 2005 money.

You guys are saying most MMO’s are worth even Less than that? Well, your not 100% wrong, but I don’t think subs are going away.

Like you guys said in the article, lots of things are charging for subs now. It’s just matter of finding games worth the price. I think we’ll see them again. MMO’s have been in a down turn, but hopefully wow classic will hold onto enough player population to make the industry realize that not every MMO player is looking for instant gratification.

It would be interesting to see a second generation of WoW clones because WoW classic got popular again. Shame blizzard killed the census addons. Would be interested to see how long the players stick around.

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Bruno Brito

Ended for a while now. Games are not worthy paying a subscription because they’re complete shit.

The ones that are, endure. But the industry figured out it’s way better to nickle-and-dime their f2players than to make decent games worth paying a sub fee.

And if they can rehash old junk to sell like a new shiny with a 60bucks box price, they will ( looking at you, Archeage ).

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Armsman

“…Coming to an end?” — I thought you guys were supposed to be current on the MMO marketplace in that the age of the $15 subscription ended YEARS ago. The last people to really try it were BioWare and SWToR with their:

“Yes, we’re aware of the changing MMO marketplace, but SWToR will NEVER go F2P…” — que 6 months or so later…”F2P will be GREAT fro SWToR…”

TLDR: Yeah, the age of the $15 dollar subscription has been dead since 2012 or so.

(And yes, WoW and FFXIV do still use a subscription model, but WoW was always the outlier, and Blizard knows that it is what it is and they wouldn’t make more money converting to F2P OR they would have by now. As for FXIV, it too has soooo many subs, in addition to it’s cash shops and services model, it too wouldn’t see a revenue increase for the time and cost needed for it to go F2P.)

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Anstalt

You just have to match the business model to the game.

If your MMO has gone down the virtual-world route, and if it values community (which it should if it’s virtual world….) then subscription-only is the best business model. It is self-selecting, so all the freeloaders who would bring down the community don’t even join the game to begin with. The community stays higher quality, which helps increase retention. You’ll end up with a smaller community than f2p, but it’ll be more stable and long lasting.

For more normal themeparks and hybrids then a sub will only work if you get a massive community (which most hardly ever do) because you’re gonna need those subs to fund the development that justifies the subs……so you may as well go for a different business model, one more suited to the churn.

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Tim Anderson

^ This

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

I think all games should offer a sub with benefits like ESO, the steady stream of income helps WoW/FF14/ESO be more financially stable than a company like ANet with GW2 which relies on revenue booms from content releases.

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Witches

If that 15 a month was a necessity rather than just more revenue, we wouldn’t have all those rogue servers, that in some cases tell us exactly how much they need every month to operate.

If games gave players a financial goal for every month they would reach it easily.

This isn’t about sustainability, profit or even gigantic profit, it’s about always increasing your profit, if a game makes record profit this month, their goal for next month is making more than they did this month.

If subs raised to 50 instead of 15 i’d give you two months before people started saying 50 a month is pocket change and they spend more than that on dog food every month.

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johnwillo

Remember that the longer a subscription stays at $15, the less the customer is paying in terms of spending power. A $15 subscription in 2004 that adjusted with inflation would be $20.45 now. So you’re getting a 27% discount from your 2004 rate by continuing to pay $15/month today. (Sorry, I bored even myself with this post.)

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David Blair

I think Samon Kashani has the right of it. There’s a new type of subscription model in it’s infancy that’s starting to clear out traditional single-game subs and microtransactions.

We’re seeing it with both the WoW sub deviation and Apple Arcade.

I’m going to link an article here from Kotaku about Apple Arcade which is providing access to 70 mobile games (with no microtransactions or ads) for five dollars per month. https://kotaku.com/apple-arcade-is-mobile-gaming-without-all-the-bullshit-1838258655

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Lavayar .

^this
Microsoft, Playstation and other game giants launch their own subscription game libraries. And only time will tell when we will see MMOs in those libraries.

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Crowe

I’d argue that this completely depends on the game. From my perspective, neither the WoWs or FFXIV is worth a 15/month sub so their era (for that price) has long since passed for me. That said, I’ve played plenty of MMOs where I felt I was completely getting the value of a 15/month price. Heck, I’d pay that for CoH right now if it was an option.

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Brown Jenkin

Its weird to me that this is such a bizarrely divisive subject in some circles. Like people get really fired up about the growth of F2P and B2P games contrasted with the traditional sub model.

Personally my shift to F2P/B2P has everything to do with incentivization. I’m not 100% sure why, but traditionally sub model games have done everything they can to incentivize folks playing non-stop and they’ve gone hand in hand with endless vertical progression models. I’m pretty much done with that style of play. I love MMOs but I have other things to do with myself and am not interested in the 2nd job model of MMO design. In contrast the F2P/B2P approach has gone hand in glove (in many cases) with more casual approaches to the genre that I’m all about supporting.

I have no problem spending 15+ bucks a month on a game I’m enjoying, but I utterly refuse to pay for the privilege of having a second job.

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Vincent Clark

I disagree. I admit, I’m a FFXIV fan boy…but Square Enix (Yoshi P specifically) have gone out of their way to communicate the importance of logging off, taking a break, going outside etc and then coming back to the game when you are ready (even if that means you unsub for a bit).

But we also need to be honest with ourselves that the other half of this argument is about how we choose to consume the actual content provided.

It’s the job of an MMORPG to provide you with a variety of content and classes to level/play/enjoy. No one is forcing a gun to your head to do ALL the content and level ALL the classes (i.e. second job). We are the ones that treat MMORPGs like a second job. It’s a choice we make.

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Brown Jenkin

> It’s the job of an MMORPG to provide you with a variety of content and classes to level/play/enjoy. No one is forcing a gun to your head to do ALL the content and level ALL the classes (i.e. second job). We are the ones that treat MMORPGs like a second job. It’s a choice we make.

I agree and disagree here. Certainly it is a choice, but a part of that choice is the choice to play in a game/genre that rewards no-life gameplay. If you compare a game like GW2 and a game like BDO the difference is massive and I’d hope obvious to everyone. In BDO the more you play the stronger you are, this matters a ton if you want to do endgame activities or certainly PvP. The horizontal progression approach instead makes it so that people can genuinely enjoy the aspects of the game that they enjoy without pressure that playing the wrong way is holding them back. That’s a design issue.

kjempff
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kjempff

Agree that 15$ sub is not a great model these days.
However .. And this is the important part; f2p or more accurately shop based models, produce shit games generally. The evidence should be rather clear.
This is because shop based model changes the way game creators think about their games, and therefore their games change with it. From the core gameplay to details, everything is with shop and sales in mind; fun, depth, longevity, quality (not talking about graphics quality) and all these things developers should strive for, are secondary (nice to have) to creating desires and needs to spend in the shop.

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Brown Jenkin

I think I tend to agree with you about F2P games rather than completely B2P ones. Even though I’m not sure the B2P/F2P distinction is as huge as it used to be as games get older and cheaper. That being said, honestly I’ll take crappy shop models (as long as they aren’t pay to win) over the traditional model these days. Monthly sub is pretty much a disqualifier for me unless a game is magically hitting every one of my big expecations (literally nothing on the horizon even), wheras if a game is B2P or F2P I’ll give it a chance in a heartbeat so long as it doesn’t look like I’ll hate it.

I think that difference is what makes the B2P/F2P model so popular lately. MMOs need a player base, and we’re all learning how diverse that playerbase is in terms of interests. Convincing someone to chip in 15$ a month for a game they’re only sort of into is a much harder sell than it was years ago.