Massively Overthinking: How much should MMOs cost in 2020?


MOP reader Castagere recently wrote to us with a nod to the growing sentiment across the gaming industry that might indicate a shift in the overall cost of a major AAA title. NBA 2K21, for example, is aiming to release at $70 on next-gen consoles, a big jump up from the $60 it used to run. Apparently, other publishers are thinking about similar prices, and if they haven’t done so yet, they’re surely contemplating what they can get away with now.

Obviously, NBA 2K21 is not an MMORPG whatsoever, but MMOs are certainly subject to the same market forces on both console and PC. And $70 seems like an awful lot of money for a single game. But then we’re in a pretty polar pricing world, aren’t we? A lot of MMOs are “free” or at least free-ish to a point, while others pull in hundreds or thousands per person in crowdfunding. I’m not really sure what an MMO should cost anymore.

So that’s our Overthinking topic for the week. All other factors taken into consideration, how much do you expect to pay for an MMO per month and per year? How much should MMOs cost the typical user here in 2020?

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Considering the differences in business models, I have my doubts that this shift in the “one game a year” sports genre will have much effect on the MMO genre. NBA/NFL/FIFA don’t have the luxury of optional subscriptions, nor are in-game cash shops a normalized expectation to my knowledge. Sports games, and other one-and-done games for that matter, don’t typically offer an expansion pack for sale every year, or if they do, it’s usually between one to three DLC and then it’s time to move on to the next major title or game in the series. MMOs have found ways to monetarily sustain the long-term server, data-center, and development costs. These are costs that short-term games do not have to subsidize. It’s like trying to compare somebody selling a product with somebody selling a continuous service. You can’t price them the same because the income/expense model is different.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Polygon called the $70 video game “inevitable.” I think it’s inevitable in the sense that the investors and execs who make tremendous amounts of money from the gaming industry will continue squeezing everything that moves as long as they can. How can the difference between $50, $60, or $70 matter all that much in an industry where the actual workers working on the top AAA games are still grossly underpaid and forced into brutal crunch over and over? It isn’t as if the extra money goes to those who deserve it. I wouldn’t mind paying $100 for a top game if I actually thought my money were helping solve the problem instead of buying some fat cat his fourth yacht while the companies dodge taxes and outsource jobs and abuse subordinates and sabotage unionization efforts. Like, I’m at the point that I just don’t even want any part of that hot mess going on in AAAs. I’m sure I’ll cave for Elder Scrolls VI and the occasional console game for my kids, but generally I’m a big salty “meh” on that corner of the industry. If I have to have it, I’ll just wait for sales – it’s not like I don’t have a whole hard drive full of games I have no time to play anyway.

But if I set all that aside, the reality is that very few games will actually be able to command that price, fewer still on PC and mobile where most MMORPGs reside, just as very few command $60 prices now, so little changes for our niche. Few MMOs charge that much upfront, meaning we actually get to play around in most MMOs before deciding that’s where we want to sink our cash and go ham with upgrades and cosmetics and whatever dumb things we’re buying to support the game and our habit. So I suppose to answer my actual question, I expect to pay a whole lot more than $70 for an MMORPG over time – just not up front – as long as the content keeps flowing too, and maybe even after it dries up, if I like it and the studio behind it well enough.

I don’t think anyone should be paying more than preorder prices, if that, for incomplete future games, however. But that’s another complaint.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): It’s always good to remember that video games in the 16-bit era were pretty expensive too: Chrono Trigger sold for $70! So if anything, it looks like we’re going back to an old norm. But I’m pretty confident that we’re not going to go in that direction with video games. My usual argument with a $70 game is that they’re usually games for the one-game-a-year crowd. And gamers who know their video games will usually find a better game for a better deal. It’s one of those “live-and-let-live” things for me. I’m not going to let myself grow any grey hairs over other people buying a game for $70.

I think it’s fair to charge for a $15 subscription with optional cosmetics. It’s not really smart to charge a subscription these days though, unless you’re WoW or FFXIV. When it comes to free-to-play, though, I’m all right with paying around the same amount per month. I mean, the game is already free, and if I like the company enough, I’ll bite. I don’t think prices for MMOs are really going to go up. Black Desert raised an eyebrow with me this week with the introduction of 180-day benefits pack. though. It basically combines all three of BDO’s subscription packs. While it’s obviously a discount, I’m not a huge fan of how BDO’s got three different packs combined, especially when some free-to-play games already have better service packs.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Honestly, for me it’s not so much “what should an MMO cost” as it is “what should this MMO cost?”

FFXIV, for example, has cost me $10/month (less, actually, since I buy long subscriptions) since the relaunch. Given the amount of time I’ve played, that seems entirely fair. If the game discontinued its legacy discount and told me that I would now need to pay $15/month, sure, that’s fair for the amount of content that is given out for free. For sheer value, I consider it well and truly worthwhile. Frankly, at $20/month, I’d consider it still a fair price for the patch cadence and quality level.

But then, this is one of those discussions we have had many times. Would you pay extra money per month to access servers with stricter controls on roleplaying behavior? Priority access to login queues? Would you pay a subscription to a free-to-play game to get rid of the bigger inconveniences within the game? At what point does this cost become prohibitive for existing players? More importantly, at what point does the cost become a barrier to entry for players who may otherwise be interested in the game?

Especially with free-to-play games ideally set up to extract an average subscription price from you over a year’s span of time, I think it’s hard to really register what something should cost, especially when you have games that charge the same subscription but deliver vastly different quantities of content. (The Elder Scrolls Online has a subscription and deals out more content with its rolling release schedules than World of Warcraft has managed all year.) So I think the broad strokes would be that an MMO should cost enough that I don’t feel the first three months are prohibitively expensive while I get a sense of whether or not I enjoy the game, but not so cheap that it doesn’t actually fund the game. I actually tend to think a pricier buy-in with less expectation of subscriptions/microtransactions is the way to go, categorically; it tends to feel less like you then have to pay money for something you previously were getting for free.

If all that seems a bit shy of actual numbers… well, a glut of games at lower prices in the market has basically destroyed any obvious comparison of value we could have in video games, and the rise of free-to-play as a model for persistent game has further demolished the idea of what we should be paying up-front which makes over-time prospects of value equally difficult. Sorry.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I don’t mind paying up to $50 or so for a buy-to-play MMO if I have the money to spare and feel confident that I will enjoy it. A $60 buy-in may be reasonable for a true AAA game that comes roaring out of the gate with tons of high-quality content (as if that ever happens).

I am comfortable with the $15 a month price point for a subscription. I might be willing to go as high as $20 a month if I really love a game, but I am far more likely to buy in at $10 a month. I strongly prefer the optional sub model at this point, as you find in The Elder Scrolls Online and Black Desert. That gives me some budgetary flexibility for those times when other expenses have to come before gaming.

I do sometimes buy cash shop items in games I know I will be playing for a while. I usually spend between 20 and 30 dollars on virtual currency at a time, buying the thing I wanted and then spending anything left over as I go. I buy only permanent items; I am not going to rent inventory space, a pet, or an outfit for a month. That feels like a waste of money to me.

I am, however, a notorious cheapskate. I recently canceled my New World pre-order at a mere $40, not because I think it will be a bad game but because I didn’t feel I could justify the expense at this time as I am out of a day job at the moment. It’s even harder to justify that expense when I am still enjoying games I already own and I have a huge backlog of free-to-play games I want to try out. I pre-ordered back in January because I thought it would be worth getting into the game at that price point. It will be a cold day in Hades before I pay $70 for a game of any sort, regardless of my employment status.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): As a person who never has had and never will have much money, price is actually a big deal to me. It is a top deal breaker. Many of my early games were gifted to me by friends who knew I couldn’t get them. Still, I have to weigh value when I purchase a game (or even if someone wants to get it for me!). If it is something I can’t see myself playing much at all, or plan to only do a couple of streams on it, there is no way I am paying even $10 for it. However, I took a gamble and bought The Secret World lifetime sub, while the LOTRO one was a gift, and those two were well worth it. I have also bought larger supporter packs for ArcheAge and Landmark ($100+), and I feel I got a great value from them.

I try to gauge it this way: If I think I will get some value — meaning enjoyment and time spent — then I will pay up to $20; and if it is a game I think I will really dive into, then I will pay up to $60. That seems to be my breaking point. Maybe it’s that amount just because the industry has conditioned me for it, but $50 is a natural break for me, and I can stretch it just enough to be $60 before it gets too uncomfortable. I also do not find expansions over $40 to catch my interest. If games were to hike higher, I don’t think I would look at them.

F2P games have a different scale. If it is one I spend any amount of time in, I like to support it with purchases, but those must be of permanent things, not temporary. I’ll buy cosmetics or pets or housing or inventory, not things that expire. Additionally, I have to keep those items under $10 or I’d hyperventilate! If it looks worth it, I will also buy expansions and DLCs for games I enjoy.

As for subscriptions, I have held subs at $15 a month, but I would be much more likely to continue one if it were $10 or even $12. (Even then, only one or maybe two games would get that honor, and I’d have to be playing for multiple hours each week.) The old Station Pass from Sony that gave me all the games for $25 was an incredible deal because I played two constantly and dabbled in a couple of others. That is the best to me and I still seem to measure things by that standard.

Tl;dr: If MMORPGs start popping out base games at $70+, I am out, unless it is a feature-rich, expansive sandbox game I would expect to spend the next year or more in for multiple hours each week.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I am a big fan of buy-to-play games. I think it gives the developers something for their work. But what that cost should be, that’s an extremely tough call right now.

When big AAA titles release they might have some bugs (or lots), we really do expect a certain level of polish from them. Gamers expect to shell out $50+ but then to sit and play through the game. Once they’ve completed it, they might wait for some DLC to purchase, but otherwise the game’s experience is done and we move on. I think a lot of people feel satisfied with that experience. We buy something. We enjoy it. We move on. The developers hopefully were compensated for their effort, and the whole ecosystem is pleased, more or less.

With MMOs, it’s much more complicated. We don’t expect the games to remain static. We expect growth and change and new content. Which means developers can’t create a game, get paid, and move on to the next job. Nope, they need to stay and keep working on the game. Which means they need to keep getting paid, which means we need to keep spending money.

That money comes largely from microtransactions now, but also from bigger purchases like expansions. So, now we have a more steady stream of cash flowing to the developers. But the games tend to not have the level of polish that our big AAA single player games do. It’s largely due to the level of complexity involved in creating a multiplayer world, but it’s still a fact. So, if we see an MMO launch with $50+ buy to play and also microtransactions? Lots of gamers will balk.

All in all, it’s just a tough one. For me to be comfortable, I’d need the cost to be closer to $30 to play. That should be good to experience a game’s story and elements. After that point, paid expansions and pretty gear will keep my throwing money at you.

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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