Vague Patch Notes: The difficult value of MMOs

Y'shjtola might be mad.

If given the option, I would probably get a lifetime subscription to Final Fantasy XIV. But the key word there is probably, and this is a game where I have spent lots of money over the years. It’d be a bit hard to convince me that there was some particular additional value to having a one-time lifetime price compared to continuing to just pay the subscription fee when it comes up… especially since, as a Legacy player, I already get my subscription cheaper than normal.

Yesterday was our annual posting about the best-value games moving into this year, and as always, that got me thinking about the very concept of how we apply value to MMOs. This is weird and has always been weird. It was weird even when you had basically one business model that consisted of paying money every month to get any access. It’s weirder now that the genre consists of lots of different free-to-play monetization schemes. And it’s always going to be weird because “value” is a fuzzy concept to begin with.

There are a lot of definitions of the word “value,” but the one we’re using when we talk about this stuff is pretty simple. It’s about getting what you paid for. If you gave a game $10 for an outfit, are you getting $10 worth of entertainment?

And the answer is that in most games, you definitely aren’t because you’re not really paying $10 for an outfit. You’re getting an outfit that you want and acknowledging that on some level you’ve been getting a lot of additional fun game for free, so $10 is an acceptable price for the fun you’ve already had and now you have an outfit as well. We all know this on some level, even if no one will actually say this because it breaks down the fundamental relationship between buying a thing and getting it.

In many ways, this alone makes MMOs a different value prospect from a lot of other things. When you go to see a movie in theaters (which presumably will happen again, maybe), you pay up front for a movie you probably haven’t seen yet. You don’t go to the theater, sit down for your film, and then later decide after the movie if you want to pay money for what you saw. Free-to-play games absolutely let you do that.

But the value gets even fuzzier when you realize that the games aren’t really transferrable things.

It makes you go.

There was a town my wife and I lived in once that featured two very good Asian restaurants, and it was quite the positive to have these two different places consistently fighting with one another over which one would produce the best Asian cuisine in the area. For those two restaurants, “value” was a very real proposition. You could choose to eat at either, and you could make the case that if one gave you more for the same price, that one was a better value than the other.

But the same can’t be said entirely for MMOs. There is nothing else out there like Star Trek Online. There are other games with spaceships, but even taking away the IP-based nature of the title, those other games simply do not feel like STO does. Its pseudo-naval starship combat is very unique, and as a result it’s hard to really make a direct value proposition comparing it to something else when there is exactly one option out there for loading up a Cruiser with beam weapons and opening up a nasty broadside.

It’s not unique in that aspect, either. Comparing the value for various MMOs means comparing not just one or two different elements along a couple of different scales, but comparing several wildly different business models, gameplay modes, approaches, and personal tastes across a plethora of different potential concerns. Maybe you have a VR setup and really, really want your games to support it. Does that make the games with better VR support a better value than ones with little to none? You’re looking down a pretty narrow list there, but is that the value of the game or the value of your VR setup?

The answer, of course, is both.

Oh, and let’s not forget ancillary concerns like how much a given game values your time or how well a game lines up with your personal playstyle and preferences, or your preferred setting conceits, art styles, control schemes, and personal affection or nostalgia for things. Not everyone is going to have my personal nostalgic attachment to the FFXIV series lore references or STO’s deep-dive into Star Trek history and setting. That’s going to also impact perceived value and interest, and it’s yet another area in which you can wind up with wildly divergent feelings about value.

Yum yum rocks.

This is one of the reason we have a list of these things. But it’s worth thinking about these questions yourself because they can mean a lot for your own spending habits as well as how you think about given purchases. That $10 outfit might not be as much fun by itself as a $10 game you could get on Steam. But have you paid no money to the game up to this point while still playing the heck out of it? Do you feel as if you’ve already gotten so much enjoyment that it should have cost you some money? How much is too much? How little is too little?

Obviously, the bottom line of companies that have opted to make a game free-to-play is not and should not be your primary concern when deciding whether or not you want to buy things. But realizing that the fundamental value proposition is inverted is something that I find illuminating because it puts a lot of other elements of the games and my preferred modes of engagement into perspective. Heaven knows I prefer to get as much for free from the game as I reasonably can… but I also recognize that if I take that far enough, the game will cease to exist because it’s costing money without making any.

And it means that value is a complicated proposition to analyze. There are a lot of games that have what I see as better business models than Guild Wars 2, but some of that also comes down to which of those games I want to play. It’d be unfair for me to criticize some elements of the game for being, fundamentally, based around value that I do not personally consider valuable solely because I don’t want it.

Value, at the end of the day, is personal. It’s a question of what you see as worth spending money on and how much you think something is worth. If you think a one-month subscription to a game to see a very small slice of leveling content is worth it, for example, then you’ve found what may feel like a value hack for you. For someone who’s looking for a new game to play for months, though, that’s almost entirely devoid of value.

As with many topics, this isn’t one where there is an ultimate conclusion so much as an observation that stuff be complicated, yo. And even if value seems like it should be a pretty easy proposition… well, it’s complicated.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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