Massively Overthinking: How much should MMO subs be in 2021?

    
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MMORPG blogger Wilhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob has a fantastic piece up this month on the traditional $15 MMO subscription. He dips back into ancient history when the common subscription was actually $10 and then points out that the standard has been $15 for a really, truly long time, seeming “stuck” in that price bracket. Part of the reason for this, he notes, is that we’re all accustomed to tech prices falling over time, not increasing, so there’s a lot of pushback against raising prices in those few MMOs – usually either extremely old like Ultima Online or extremely popular like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. But in reality, the game companies have simply switched over to tacking on new and bigger fees in place of (or in addition to) the sub.

I thought it would be fun to riff on Wilhelm’s musing this week for Massively Overthinking, especially in light of the roundtable we just had on how much money we spend on MMOs every month. How much should MMO subs be in 2021?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It really depends on what that sub is supposed to do and how the game is being monetized. I was just thinking about how cash shops are understandable enough as a way to do revenue, but to add stuff into the gacha-pool really is gambling at its worst. The product isn’t just fake, but artificially rare, and requiring the player to dump real money into fake slots (whose odds can and are manipulated sometimes based on big data) is the epitome of a scam. To use those in addition to a sub is revolting. If you’re using paid gambleboxes, your sub should be $0. You forfeited your right to that cash.

If you wanna mix a cash shop with subscribing, $5-$10, depending on how fast you want to make content and whether or not you’re going to do game crossovers within your own IP. I’m looking at you, Blizzard.

But if you’re going to limit your expansions, update at least monthly with content, not bug fixes or skinned mobs, and keep cash shops out, $15 is fine. Heck, for the right game, I can see myself shelling out as much as $25 a month, though the game would also probably have to have a low barrier of entry (most likely free to play) in order for it to attract a large enough player base that my personal circles could get their own friends in and make more of a community.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m personally OK with paying a higher sub, so I wouldn’t mind subscriptions increasing – commensurately with developer wages and game quality, that is. But that’s not happening, so I see absolutely no justification to lift subs just to pad investor pockets a little bit more. That’s a hard no.

In general, I am more inclined to sub in the $10 range without even giving it any thought. Trove, for example, has a cheap optional sub, and even if I know I am only gonna log in for a few days, I’ll still pay it for the jumping. For other games that I know are going to nickel-and-dime me on a grander scale, I’m going to take all that into account when weighing whether the sub is worth it. It rarely is. On the flipside, there are some MMOs that really ought to add a sub with some perks – like Guild Wars 2. It’d make a lot more money from my family if it did.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Every time I see the word “subscription,” I think of a stack of sports illustrated magazines. But that’s beside the point.

I’m OK with subscriptions, but any company with a new game that comes out with a subscription is being damn bold if it think its game is good enough to justify one. But that to me is exciting; it communicates confidence and dedication. Will it fulfill that? I don’t know. Wildstar couldn’t. But if a game came out right now expecting a sub, I’ll do a three-month sub just to see what the dealio is.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m no economist so I really can’t say what price would appropriately adjust for inflation or other factors. That said, I personally feel comfortable with a sub price adjusting to $17 a month. It would, at the very least, make it easier for me to better consider whether a game is a good enough time for me to apply that amount of money towards it on a monthly basis; I’ve been in situations where I’ve been subscribed to a game without really realizing it, and I feel like a price hike to that point (or perhaps higher) would make me pay more attention.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Indeed, with more and more options out there and the fact that subscriptions aren’t the standard any longer, the price point needs to come down. I’ve long since thought that Final Fantasy XIV’s sub-$10 price point (for a single character) is a lot more on the nose than the long-standing $15 a month. I also love the very few MMOs that promote family subscriptions for multiple memberships in the same household. So let’s call it $10 and see how many more subs your game will get. You might very well make more money, since I think more people can mentally justify ten bucks rather than fifteen.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Subs are a bit of a hard-sell for me at the best of times. Mandatory subs (rare as they are these days) are almost invariably a no-go. I do sometimes purchase optional subs for games I’m playing a lot of, but even that’s not a super common occurrence.

So it may not be fair when you consider inflation, but honestly I probably wouldn’t pay more than $15 a month. However, one thing that might be interesting to see more companies experiment with is multiple subscription tiers. Maybe give people a choice of a $10, $20, or $30 subscription, with increasing perks. That could risk creating too big a gap between the haves and the have-nots, I suppose, but I know I might subscribe more if there was a cheaper sub tier, while others might be willing to pay more.

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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tentimes

$5 is the sweet spot. $15 just doesn’t make sense anymore.

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Anstalt

Obviously, there is no right answer, everyone is going to have different price points.

The studio needs to charge enough to make a profit so they can keep making games.

The publisher wants to charge as much as possible.

The player wants to pay as little as possible.

For me personally, I won’t play an MMORPG unless it’s sub-only. I’m a snob, I only want to play with other like-minded and motivated players, and that can only be found in a subscription-only game.

If the game is really good, I’d pay up to £30 per month…..but I’d need some sort of trial to ensure the game is genuinely worth it. If the game isn’t that good, or has a narrow focus, then £5 seems about right.

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Bannex

The answer to the question is based on the size of the team dedicated to running the game. I personally don’t think WoW does enough to justify a monthly sub along with full price xpacs and micro transactions.

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Bannex

I always thought if blizzard wanted to be the cool kid in town they should’ve dropped the sub requirements for 2020. That would’ve gone so far with gamers during the lockdown and afterwards.

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Arktouros

Subscription prices for MMOs are based on basically nothing. It’s all made up numbers and industry standards that people just do without thinking beyond their desire to pay that much money. It’s not like anyone ever actually did a calculation on what a subscription gives you then charges you with a modest markup.

Most MMO game subscriptions when directly compared to virtually any other subscription style service the value they provide is basically non-existent. If you charge a box price of the game, there should be no additional charges to access that content. Period. If you want that business model (charge for access) then the upfront cost needs to disappear.

That said, prices should be based on what’s being delivered to users. Are you dropping some hot new dungeon/mini area expansion that’d normally be a $15 DLC over 3 months? Great that’s $5/mo. Modest markup and server costs call it $7/mo. Want more? Then deliver more. ESO probably comes the closest to this model with it’s DLC/expansion style system. If it wasn’t for the virtually mandatory quality of life of the crafting bag the subscription could be entirely optional and it’d give users the ability to buy what content they want directly.

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Witches

Nothing.

My “current” MMOs are TSW and COH, one is dead but still more enjoyable than many live games, the other offers more and better content than official fully funded live games from multimillion dollar companies.

1€ or 1000€ a month buy you the same content unless it’s cash shop wares, if i’m not paying for more or better content what’s the point?

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Peregrine Falcon

I don’t have any problem paying $15 or $20 per month for a subscription. I’m not paying more than that. Yeah, inflation. You know what? The price of running servers has gone down 1,000 fold since 1999 and I’m not going to pay a higher subscription just so your CEO can write himself a $20 million bonus check. And it’s not like these gaming companies are going to actually give their rank-and-file a decent raise.

And if I’m paying a subscription I’d better not have to use a cash shop. The entire point behind paying a subscription is so I don’t have to buy things in the cash shop. Just thought I’d mention it since game publishers don’t seem to realize that.

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Cory James Hill

$5-10 USD at the most.

$15 appears too high to a lot of people, especially when streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, etc. cost $8-10 per month. For readers, Kindle Unlimited, Comixology unlimited sit in the same $8-10 price range.

Even though I can afford as many of these services as I want, I still cringe when yet another service is asking me to pay monthly – unless the cost is shrug worthy. For some reason when we break past that $9.99 mark, a subscription gets more scrutiny.

In my house, I also have to consider my 10-year-old because we game together. When the sub cost is $15 and I’m having to look at buying two of them, I’ll look elsewhere for cheaper game. At ~$20/ month for both of us to play, I don’t mind as much.

I have no problem with cosmetic item shops in any game, sub or no, as long as items of the same quality can be achieved through gameplay as well.

As a small business owner, I understand that these games have to make money, but they also have to be realistic about it if they want to bring in more players.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the QUALITY of the game matters to me. I’ll certainly pay a premium for a game that blows me away. I once paid $45/month for 3 accounts on Star Wars Galaxies ages ago because it was worth it. I haven’t really felt a an MMORPG was worth $15/month in well over a decade.

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Malcolm Swoboda

Selling other stuff? Go DOWN to $10 OR LESS. Not selling other stuff but you’re a lower quality game? STAY at $15. Not selling other stuff and you’re a higher quality game and consistently improves? RAISE to $18-20 is OKAY to me.

This will not be followed by any company.

EDIT: For me in Canada with current conversion rates, that does mean up to $25 a month. I’m okay with that if its my main game, or at least main ongoing game, and the game is served very well, with everything included in the game. Prices for expansions weakens my willingness, and cash shops partially destroy it. So I guess its better it doesn’t go up to $20-25, because of course there’s going to be double and triple dipping. Of course.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Admittedly the obscene wealth of people like Bobby Kotick or Tim Sweeney or even Markus “Notch” Persson, who transitioned seamlessly into the role of “rich a-hole” after selling Minecraft to Microsoft, argue against even sympathy for paying a dime more for video games.

Likewise, things like the fact that Steam add 10,263 new titles to its storefront in 2020 seem to demonstrate that the industry is not at all daunted by stagnate default pricing, much less the often complained about Steam Sales or the 30% cut Valve takes.

And the responses in this post, and the comments on it as well as on my own post, demonstrate not only an almost universal resistance by players against paying more and, instead, an insistence that we ought to be paying less for video games due to a variety of subjective feelings about value.

But if you go ask somebody like Raph Koster pricing, and he has written a number of posts on his blog about the rising cost of video game development, you might very well come away with a feeling that the situation is untenable. And yet, here we are.