The 50 Dollar Question


Something that’s long bothered me about new MMOs is their pricing. I know there are plenty of solid, free(mium) MMOs out there, from Runescape (biggest MMO ever!) to Free Realms and so on, but the ones that have always piqued my interest, for better or worse, are the ones that usually launch with $50 price tags. I know I’m a bit of a sucker for hype and blockbusters, so I’m doing this to myself, but even then I’m resistant to buy a new MMO primarily because of the $50 purchase price, which always precedes a $12 – 15/month subscription. That’s a lot of cash to outlay for something I may not even like on night two. I don’t think I’m alone in this aspect, either– why else are so many people hankering to get into betas, beyond the ability to squawk “first!” or write “nyah-nyah” blogs?

The justification for traditional pricing isn’t lost on me, even in the simplest terms…

  • MMO development can require exorbitant funding, and the best time to snag a bunch of cash in return is at launch, when the game’s new, relatively untested and able to command a $50 price. With the right hype and pre-release coverage, a lot of folks will pay that price and help the developer start to recoup cost invested.
  • Since a credit card subscription is required at the get-go, even with the first 30 days free, a consumer’s more likely to invest in a longer subscription if the price of entry was significant ($50) versus economical ($20). If you’re gonna go all out you better be in it for awhile and provide a chance to get the most bang for your buck.  (Some WoW tourists may do just the opposite, but that’s not my line of thinking here.)
  • And all that extra cash for the developer, in addition to paying off initial investments, is necessary to add new servers as needed and fund future patches and expansion development.

It all makes business sense, but that model is more for the business than the consumer, especially when the game sucks. Yeah, waah, welcome to capitalism. I know we’re likely to be burned by a bad game purchase, MMO or not, but MMOs are asking for more of your budget up front before you can spin around and resell it back to Gamestop (who buys used MMOs, anyhow?). This doesn’t mean death to MMOs on my behalf– I just want to be able to try them– post launch– more before I commit to them. I download demos of games all the time on Xbox Live and have been hugely grateful for that… why do I have to wait for an MMO to be a year old, or to start tanking, before I can get a comparable “free demo” offer on an MMO?

One good reason is that a demo for a traditional game doesn’t need to be very long to pull you in or at least sell you on what it has to offer. MMOs, by comparison, may require many hours before they start to shine, let alone you get a handle on their complex interfaces. And a non-beta, “free” demo does nothing to compensate, however marginally, all the cash that was needed up front to pay the artists, developers and managers that built the world you’re in, on top of the hardware costs. So how about another model– a lease to own?

I’d be ecstatic if Star Trek Online, to pick an example of a game I’m looking forward to, had two offerings for prospective consumers, and I’m not referring to the great pre-order bonuses the game already has. I’d like an option to enter a “leased” demo program, wherein I pay $10 to play the game for two hours, or until character level 4, whichever comes first. Once the timer’s up, so to speak, I have to pay another $10 for another two hours, or character level 8, $10 for the next two hours/level 10, up to five payments of $10 that take me up to the retail $50 price tag which, once I pay that much, I’ve essentially paid off the retail price and I go into the regular model of 15 – 30 free more days provided I subscribe for at least a month or two.

For me, this model seems like an attractive compromise– I can try out a game I’m interested in for a marginal fee, and if I like it, I pay a little more, and if I keep liking it, I end up paying for the whole thing. $50 for a ten hour demo may seem steep, until I compare it to a wealth of other quality console games that have about that much game time for $60 new. Plus, the carrot of further progression makes me not feel bad about another $10, but if I really don’t like something about the game in the first few hours, I’m out a lot less cash and commitment than I would have been otherwise. Plus, there may be a (perhaps small) decrease of folks crowding betas yet don’t actually contribute worthwhile input for beta testing, and the WoW Tourists can stop by and hopefully leave even quicker than they would have before.

Problems with this model would include a lower cash influx for the developer at launch, and may encourage the developer to front-load the quality and development time into the early levels of the game– but how many MMOs have we already played that do this? It’s to the developer’s detriment to front-load quality, anyway, as it won’t keep people around who feel ripped off.

As we march further down the timeline towards pure digital distribution, we’re certain to see a lot of different game purchasing models, even as we already do today, counting the aforementioned freemium MMOs, in addition to Guild Wars’ one-time price model and League of Legends’ freemium or one-time price choice. What works best for you? Would you rather keep it the way it has always been, or would you like something different, too?

1 Comment to The 50 Dollar Question

  1. Longasc's Gravatar Longasc
    January 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    This is exactly the reason why I won’t preorder or buy Star Trek Online right away. I am not in the beta and I have doubts about the game, and unless they let me try it or offer me a very cheap sneak peak I am not going to buy it unseen.

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