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The Development of the Subscription Model in Light of the Latest Releases of Popular MMORPGS

CalvenCalven AarhusPosts: 151Member

With the debate surrounding Elder Scroll Online’s announcement of an Imperial Edition and Explorers Pack and the contents of these I’ve found this to be a perfect time to reflect on the history of a genre we all love and, perhaps, love to hate. I see no reason to hide what my agenda is about, although I’m certain many of you have already guessed it. I have long been worried by the development we’ve seen taking place before us for some years now and it is of course my hope that my writings may spark some critical thinking of the mentioned development.

I’ve been a supporter of the subscription model ever since I began playing MMORPGs, although I was at first against paying a subscription. Up until then I had ever only purchased a game and when this transaction was made, when I had paid for the disc(s), I could enjoy the game in all its glory. The idea of paying a monthly fee seemed odd to me. No other games demanded payment for constant access to its content. When, however, I was told that subscription fees covered not only maintenance of servers but also the production of future content I was satisfied and paid the money. I never encountered any additional expenses, at least not until the release of expansions. These expansions contained content beyond what was normally introduced through patches. In fact, many had so much content that they could have been a standalone game themselves. I had no quarrels with these expenses, considering the amount of content exceeded many standalone games. Even in single player titles expansions were purchased and I find this to be perfectly natural. After all, as many on these forums agreed upon, people should be paid for their labour.

At this time I also encountered the opposite model. The free to play, F2P, model. Although I’m no fan of it, it cannot be argued that it has its merits. This particular model allowed me to freely access the game and play without paying. This, of course, required the developers to find other sources of income. After all, a game is a business to some while enjoyment to others. F2P put restrictions on some of its content in order to generate money. If a player wants to advance beyond a restriction he is required to pay a fee. By paying for said content he advances beyond those who do not pay. This is only fair! After all, a game needs money to continue development and to exist and this form of cash shop, as it came to be known, allowed players to pay for what they wanted. In some cases, the locked content included items that was more powerful than the items obtained in the game. from this arose the concept of Pay to Wind, P2W. The idea is that someone pays more money than others and gains access to a bonus that cannot be matched by those who did not pay for access. This creates a power gap, providing those who paid with advantages that could alter the game play. P2W has been criticized for destroying content such as PvP since those with more money could acquire more powerful items by purchasing them with real life currencies. Thus, those who cannot pay, or simply refuses, will be at a disadvantage. But the primary idea behind this is the concept of ‘pay more, receive more’ which can be said to be fair, since those who pay also, in a sense, pay for those who do not (They keep the game alive).

A subscription game eliminates these disadvantages. When everyone pays the same price, and the same monthly subscription, they also receive the same access to content and everyone keeps the game alive. Everyone gets equal access, thus eliminating any form of P2W from taking place. The only factors setting the players apart are time invested and possible skills. The subscription model, P2P, and the F2P model became opposites because one requires a monthly fee for the players to access all its content, while the does not require any fees unless you wish to access particular content.

The emergence of Cash Shops in subscription games was suspicious. It was certainly something new in a game you had paid for, let alone in a game where you paid for both the box and a monthly subscription. Previoulsly, games had been ‘yours’ upon purchase. You could play it through and, most often, locked content was unlocked by completing specific challenges. An example of this is Super Smash Bros 64, where several character could be unlocked by beating the game on a particular setting. I’m sure most of you have experienced this sort of locks and unlocks. However, these cash shops intruded upon the idea of a subscription model where you had not only paid for the game but was provided with service and content in exchange for a monthly subscription. How come you had to pay for something that was covered by the subscription? At first the shops only contained practical services, such as server changes, renames and the likes. Some would say that these should also be covered by the subscription, while others say they shouldn’t. Whatever stance you take, it is worth considering a few things. None of these provide you with an advantage and none of them takes place ‘within the game’. They are services that extend beyond maintenance and content. As such you can claim them to be fair. The development took a new turn, however, when vanity items appeared. Although these items never provided the buyer with any advantages they did, however, reserve or ‘lock’ some of the content which, and here my position becomes obvious, I believe was covered by the fees I paid. This was a merge of two different payment plans, where I paid for the access to all content through a monthly fee, but was still excluded from particular items or contents unless i paid additional fees. I had never experienced this before. Previously, I had paid for the game and any locked content was supposed to be unlocked by playing, not through spending more money (at least not until the release of an expansion). Perhaps the idea of locking some content away by a pay barrier wasn’t conceived back then, perhaps the means to facilitate such practice was not established. The picture I’m trying to paint is this: The standard model of the gaming industry was that upon purchase you had procured the right to play the content they had developed. When they developed new content they released an expansion which you also paid for. But paying for a game and then having to pay extra for locked away content was something rather new.

The subscription model was a way to avoid this, although it wasn’t conceived to do so. But it functioned as an Employer/Employee relationship. The players funded the continued development and the developers, well.. they developed. The sudden appearance of content outside the subscription was unheard of. The employee, developers, had created new content, without the ‘consent’ of his employer, even though he was paid to do other content, and now demanded extra salery. The Analogy isn’t the best, but it illustrates the relationship between the players and the developers. We fund them, they develop. Therefore, we have a say in what should and should not be developed. After all, developers who design a game in a specific way and doesn’t listen to the demands of it’s playerbase will quickly shut down when no one wants to purchase their product. Unfortunately, as I believe it was, the ‘employer’ accepted the demand for extra salary, and thus the cash shop was introduced into the subscription model.

There was some demands, however. The shops couldn’t sell items that could alter the gameplay, making someone more powerful or set them significantly apart from other players by spending real life currencies. This was honoured, to some degree. Soon exclusive items were introduced, as you all know. Mounts, weapons and other similar products. Some provided slight bonuses while others were similar to in-game items. Now, here I believe several ‘bad’ things happened. By allowing players to obtain in-game items of equal quality by paying money you essentially obliterated the purpose of gaming, namely to achieve by your own hands. Suddenly players could save in-game money by buying mounts for real life money, establishing a gap between rich and poor, both in-game and in real life. Those with more money in real life could use them to gain an advantage by buying items of equal quality and thereby saving money in-game which could be used elsewhere providing them with a purchase power unmatched by those who had to spend in-game gold on mounts. The differences may be of small significance, but nonetheless important to observe.

All this effectively eliminated the purpose of subscription models. I have encountered some who referred to this model as being ‘socialistic’, which is simply untrue, and I will gladly provide evidence of this if you so desire, because they believe it to demand equal distribution of goods. This is not the case. The subscription model was to provide everyone with access to the same amount of content at the same price. No one could pay for advantages. Everyone started out the same. The same goes for all single player games. You wouldn’t pay for a game to give you weapons that could easily destroy all enemies. Doing so would only destroy the purpose of the game. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly popular to include items that may ‘boost’ your gaming, allowing you to overcome challenges much easier or provide you with exclusive access to restricted content.  This leads to the much debated matter of pre-order perks and bonuses. Here, again, I will not hide that I wholly reject and detest the idea of providing anyone any sort of in-game items by spending extra money. More so at launch.

Pre-order perks and bonuses have also changed dramatically over the years, just like the cash shops did. I have gathered the IN-GAME ITEMS (only) bonuses from some of the popular games’ Collector’s edition when they were released:

2004, World of Warcraft: Exclusive in-game pet

2003, Star Wars Galaxies: Exclusive in-game wearable: The wearable will be three types of "eyewear." Note that we do not currently have any other eyewear in the game, and these wearables cannot be traded, so they're exclusive to those who have the Collector's Edition. These will help identify the in-game character as being one of the first in the game.

2004, Everquest 2: None in-game items (I had trouble finding this one so if anyone knows of any in-game items please post a link to it)

2004, Lineage 2: No in-game items

2005, Guild Wars: A Divine Aura (An aura that displays your profession when you emote)

To keep the length of this thread shorter I will jump to newer releases. (Eve online released a CE back in 2003. I was unable to gather any information about its content. Please post if you know and can provide link)

2011, SWTOR:

  • Flare Gun: Fire flares into the air

  • Training Droid: Hovers at your side for combat assistance

  • HoloDancer: Project your own holographic dancer

  • HoloCam: Keep visual records of in-game adventures

  • STAP: Sleek and unique in-game vehicle

  • Exclusive Mouse Droid: Spunky Droid to join your adventures

  • Exclusive Collector's Edition Store: Unique in-game vendor with an assortment of items

2012, Guild Wars 2:

  • The Golem Banker which provides unlimited access to your account storage for five consecutive days

  • The Chalice of Glory, a one-time-use item that will add a set amount of Glory to your account

  • The Tome of Influence, a one-time-use item that will add a set amount of Influence to your guild

  • Miniature Rytlock

  • Summon Mistfire Wolf Elite Skill, an elite skill that summons a Mistfire Wolf to fight alongside you

2011, Rift:

  • Ancient Tartagon Mount: Available at level 20, this turtle mount increases player speed by 60%

  • Collector's Satchel - Increases the size of your primary backpack to 24 slots

  • Bogling Wastrel - This unique pet sets you apart from the other Ascended

2008, Age of Conan: The Ring of Acheronia (exclusive in-game item),The Drinking Cape (bonus in-game item)

2012, FF - Realm Reborn: Helm of Light, Coeurl Mount, Behemoth Barding, Baby Behemoth Minion

I’ll keep it at that. It’s clear to see a drastic difference between the games from then and now, and I’ll hope any readers will research this matter further.I believe there’s a general tendency to award players who spend more to get more. Some would argue that such business is only fair, and I would agree in many other circumstances. The issue at hand is that the subscription model does not support this. Furthermore, if I may be so brave to say so, gaming does not support this. Some of these bonuses eliminates several obstacles along the way. Your adventure becomes easier and you miss out on some of the most rewarding moments. Getting your first mount, as an example, remains to this day a great memory of mine. Saving up to buy and then riding it for the first time. Beyond this, the costs of mounts, and consider the mounts who differs in speed and level, provides the players who pay with real life currencies an advantage over those who do not. They suddenly possess a substantial amount of in-game currencies that others had to spend on their mounts. Furthermore, when exclusive bonuses are granted you meddle with in-game economics. Exclusive items or crafting recipes provide unfair advantages to those who cannot produce or buy these items from other than those who possess them or buy spending real life money. Many invoked the capitalistic principles in defence of these exclusive bonuses not knowing that you break them in-game by creating monopolies.

The significance of these items that fall outside the content you pay for by buying the game are not major P2W objects but they nevertheless creates an opportunity for disadvantages. The major problem is that subscription games previously did not operate this way but now they do. We have gone from little to no paid for bonuses or items/services, gradually moving towards more systematic use of cash shops and awarding those who pay more for a bigger game box with several bonuses of a nature that provides unfair advantages. There’s no reason to believe that cash shops won’t expand further and include even more content. Elder Scrolls Online is locking a race and allowing only those who pre-order the ability to play as any race in any faction. Whether these options will be purchasable after release is uncertain, though, I believe, some people have posted pictures of ESO agents stating that this will happen. You may have different opinions regarding these pre-order bonuses, but one thing remains certain, and remains, perhaps, most important. Races have never before been locked at launch in a subscription game. The development suggests companies will continue to use exclusive items and bonuses to gain as much profit as possible. And who can blame them? It’s only natural for a business to follow its interests and do what generates most profit. But what about the consumers interests? According to the development we share the same interests considering how willingly we accept these different kinds of ‘locks’. You may argue that it is our best interests to maintain the relationship we previously shared with developers and demand a return to the original subscription model, and I would agree. But there’s a reason that this model is now a mix of the other payment models out there. And, to end this in a way to get this message across, to find out what is the cause of this development, I suggest you watch this video. It is only 5 seconds long, but it will tell you the answer.

Thank you for reading. Please be as critical to my posts as you can be.


*Edited a spelling error in titel


  • CalvenCalven AarhusPosts: 151Member

    Other issues to consider and investigate:

    The development af Alpha/Beta testing: From being a service you provided to help form the development og the game to being a paid for experience (Everquest Next's alpha testing and entry fees and the current trend of releasing alpha games for reduced prices)

    The development of Demos and Pre-Order: How games previously allowed you to test a game before purchase to pre-ordering while NDA is still in place. Also consider how many newly released MMORPGs offer a trial at release.

  • waynejr2waynejr2 West Toluca Lake, CAPosts: 4,927Member Uncommon

    OP, the subscription model came about for online games from older services like AOL and TSN where you were paying dollars per hour for gameplay.  Some people were paying hundreds of dollars per month to play their games.  The subscription model born from that.  TSN at one point had an unlimited number of ours for 120.00 per month not including phone charges.  That everntually changed to a different pricing structure.  

    Over time, the pay per hour lost out to subscription. 

  • CalvenCalven AarhusPosts: 151Member
    Originally posted by waynejr2

    OP, the subscription model came about for online games from older services like AOL and TSN where you were paying dollars per hour for gameplay.  Some people were paying hundreds of dollars per month to play their games.  The subscription model born from that.  TSN at one point had an unlimited number of ours for 120.00 per month not including phone charges.  That everntually changed to a different pricing structure.  

    Over time, the pay per hour lost out to subscription. 

    Interesting. It's difficult to find info on pre-subscription when you weren't a big part of it. I remember Sierra but costs and phone charges were relatively unknown to as simply watched and played with my father. Naturally I wasn't told about the prices considering I was only very young. I can only assume that, giving the prices you mentioned, that maintenance costs were quite different compared to modern standard?

  • permsterpermster Phoenix, AZPosts: 103Member

    The question I have is why is there only one subscription level?  If I only play 20 hours a month compared to someone who can dedicate a lot more time why do we pay the same amount each month?  A tiered subscription model would be awesome.  Have a $5, $10, and $15 levels.  There are many ways this could be handled at each tier from play time limitations to in-game advertising, etc.

    Also, why are we still paying $15 a month when infrastructure costs should be way down compared to what they were years ago.  Wasn't EQ1 like $15 a month and that was back in 1999-2001.

  • Octagon7711Octagon7711 Chicago, ILPosts: 1,903Member Uncommon

    They charge $15 because they think that's the most the market will tolerate.  If they thought they could get away with charging $20 a month they would.  The way MMO's are today it's no problem because they feel they could always go F2P like other major ones have done.

    Most P2Ps do give you a discount if you pay in advance.

    "Change is the only constant."

  • iridescenceiridescence Posts: 1,537Member Uncommon

    Yeah, agree with OP. Games used to really work hard to get that $15 out of you. I was put off the early MMOs because I just couldn't accept the idea of subscribing to a game but was eventually won over because LOTRO (in 2007) offered so much content  for that small investment. Now though it seems MMOs just seem to milk people as much as possible and no matter how ridiculous it seems there're always some suckers who will ask "how high?" when a game company tells them to jump


    You have to blame the gamers a bit too. A cash shop in a subscription based game should not be acceptable but there are plenty of people who will pay to skip anything in the game that requires even the least effort or really want to spend money just to stand out and lord it over their friends how much extra money they have.

    Sadly there are enough of these types to make cash shops in all games not only possible but profitable and these are the same types who will happily plunk down an extra $20 to get something "special and exclusive". If you're a gaming company executive why not take advantage I guess?


    But it really does defeat the whole value of paying a sub and getting everything in the game. I'm starting to wonder if F2P isn't the superior model at least compared to the new cash shop+subscription+preorder etc. model. At least with a F2P game you know the cash shop will be shoved in your face but it's not pretending to be anything different and you aren't paying just to be marketed to.


    The whole thing is pretty discouraging.


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