I wrote about my initial reactions to AC: Revelations yesterday and how the game has me thinking about subscription models. No, not the kind that wear push-up bras and try to get you to sign up for things. I'm sure all of you gamers were thinking exactly of that. It's not like we've seen a whole bunch of articles talking about subscription games going free to play or anything.
Okay, that was sarcasm. It seems like every other day some MMO is going free-to-play, or instituting a cash store, or whatever. The general push from gamers seems to be one that favors f2p models. After all, we like getting stuff for free. And people have been conjecturing about when WoW will go f2p for ages.
Spending time in a single-player game, I can't help but wonder why we aren't seeing a whole lot of contrary thought here. That is to say, why all the hate for subscription models? Are they really a bad thing. Is free really better? Or what about a cash store where you pay just for the content you want? Or how about something like Guild Wars, where you buy the game and then play for free.
I try not to think about the money too much. I'm fortunate enough that it's not a major concern for me. Still, as a cheap-skate engineer type, I can't help but judge how much value I'm getting for my money. It's not the spending of money that bothers me, so long as I feel like I get something out of it. The question for me isn't "how much" but rather "is it worth it?"
I talked yesterday about being perhaps a bit annoyed that the new AC game feels, as one comment more accurately put it, like a giant batch of what should be Downloadable Content. Yet, I'm not displeased with the game or the purchase, because I still feel like I'm getting my money's worth. It just... feels weird because it's not what I've come to expect for a fat, $60 purchase. Maybe the issue is that I've been condition through MMO's to expect such content for, essentially, "free." Or at least as part of my ongoing subscription (which I don't pay attention to, so immediately free, but costly when you consider each month).
Even then, doing the math, I'll probably get $60 worth of gaming enjoyment out of it. The amount of time I'd spend in 5-ish months in WoW, I might spend in AC, depending on what stage of the cycle we're in. (Right after a patch, maybe not, but near the end, when I'm only logging in a couple of hours per week for raiding/PvP... maybe.)
In the single player realm, I feel like we're rarely seeing the solo game anymore. If a game is even remotely successful, you can almost guarantee it'll have a sequel. And this practice has got me thinking: why don't we see any subscription models in single player gaming? (Network costs aside, including things like "enabling" multiplayer.)
Here's my point in a nutshell. What if, instead, Ubisoft had taken their AC franchise and made a monthly story out of it. Let's say they start with AC:II, since developing it was probably given the go only after the success of AC:I. They take II, and sell it for cheap, say $10, but only sell like the first city. And then, they promise us that every month they'll release the next chapter in the story. A new city each time, maybe. And in two years, or whatever, they finish the story. Of course, they say, you can jump in at any time and start from the beginning. There'll be deals on buying the back content. And deals as well for people who want to commit to the whole year. Maybe we give it to them for half price. Every month, you tune in to download the next part of the story.
When people are excited about games, it can generate enormous groundswell and media coverage. And people are most excited about when games release. If they know about the game, they want to be there from the start. Skyrim proves that even a single player game will be talked about online, will be related and processed the same as we've grown used to for MMO's. A monthly, single player subscription model puts you in a state of perpetual release.
A lot of people balk at monthly subs, but why? Do these same people balk at subscribing to Sports Illustrated, People, or the local newspaper? Some maybe, but I suspect there are plenty of folks out there that carry magazine or news subscriptions that they don't even read. Yet, we don't see nearly as much angst over these media. There is some, to be sure, but it is still generally seen as an acceptable model. Some magazines may go f2read, or have a cash store (order forms), but there is likely still a market for monthly subs.
I would suggest the key feature that makes those subscriptions ever-so-slightly more tolerable is the regularity of content. With a magazine, you know you're paying for content each month. Some months may be better, bigger than others, but you're always getting something.
I wonder if there's not a market for the same sort of thing in gaming, especially with single player games. A game that commits and delivers monthly. And we're talking content. Not just bug fixes or miscellanea, but advancement of story. I would be far more comfortable paying monthly for something like that than I am for my current MMO stable. I don't like that you're paying monthly for "access," when some months nothing comes out or is advanced. I imagine that's why a lot of folks go to the trouble of dropping and re-subscribing as content comes out.
I think Blizzard sort of tried to improve on this with their "shorter and quicker patches" mantra, but I'm not sure they executed well. It was quicker, no doubt, but I feel like the content and quality suffered because of it. Still, it may have been a step in the right direction. It's just hard to completely revamp your development process, especially when players have already grown used to a certain type of release. If a game were to start with small monthly chunks up front, it might be better received.
MMO's may not be the best arena for a monthly, serialized story either. Playing Catch Up always seems to be an issue if you come in late. And how to you monetize latecomers? You don't want to detract from the players that were there from the start and have stuck with you, but you need to be open to people jumping in. Single player games don't have those constraints. It doesn't matter where others are, you can jump in a month later and go through the exact same story. Heck, you could even charge the same price and just "gate" the previous content so that they're always the same distance behind. Or charge double for a "double month," allowing players to get back on schedule. For subscribers, it would be nice to know what you're getting and be able to experience in your own time frame. There's not as much of a race, though still may feel like keeping up with "the Joneses."
I don't know, would it work? Would you pay monthly for a single-player game? Does serialized story appeal to you more than shelling out in chunks every year or two? It does to me. I like anticipated costs. Makes it easier to budget. And I suppose I just wanted to go on record saying that I don't think all the concepts of a subscription model are bad. There's a lot to learn from what works there, and it could certainly translate into innovative future business models. At the very least, it's something to think about.
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