Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Subscription Models

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.


  1. what if instead of seeing AC:R (Or for that matter any single player game without multiplayer content) not as a like a short single purchase, but a year's worth of fun? so 60 bucks over 12 months, that's 5 dollars a month. much cheaper than any MMO. Granted though, I do understand where you are coming from with regards to your thoughts about AC:R, even though I did work on the game and am Biased towards it to be honest :P

    At least Blizzard is trying to produce interesting content faster. I've got to give them credit for that. It's better than Rift where each content patch is basically still more rifts LOL

    And paying monthly for a singleplayer game, I thought that was TOR? :P *quickly ducks before shoes hit* XD

    With regards to subscription model working, I do think Player versus developer did an article on that before as well

  2. Well, that would be valid if the game kept me entertained for a full 12 months. Generally, I'll burn through even the longest games (Skyrim) in a couple months. Probably the longest I've ever spent with one game (outside of an MMO) is 3 months? I've never really exactly tallied it, but 3 months is a LOT of single player content.

    The singleplayer focus in TOR is exactly what got me thinking. I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. My thought, though, was: "I would have paid for this game even if there was no one else in it. Furthermore, I'm excited about the prospect that it doesn't have to end when in a couple months. More content should be forthcoming!"

    Some single player games are starting to do this with DLC, but often it's not meaningful. I'd like to see DLC that is both regular and packed with actual story content (not just an extra PvP map or a random, unimportant side quest).

    In any case, I do give Blizz credit for trying as well. I hope that they learn and improve upon what they've started. Especially when it comes to Titan.

    Feel free to link that article if you can find it again. I don't think I caught it the first time.

  3. You asked if I would pay monthly for a single person game. Let me change it a little and ask you if you would pay $10 for each faction or city in Skyrim? I think the answer is a big NO.

    Pay the $60 and do the open world thing. Besides we all know in our heart that you end up paying way more in the long run.

  4. You know I forgot to add that we first pay $60 for the game and then have to pay an ADDITIONAL monthly fee. That is where I see them ripping us off. If SWTOR was really KOTOR3 I would pay the same $60 but then get months to do what I want with it. I can play at my own pace and change things up or put the game aside if I wanted or needed to.

    But add in the monthly fee and now I have to either finish the game (KOTOR3) in a month or have to pay even more. THAT is my problem with monthly fees on what should be a stand alone game.

  5. It depends on how the type of content and how it is released.

    Specific to Skyrim, if I were going to fit it into my proposal, I would either release each faction monthly or release the complete story in chapters (the early parts of each faction at the same time). Cities would be released as used by the story.

    Now, I'm not saying spend $60 for the game AND THEN pay $10 per month. That's stupid (though, admittedly what we have now with MMOs). But would I spend $10 per month, knowing I was going to get more quality content each month. Sure. I don't see why that's a "big no."

    How many large story arcs are there in Skyrim? Mage, DB, Thieves, The Civil War, Main Quest, Companions. That's six. I suppose you could include like the Bards or becoming a Thane at each stronghold... but I didn't really see those as fully fleshed out storylines, rather optional sidequests.

    If we paid $10 for each of the major story lines, we'd still be paying $60 over 6 months. It's really the same price. And Skyrim is a BIG game. For most games, I don't think the $60 value would be as easy to nail down. I don't doubt I got my money's worth with Skyrim, but it might be an extreme example.

    I'm focused more on paying for a continuous story. In Skyrim, the stories spanned cities. In typical MMO's, the stories are "per zone" for level purposes. I agree that in order to validly fit Skyrim into a subscription model, it would take clever manipulation, but I don't think it's unreasonable to muse about.

    Still, the model wouldn't work for every type of game. I think it would be hard to fit to more "sandboxy" games (of which Skyrim falls to that side), but a more "on rails" game could easily be adapted for serialized content, and would perhaps benefit from such a release pattern.

  6. Just saw your comment mirroring my own about the double dipping. Yeah, that does suck.

  7. I guess I feel like the double dipping is a result of straddling two models. If a dev embraced a regular monthly sub model, they could do away with the up front cost. (It would also probably require accepting digital as the primary form of delivery).

    On the other hand, if we just pay up front... what incentive does the company have to keep fixing and putting out new content? After the initial spike, player retention isn't important because it doesn't generate income (unless you add like a cash store or things like that). I'm not sure you can do the up front cost if you're going to try and serialize things and continue development. (Though I would appreciate the lack of "pressure to play" that comes with paying monthly).

  8. Isn't DLC's the almsot same thing as paying a monthly sub fee for new content? I mean the only real difference is that DLC's sort of come out when ready and not guaranteed every month.

    A more linier game like KOTOR or Mass Effect could theoretically be released in bits and pieces but I still think people would much prefer the entire game all at one time.

    I for one try to savor the game and it takes me many more hours to complete a game than it does my sons. They always finish games like ME, Skyrim and Fallout way before I do. If the game was released piecemeal it would slow them down, or force me to go faster. In other words someone would be upset.

    As for upfront payment not resulting in devs fixing things I have to bring up DLC's and what companies have done. Many have finished Skyrim but they plan on a huge patch this month to fix tons of stuff. Not to mention the moddelling world. Another example is Witcher.

    From what I read Skyrim plans on 2 to 4 DLC's that offer massive new content in each one. I personally think that the monthlyu sub business model is going away. For MMO's the RMAH in D3 sounds like the way online will most likely go as their primary business model. A report I read said that account transfers, pets, name changes and other stuff accounted for 30% of WOW's income excluding intital sales of the game or expansion.

    Maybe the only place where a monthly fee for new content might work is if the game had no ending. You take your Sith warrior to new planets each month. But without an ending how does this change the whole story based theme?

  9. Pretty much, except not all DLCs cost money. Sometimes they just keep adding free content. And, to be honest, I'm not sure why. I suppose it helps keep people happy, but if they're not running a sub, who cares? In a larger sense, it's good to please your customers because you're hoping they'll buy your NEXT game.

    I agree that the current types of games out there doesn't fit very well. They're just not designed with a sub in mind (even when they have a sub).

    You're right about the "not having an end" part. Except, I think you could have a lot of little "endings" and still stretch a long story out. Then maybe a major ending every year. TOR does this well, as each planet has a self-contained mini-story... and then you have the overarching class story. I like the concept, and feel like a single player game could embrace that and do the story aspect better without having to worry about MMO gotchas.

    I would love a game like that, but I completely acknowledge that's sort of my niche. It wouldn't work for everyone, and there is certainly room for other models/games.

  10. Addition: also good to please the customers if, like your example, a significant chunk of your cash is coming from purchase-able side options.