Monetising your MMO

Is vanity the backdoor to paying for success? I play a lot of online games. The list of games I've played is honestly staggering and far too long for me to recount in full here (or even remember accurately). These games began debatably with Ultima Online and Meridian 59 about a decade ago give or take a couple of years. They were propelled into the wider gamer consciousness by Everquest and Asheron's call, probably the first 3D hugely multiplayer worlds ever to hit mainstream games stores and of course World of Warcraft came along a few years later and seemingly opened the genre up to the world.

There's a commonality between the games I've mentioned: they all require that you subscribe to their service by way of a regular payment. The use of this simple payment model however is dwindling, and a newcomer from the east is encroaching on it's turf.

There was something of a second genesis of online games in the eastern markets, in China and Japan but probably more importantly in Korea, which has a gaming market that frankly puts the western world to shame. I can only speculate that it is due to cultural differences, but a different monetisation strategy quickly became the accepted norm: many of the games were free to play (not all), but virtually all of them supported some form of store, where you could fork over your real world cash for in-game utilities.

The first few games to try this in the west met with resistance. Players felt it unfair that their previously level playing field, where investment of time and effort was often the distinguishing merit between players, was suddenly upset by the ability of some individuals to expend a larger portion of their disposable income on in-game advantages. You could literally buy success and bypass a number of the games challenges. The resistance was sufficient that until only recently the encroachment of what has become known as the micropayment system has been very ponderous.

It has been raising its head again. The last 5 years or so have been challenging for the MMO market, with (off the top of my head) only two games making a progressive year-on-year market growth: World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Many other games have hit the shelves, enjoyed a brief and frenzied period of success and then dwindled, facing hardware consolidation or even premature closure. The list is expansive and a few pertinent examples in no particular order include:

  • Age of Conan
  • Asheron's Call 2
  • Pirates of the Burning Sea
  • Champions Online

There are possibly hundreds of similar stories. World of Warcraft proved the market and everyone wanted in on it. This lead to an over-saturated and terrifyingly competitive market for a finite number of excessively tribal customers. There were going to be casualties.

Some of these games found an alternative, and seemingly profitable business plan. Provide your basic services for free, and reinvigorate the micropayment model to provide customers with extras. This was cleverly done in a number of cases. It appealed to the players; despite my point that the online gamer is a tribalistic beast often clinging ferociously to their favourite game with no time for the competition these players do burn out. They see all there is to see, and while waiting for new challenges their curiosity drives them to seek out and try the latest crop of newcomers or revisit previous games. Because the micropayment model doesn't rely on an extended period of play it caters directly for the casual player who's attention may only point your way for a few weeks. Importantly, it allows them to feel like they can pop back for a cup of coffee and a few days of high adventure anytime, at no particular expense or commitment on their part.

Now, some of you will have already been thinking: don't Blizzard do this too, in their immensely, appallingly successful World of Warcraft?

Why yes, yes they do.

There's a subtle difference here, one that has seen some fevered opposition but not on the scale I recall from the earlier days of the MMO era. These games that require you to subscribe such as WoW have adopted the micropayment model but as they are eager to point out their stores contain only vanity items. Things of such cosmetic triviality that the only advantage one gains is to advertise one's unnecessary investment of cash on something with as much tangible effect on the world as the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

All things start somewhere though...