Like many other people, my first reaction when I learned that Blizzard would be experimenting with a subscription model for StarCraft II in Russia was along the lines of, “Wait, what the hell?” The more I look at it, though, the more that reaction turns to, “You know, this is brilliant. I can’t wait for Blizzard to bring it over here.”
It’s true that – as someone who likes MMOGs – I’m completely down with the subscription model for games, but I also understand why some people don’t like them. StarCraft II‘s “subscription” (if you can even call it that) really is the best of both worlds, however, and something that most gamers might actually love once they get that dreaded “s-word” out of their mind.
Here’s how it works: Russian gamers will be able to buy a version of StarCraft II at 999 rubles ($34.36, £22.38 or €25.41 – roughly half the full price of the European version), or a jewel-case bargain-bin version at 499 rubles ($17.16, £11.13 or €12.63). Both versions are complete copies of the game – they have the campaign mode, the challenge maps, and the full multiplayer – but they can only be played on a special Russia-only Battle.net, and the multiplayer has a timer attached.
After four months of play for the 499-ruble version, or a year for the 999-ruble version, the game will shift to a subscription model, where the gamer must pay 100 rubles ($3.44, £2.23, €2.53) a month to access Battle.net. At any time, however – even right after getting the game – the player can “upgrade” to the full version for ~1200 rubles, letting them access the full European Battle.net servers and play until the end of time without ever seeing a single subscription payment.
Even if you’re the world’s most fervent opponent of the subscription model for games, for the sake of argument, put that word as far from your mind as possible right now. The subscription isn’t the point.
With this price model, Blizzard is offering a lower bar of entry for consumers to test the waters – so to speak. Unlike the similarly-principled “paid demos” rumored to be in the works at EA, this gives prospective buyers a taste of the full game at a much lower buy-in cost. More importantly, it gives consumers options.
If you know that you’ll be spending years playing StarCraft II (like the decade-old competitive scene for StarCraft), you upgrade to the full version right off the bat. If you’re confident that you’ll put quite a bit of time into the game but don’t know if it’ll hold your interest for more than a year, get the 999-ruble version and don’t subscribe.
If you’re not at all sure whether multiplayer StarCraft II is for you, get the four-month multiplayer with the 499 ruble version. Unlike a normal demo, this is the full game – instead of wondering if the developers just packaged the best parts of the game as the demo, you get to see absolutely everything.
Imagine if we did that over here in the West. Take a hypothetical gamer – let’s call him Chuck. Chuck is trying to decide between getting Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Left 4 Dead 2, but can’t afford to buy both (let’s assume that both games are full price). Currently, he’d have to wait for a sale on Steam, use an incomplete demo copy of the game, or take a gamble and put his money on one, hoping it’s the one that’ll appeal to him the most.
With Blizzard’s price model, Chuck buys the 4-month limited version of both L4D2 and BBC2, and plays both of them to his heart’s content, getting access to all the possible content there is. He finds that the zombie-killing co-op action of Left 4 Dead 2 appeals to him more than the military combat of Battlefield, and so cancels his membership to the one while upgrading to the full, un-limited version of the other – all for the price of buying one game new.
Consumers win by having a lower opt-in bar for a game they might not be sure about playing, without the inherent limitations that accompany a standard free demo (that Crytek founder Cevat Yerli thinks might be going away). Blizzard wins – as do other companies that try this model – by getting more people to actually spend money on its games instead of just pirating them, particularly in areas like Russia or China where legally purchased software is the exception rather than the rule.
If there’s a down side to all of this, I certainly can’t think of one. You get a full game for potentially a quarter of the cost; a company gets to recoup its investments without asking consumers to drop a good chunk of change. Even if many buyers don’t upgrade, a lower price means that more people are likely to make an impulse purchase – you make up for the lower price with raw volume of sales.
It’s a legitimate win-win situation, and we shouldn’t automatically nix it because it mentions the word “subscription” somewhere down the line.
John Funk would still be getting the $100 Collector’s Edition anyway.