The Subscription Psychology

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In case you missed it, John Funk had a great article last week that compared the cost of playing an MMO to a standard single player game in terms of cost-per-hour. On that basis alone, most MMOs come out way, way ahead, and single player games usually can’t even come close. A few big-time strategy games with high replay value might come close. Starcraft, Sims, and Civilization might approach the MMO levels of affordability, but aside from those, most big-name titles are an order of magnitude more expensive than an MMO. (And because I know someone will call me on it in the comments: Yes, we’re well aware that Dwarf Fortress and Nethack are free and thus the “best value” from an hours-to-dollars standpoint. But let’s focus on games on the shelves for now.)

But as anyone from marketing will tell you, shopping is an inherently irrational activity. With the right marketing, people will embrace a ripoff and defend the wisdom of their purchase after the fact. And sometimes people will pass on a good deal for reasons that have nothing to do with cost or tangible value.

There are a couple of approaches to selling time-based services. Long distance calls charge you by the minute, so you only pay for what you use. An MMO charges you a flat rate, and lets you use as much or as little as you like in a fixed window of time. Each scheme appeals to a different group of people.

Back in the 90s, America Online used the pay-for-time pricing model, which mostly failed. (For you youngsters, the internet wasn’t always this omnipresent, George Lucas-styled energy-field to be plucked freely from the air around us. In the old days if you wanted the internet, you had to call it on the phone.) AOL used to charge per hour beyond a certain threshold. This meant your websurfing time was clocked. The moment you signed on, the meter was running. What do you do? Log off and back on every time you take a five-minute break, or squander your time in little batches? For some people, this created a psychological stress that permeated the online experience. Hurry! Clock is running! Finish reading this and move on!

Many people – myself included – switched over to an unlimited-use program as soon as they became available, even if the total monthly cost went up. It was an irrational move in terms of money, but web surfing was more enjoyable when you didn’t hear the ticking clock in the back of your mind. The extra money was more than worth the peace of mind that came from knowing you weren’t going to rack up massive penalties if you forgot to sign off before you went to bed. Slow-loading pages were still annoying, but at least they were no longer running out the clock on you.

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I’m a flat rate kind of guy. I part with the money, and the money is gone and I forget about it and focus on the game. If I paid for an MMO by the minute or hour it would drive me crazy, even if it was cheaper overall. I’d have this nagging irritation during every minute spent waiting for a respawn or waiting on other members of the group to show up. Quick! The meter is running! Let’s get moving! Find some entertainment!

For the other sort of person, knowing you’re going to be charged regardless of how much you play creates a feeling that they are “wasting money” by not playing. They would rather just pay for what they use. If you want a beer, you pay for a beer. But what if you paid for the right to drink beer for five minutes? You’d feel obligated to chug. You couldn’t just sit and enjoy.

If you were to quit your job and play World of Warcraft for twelve hours a day, every day, then it will cost you four cents an hour. If you’re busy that month and only log in for a few hours, then the game suddenly costs one hundred times as much. Playing in moderation makes it feel like you ordered the buffet and then all you ate was a handful of croutons. It creates this pressure that makes the game into an obligation, and you’re playing videogames to escape your obligations, not invent new ones.

Lord of the Rings Online offered a lifetime subscription for $200. I’ve never seen any numbers on how many people took them up on the offer, but in any case doing so is an interesting gamble. Assuming the going monthly rate is $15, then it will take thirteen months of membership for the subscription to break even. Anyone considering putting down that much money at launch needs to ask themselves some hard questions: Will the MMO still be around then? Will you still care about this game just four months from now, much less thirteen? But by the time you know the answer to these questions, you’ve probably already paid for a few months, and the questions would need to be re-evaluated.

It’s worth noting that so far all major MMOs have gone for pleasing people like me. If a pay-by-the-hour MMO exists in the West, I’ve never heard of it. I wonder if such a system would round up all those people who might enjoy an MMO, but who hate the flat-rate pricing. I also wonder if it might help lure in gamers on a tight budget.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He’s currently in the depths of a Champions Online Addiction. He needs help.

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