Transparency: Why Buy-To-Play Is The Best Option For MMOs

Elder Scrolls Online just moved to a buy-to-play model. It's the best model for any MMO and Larry will tell you why.
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I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had to decide between one MMO subscription and another. When World of Warcraft released, I had to decide between that subscription and Star Wars Galaxies. I was young and had no money, so I couldn’t afford two subscriptions. As a Star Wars fan, I picked SWG; clearly, the rest of the world picked WoW, but I don’t regret that. What I do regret is not being able to play both.

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These days, I keep a suite of MMOs that I subscribe to or support financially in some way or another. However, I do have a limit. Most recently, I had to pick between WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online. Thankfully, I picked ESO. But ESO is changing its pricing model. On March 17th, ESO will launch ESO: Tamriel Unlimited, which will drop the subscription fee and allow anyone who buys or has bought the game to just jump in and play forever, without having to pay another dime for the base game.

Elder Scrolls Online KhajiitThis whole transition got me thinking about payment models for different kinds of online games. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite the many different types of payment models MMOs have, buy-to-play is clearly the best.

I should define what I mean by buy-to-pay

All buy-to-play games have an up-front cost to play, and there is no required subscription to keep playing. This does not mean that there isn’t a subscription for other benefits, or that there isn’t a trial of some sort so people can get a taste of the game for free. An example of this type of payment model can be found in Guild Wars 2.

Buy-to-play isn’t free-to-play; that gets confused sometimes. Free-to-play means that the base game is free. Usually that means that getting to max level can be achieved or a vast majority of the game can be played without spending a dime. League of Legends is a great example of a free-to-play game. The base game can be played without paying anything, but champions and other items have to be bought from the cash shop.

The subscription model seems to be pretty obvious. Players have to pay a subscription to play the game at all. Sometimes these games will have some sort of trial, but the vast majority of the game requires that you some sort of monthly fee. World of Warcraft is probably the prime example of this, but to be honest, nearly every other MMO on the market at the time of WoW used this model.

Beyond that, we see hybrids of these modes. Some are buy-to-play, with cash shops for in-game items, or there are subs where game time can be purchased in game. The list goes on, but the most common is usually referred to as the Freemium model. Essentially, this is a free-to-play model with an additional subscription that gives you access to the “whole game.” A good example of this is Star Wars: The Old Republic, but Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest 2 used this model before SWTOR.

Elder Scrolls Online boss fight

Buy-to-play is the only one that works

However, out of all these models, the buy-to-play model is the only one that works well for both the consumer and the developer, and is therefore the best.

The free-to-play model seems to be great, right? You get a whole game, but have to pay for nothing at all. You can tool around, find what you want, and even play some content without paying anything. If you want something neat that you see someone else wearing, likely it’s in the cash shop for you to buy. It’s generally great for the consumer, because you don’t have to pay for anything. Of course, gold spammers are usually horrific, but that’s a small price to pay for a free game, right?

On the developer’s end, you only have small increments of revenue to work with. Of course, there are some games, like MOBAs, that have lower development overhead and can get away with having smaller purchases. But when you have a game with the scope of an MMORPG, the developer has to focus on keeping the cash shop relevant, while at the same time focusing on other aspects of gameplay development. I believe this is what’s beginning to happen with Star Wars: The Old Republic. The expansion packs are getting less and less complicated, and they’re catering to the least common denominator of player type.

Elder Scrolls Online ImperialI think we’ve all felt the woes of the subscription model of MMO. We have to juggle our subscriptions, because we feel that if we are paying for a month of gaming, we have to spend a month in that game. Subscriptions create an all-or-nothing scenario for the developers, too. They have to drop everything into the game without cost, or the customer will feel he’s being ripped off. And don’t even think about making a cash shop. Most sub games that have real cash shops have received so much flak. Oh, and if the developer doesn’t release something each month, then the game will start to bleed players because they could spend their money on another MMORPG and get new content.

The best case scenario would be buy-to-play. Players will not feel slighted when you create a cash shop to keep things running. You can even have a part of the team focus on making things specifically for the cash shop. The rest of the team can focus on building the next DLC or expansion. Developers can even charge for that DLC, and players will not feel slighted. The DLC would also not be on a schedule, other than one that is within a reasonable frame of time to keep the players interested.

Guild Wars 2 has been running really well off this model. In fact, while other MMOs had major layoffs after a launch, Guild Wars 2 was actually hiring people. One key, however, is that you have to keep the box price at launch retail price for quite some time in order to recoup development costs and then make enough profit to build the following DLC.

I think the other two models can work in very specific situations, but we can talk about that another time.

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Larry Everett
Don't use a lightsaber to spark up your cigarette.