Pay For Content Vs Pay For Service

Ferrel of Epic Slant and Chris of Game By Night have a new podcast titled MMO Radio.  The show differs from their previous efforts with the Multiverse (where they invited me to guest twice) in that they have gone with the increasingly popular shorter format and also include segments on tabletop gaming.  The new format appears to be working for them in the form of more frequent updates - in the time it took me to listen to last week's episode and type up this response, they've recorded and released a new one.  All of that plugging aside, back to last week's episode

Describing Business Models By What You Are Paying For
Chris suggests that "Buy to Play" might be more sustainable than "Free to Play", and cites LOTRO as an example.  I have far more concerns about the sustainability of "Buy to Play", and I'd hold up LOTRO as the poster child for these concerns.  To understand why, we need to take a step back and look at how these models actually work.

If you go back into the old days - EQ1, early WoW, etc - MMO's charged for two things.  You would pay one-time fees for access to content (i.e. the game box and expansions) and recurring fees for services used to access that content (i.e. the subscription time, which was mandatory).  These core parts of the business actually haven't changed all that much with all the time that has passed and all the new terms and user interfaces that have been added since.  What has changed is how the charges for content and service are presented.

In today's non-subscription market, recurring fees for use of the content do not necessarily take the form of a straight up charge for a fixed dollar amount.  When your game's cash shop requires the use of consumables to clear death penalties, improve new gear as you obtain it, travel around the world, etc, that is how you are paying for the service.  For the question Chris asks about sustainability, the important point is that this is recurring revenue that the developer will continue to receive from you for as long as you pay for the game. 

The other extreme in non-subscription games is to sell off your content - and sometimes game features - as one-time unlocks that do not require any ongoing payment as you continue using them.  One big advantage to this approach when relaunching an existing game with years of content already created is that there is a lot of stuff already in game for new players - or existing players who are dropping down to non-subscriber status - to buy.  This is roughly how I see Turbine's model today - heavily focused on one-time unlocks for content (and sometimes features) with almost nothing in the way of one-time payments for ongoing use of the service. 

So which of these two approaches is more sustainable?  Whether pay-for-content is sustainable depends heavily on how frequently you are able to produce content.  As Ferrel pointed out on the show, DDO's adventure packs are perfect for this approach because Turbine can push them out every other month year-round.  If, on the other hand, you are in the business of making large open zones that you can only finish once or twice per year, perhaps the rate of content generation is not the best thing to tie your income to long term.  In this case - which is true for most MMO's - the only way for the business to be sustainable is to somehow charge people for continuing to play the game. 

Aside: "Pay to Win"
Many players who are or were a raiders in a subscription MMO have a profoundly negative view of the free to play cash shop model, which they widely dub as "Pay to Win".  This view makes sense when you look at what it means for them personally. 

The subscription fee does not scale with how much you play the game - in fact, sometimes the developer WANTS you to play more so you will stay engaged and stay subscribed - while paying through an item shop means that you are very likely paying in proportion to how much you actually play the game.  If you are used to paying the same subscription fee as everyone else and yet having the developer spend disproportionate attention making raid content for your single digit percentile of the population, then yes, in the short term, you'd rather have it the way it was in the old days.  Whether this ultimately pushes the entire genre in directions that you do not like is more of a long term problem....