The Cost of Per-Hero Games

The Marvel Heroes "free to play MMO Action-RPG" is rolling out pre-launch prepurchase offers that include a $200 "Ultimate Pack" for access to all heroes and costumes announced for launch.  Traditional MMO's with a premium package this expensive have typically had to throw in a lifetime subscription. In the case of Marvel, the pack is very clear that it does not get you anything beyond the heroes announced for launch (some of which have since been delayed but will be included in the pack when they are completed).  Instead, they are marketing the $200 as a discounted price - "a $750 value" compared to what it would cost to buy the characters individually.

The sub-$10 character
Looking at Marvel Heroes' cheaper pre-launch packs, individual heroes are bundled with some costumes and exp potions for $20, but my guess is that you will be able to get your characters for less than the psychologically significant $10 price point to encourage impulse purchases post-launch.  There seems to be broad consensus around this type of price point across a variety of other games in a variety of genres.  A few examples:
  • Champions in the MOBA League of Legends
  • Mechs in the mech-based FPS Mechwarrior Online
  • Heroes in the Warhammer Online Spin-off MOBA Wrath of Heroes
  • Most monster player classes in LOTRO (free to those who take the optional subscription)
  • Premade PVP "legends" characters in DCUO
  • The $9 action figures that grant access to DLC characters in the popular Skylanders console game series
We live in an era of consumer objections to cash stores in MMORPG's and DLC's in console games.  In this context, it's remarkable how much customer acceptance there appears to be around business models in which companies sell access to individual pre-made characters for $5-10, even when this bumps the cost for access to the entire character roster into the hundreds of dollars. 

What you get for the money
A big part of the secret may be that you are getting something comparatively tangible for your money.  If you are playing the Marvel MMO then maybe it is worth $10 per head for you to pick up all of the Avengers who appeared in the movie.  Even the cosmetic costumes are potentially meaningful when you look at long-standing characters who have been depicted in dramatically different art styles over the decades.  Like DDO's paid content packs, it feels more rewarding to pay something to get something, compared to the model in various other games that charge players to remove restrictions that are added to make non-subscribers want to pay. 

This particular model isn't broadly transferable to traditional MMO's because our genre has focused more on vertical progression using a single character.  Games like Marvel Heroes that were designed from the ground up to take advantage of non-subscription payment methods also have a big advantage over MMO's that were designed for a subscription, only to be revamped when the market refused to tolerate that model. 

Even so, I find the concept vaguely compelling and perhaps even promising.  Most of the evidence from the last few years calls into question whether the prices the market is willing to pay are sufficient to support the development of the traditional MMO content model.  Meanwhile, here is an alternative in which studios are putting out regular, sustainable updates that customers are actually happy to pay for.  It's certainly not perfect, but it beats going out of business.