Quality is Never Free
When it comes to video games, my favorite genre is the MMORPG, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Today, different takes on the MMORPG make it difficult to concretely define, but they are typically designated by the existence of an open world, gear progression, and a focus on end game raiding. As such, MMORPGs are characterized by their need for consistent player engagement. Unfortunately, as a genre, it is undeniable that they are slowly fading. New releases tend to be hits for 2–3 months before the open world turns into an empty world. Many reasons have been suggested as to why — the most prominent being (1) society becoming more interested in games that offer quick rewards and (2) as the internet is becoming more mobile, MMORPGs have lost their charm as a great way to socialize online.
These explanations are reasonable, but don’t get at the heart of the matter. Today, consumers not only enjoy free content, but have come to expect it. Most MMORPGs are free to play, perhaps for this reason.
However, development studios need a way to generate revenue, either through (1) in-game purchases or (2) purchases outside of the game. In-game purchases are how the free-to-play model generates revenue. This model, however, misaligns the values of what generates revenue and what optimizes player satisfaction. The result is a disaster that results in the eventual alienation of the player community. The only way to properly align the two is through a subscription based MMORPG model — one form of an exterior purchase.
In order for an MMORPG to be an Massively Multiplayer Online, it must have a large player base that is consistently online. This is a necessary part of the experience, as it completes the feeling of being in another world, and naturally prompts increased interaction between players. In fact, MMORPGs tend to necessitate large 8–16+ player groups to clear endgame content.
Therefore, for an MMORPG to succeed, there must be incentives to keep as many players online as possible. In a role-playing game with gear progression and other forms of high engagement requirements, having a massive player base creates a scenario where you must keep a diverse crowd of players pleased. In order to have as many players online as possible, MMOs must keep their “casual” playerbase happy — the majority of players who play the game on and off. However, as per the 80–20 rule, the majority of revenue in the gaming industry comes from so-called “whales.” These players are where the large majority of money is earned. In essence, for the free-to-play MMORPG, what generates revenue is by focusing on the 20% of paying players, while what optimizes player experience is by furthering content focused on the other 80%. These MMORPGs attempt to attract both sides of the coin at the same time, by balancing and developing content that tries to cater to both segments.
Unfortunately, the content as a result is neither here nor there. Free-to-play MMORPGs are especially notorious for a focus on increasing hours played. The gameplay is riddled with grindy repetitive content, daily quests, and RNG gear. Repetitive content and daily quests are cheap to generate, and easy ways to keep players consistently online. RNG based gearing is often the driving force for players to repeat content. To generate revenue, studios insert mechanics within the in-game shop to skip or ameliorate the RNG. The resulting effect is devoted players becoming wearied, and casual players frustrated, always feeling like they’re playing catch up.
While having players pay to avoid RNG gearing may produce short-term gains, it is never healthy for the studio long term. Casual players are unwilling to pay for games they aren’t fully invested in, and serious players feel cheated of their hard work by the mere existence of such a mechanic. To take advantage of the few players who are willing to pay for these items while keeping up the massive online player base necessary for an MMO to function, game studios will gradually introduce this type of content rather than being upfront about it. This devalues the entirety of the studio’s brand to the point of notoriety — some good recent examples include Black Desert Online and Maplestory 2.
It might seem like there really is no hope for the MMORPG. Yet, the question begs: why do so many players — players like me — still hold the genre so close to their hearts? Despite the advent of a mobile society characterized by a need for quick returns on low investments, we strive for a place where we can connect meaningfully with other players, experience a different reality, and fulfill some sort of fantasy. What can MMORPGs do to escape this vicious cycle of unfulfilled players?
Considering ways to generate revenue outside of the game’s cash shop, a fixed and variable payment model could be examined. The fixed payment model works great for console games, but MMORPGs necessitate a recurring source of income in order to continually build on the existing content.
Thankfully, the variable payment model — more colloquially known as a subscription — is a great middle ground. This middle-ground is a necessary balance. It may fail to capture players who are unwilling or unable to pay, but this is a worthwhile sacrifice. A subscription-based model aligns revenue generation and experience optimization. With this model, what generates revenue is by keeping all your players playing and paying the monthly subscription — which is the effect of properly done player experience optimization.
In this scenario, while the game may still have the 80–20 dilemma with in-game content, development studio executives can comfortably limit the in-game store’s influence on decision-making, knowing that they have a larger, steadier source of income externally. In fact, customers are often incentivized to use a product more consistently knowing that they pay for it monthly. In this case, the studio is free to focus on continually developing new content without having to consider whether or not it will generate in game spending. This sort of content is pleasing to both the 80% and 20% of players, and consistency in pushing it out will reward the studio with continued subscriptions.
Originally published at kevinhao.me on February 10, 2019.