Bang for the Buck! How Should Subscriptions in MMOs Work?

By Jeff Francis
How should mmo subscriptions work?

There was once a time where needing a subscription to play an online rpg was considered sacred and something that would never change. Game developers would have swooned at the thought of their games going the free-to-play route. Just a decade ago, most f2p games were considered massive rip-offs that nickel-and-dimed players to death. Now, the worm has turned as mmorpg subscriptions have gotten scarce, leaving World of Warcraft as the main standard bearer. Yet there has been a turning away from the free-to-play model over the last year or two as many companies are now going the buy-to-play route as well as offering subscription-based options. Then there's the reality that mmo subscriptions have never truly gone away as the model has continued to exist in modified forms. How should mmo subscriptions work today?

In ye olden days, an mmo subscription and how it worked was pretty standard. One of the core features was that players needed a subscription to play the game in the first place. Buying a game (at an actual store!) usually gave the player 30 days of gaming time, after which the player would usually have to spend $15 a month in order to keep playing. So what did players get with their mmorpg subscription at that time? Put simply, they got the entire game. Major expansions that didn't cost a cent were considered the norm as players expected the developers to release new content on a periodic basis as they were paying money every month to play the game. WoW kind of broke out of that mode a bit by releasing huge updates that players had to purchase. Still, the norm of paying a monthly subscription and no cash shop was the standard for a long time.

That being said, things have changed quite a bit today. There are still a few games that still require the full mmo subscription in order to be enjoyed, but there are many more that offer a hybrid of free-to-play and subscription-based gaming. The forerunner of the hybrid model was Dungeons and Dragons Online. Players could enjoy the core experience of the game for free but would have to pay in order to play specific classes, races, and adventure packs. Players who opted for the mmo subscription essentially have all the options unlocked, and they also usually get a stipend every month to spend in the game's cash shop. Quite a few other games now follow this model, including Neverwinter, Lord of the Rings Online, and even EVE Online.

So how should an mmo subscription work in today's environment? First off, every aspect of the mmorpg should be unlocked for those paying a subscription. Every class and race should be available, as well any and all updates for the game. It should be a given that subscribers have the maximum amount of character slots and bank inventory space as well. Any new content released for the game should be fully free and open to subscribers as well. Yet having an mmo subscription should go a bit further in today's environment. One, subscribers should have priority when accessing the game or queuing up for in-game events. While f2p players may gripe and moan, it's perfectly reasonable for subscribers to get to cut in front of any line as they're paying for the privilege.

There are some other ways in how I think mmo subscriptions should work. I've always been a fan of an area reserved for subscribers, such as the Captain's Table in Star Trek Online and Club Caprice in Champions Online. It's not a bad thing to have an area where subscribers can hang out with other subscribers, but there should be some perks found in such locations as well. Access to one's bank, all vendor types, auction house, and mailbox should be a given, but I would also like to see some fun events happen as well, such as a costume contest or dance party. Another way in how mmo subscriptions should work is that subscribers should get an extra boost when compared to f2p players. By this, I mean they should get extra xp, crafting resources, and cash from selling items. In addition, I do think that subscribing players should get a higher level of loot from fallen enemies. Another option is that a dungeon or raid would have an extra chest that's only available to be looted by subscribers. While some may complain that this shortchanges f2p players, my assertion is that it does not. Those gamers who are playing for free are not getting anything less; it's just that those with an mmorpg subscription are getting a little bit more. Finally, I also think that subscribers should have access to a subscriber-only forum section.

Another aspect of mmo subscriptions is how players can take part in this feature. I prefer it when an online game offers several different ways for players to grab a subscription. There's the standard paying a monthly fee upfront, but a number of games offer ways for players to convert in-game currency into cash shop currency in order to buy subscriptions. EVE Online did this for years and more current games like Neverwinter have followed suit. Even World of Warcraft is now allowing players to buy subscription time with in-game gold on the auction house. An online game should be flexible in how it offers its subscriptions to players.

Basically, mmo subscriptions today should work like they did long ago. Players who are paying a monthly fee should have access to the entire game, and they should get a stipend if the game has a cash shop. If the game has a hybrid revenue model, then subscribers should also get additional perks like increased xp and loot and priority login access, and I would not be adverse to a subscriber-only chat channel in the game. One final aspect of mmorpg subscriptions I would like to see is a reduction in price. The cost of running an online game is far less today than it was 10 to 15 years ago due to technological innovations, and this cost reduction should be reflected in the subscription fee. Personally, I like the $10 amount per month as a solid basis for a subscription. Overall, mmo subscriptions are likely to stay around for years to come in one form or another.


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