When we think of how mmorpg games generate their revenue, our first thought always turn to subscription fees. While it is true that many online games generated the vast amount of their profits from subscriptions, that practice has changed considerably in the last few years with the rise of free-to-play games. There is, though, a source of revenue that many gamers don't think of when it comes to mmos: merchandise. The amount of merchandise varies wildly depending upon the game in question, but there's no doubt that a game company can generate some healthy cash flow from this area. Let us explore further the methods of merchandising mmos.
Selling merchandise associated with a certain product has been around for over a century in the realm of commerce. Characters like Mickey Mouse or Popeye the Sailor sold many comics, coloring books, prints, and figurines. Merchandising is extremely popular with movies, which really exploded with Star Wars. While it is true that Star Wars made buckets of money worldwide when it was originally released, George Lucas made far more cash by his merchandising deals that he made than he ever did with the movie alone. Just look at the toy line alone to see how successful merchandising can be. I'm pretty sure that Lucas sits atop his huge pile of money, gold, and silver like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin as that he held the rights to merchandise the Star Wars film and extensively used them to his financial gain. While the level of scale isn't the same, the principle of selling merchandise based upon your intellectual product is just the same for mmo games.
The first way that mmo merchandise crops up is through the sale of collector's editions. These items not only sell the game itself, but usually come with a great deal of extra material, such as books, cds, and even figures. The Guild Wars 2 collector's edition came in a metal box and included a music cd, a hardback book of the making of the game, a custom art frame and portfolio with five art prints, and a 10 inch Rytlock figurine. One of my favorite collector's editions came from Warhammer Online that included a graphic novel, a hardback book of art associated with the game, and a miniature pack containing the figures of Grumlock and Gazbag, an orc warboss and his goblin shaman. These collector's editions can go for quite a bit of coin, usually around eighty to one hundred dollars. The most expensive one that I've seen so far is for Transformers Universe, which goes for $449.00.
Besides CEs, there are other forms of mmo merchandise. One popular method is to sell a cd of the game's music. For many games, this is the only mmo merchandise that they really offer. The reason for this is that it's incredibly easy to do as they already have the music, so it takes very little effort to sell it as a download or to have some cds made. A few of the mmos that sell their soundtrack include Fallen Earth, Age of Conan, and Aion.
There are many, many other ways to merchandise and mmo. One such way is to license their mmo with a company like Razer, who makes gaming peripherals. World of Tanks is one mmo that has such a deal, with Razer making World of Tanks-themed mouses and pads. League of Legends has also made a similar deal with makers of headsets.
Other mmo merchandise can include art prints, action figures, novels, tabletop games, and even stuffed animals. The most successful mmo in terms of merchandising itself is World of Warcraft as their range of items is truly inspiring. They have a collectible trading card game, posters, shirts, towels, artwork, action figures, steins, and books. So why don't more mmos merchandise themselves like WoW?
There are several reasons for this. One is of who actually owns the rights to the intellectual property. The developers of Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic do not own the rights to the settings that their games represent. They're legally unable to merchandise the game in most instances, and if they are able to, the lion's share of such sales would go the legal owner. Another reason is that of cost and scale. WoW can have so much mmo merchandise because they're the most well known mmo on the market and have been for a long time. They have the player base that would be interested in buying their products, while many other mmos do not have such a large fan base. Another factor is cost. Creating and then shipping physical items is a separate business all its own. Game companies are focused on creating online games, not on creating action figures to sell. It's actually pretty expensive to create the molds for items such as figurines, statues, and action figures. That's why when you do see some mmos venture into such territory, it's usually done by licensing their product to a toy company.
Still, I do wish some more online games would push mmo merchandise a bit more. I would love to see some action figures based upon the characters found in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Who wouldn't want a Khem Val figure? They can be a nice source of additional revenue for the game and give players the ability to tangibly get their hands on items based upon the games that they love. Personally, I would love to be playing Age of Conan while drinking out of my official AOC skull goblet while wearing my licensed Cimmerian barbarian shirt and listening to the pulse pounding soundtrack.