Whether we like it or not, it seems than mainstream sub based MMOs are switching to a “double dipping” approach where they charge us a sub fee (or an enormous lifetime access fee up front) for access to their servers and then try to get us to pay for additional content and services on top of that. Sony has been doing it for years in Everquest II. They were the first to have paid “mini expansions” in between the release of full expansions, they were the first to have RMT servers where they take a cut of all the action, and they recently added trading card games to all of their main MMOs (EQ, EQ II, SWG) where you can buy booster packs that might have in game items.
These days, it's spreading. Blizzard has been flirting with the double dip for years. First via licensing their IP to Wizards of the Coast to make a card game that could grant in game items, as well as by charging exorbitant fees for services like server transfers and race change operations. More recently, Blizzard dropped all pretense and offered a in game pets for sale on their website. Given the success of the offer, I’m sure we will see similar offers in the future. City of Heroe and Champions Online both offer a plethora of optional costume elements in their online stores. Even Turbine seems to have caved. The free content updates since Moria launched have been positively meager compared to what they did in their first year. Turbine seems to have saved all of their substantial new content up for the Shadows of Mirkwood mini-expansion.
Some commentators have argued that you simply can’t fund ongoing development of a top teir MMO with a $15 dollar a month sub fee these days. I personally find that very hard to believe. Let’s take a successful 200K subscriber MMO. I think it’s safe to say that LoTRO and EQ II are at least in that ballpark, and others like FFXI and WoW have a lot more subs than that. At $15 a month per user, that’s about 3 million a month in revenue (36 million per year). If you release a full expansion once a year, at $50 per user that’s another 10 million dollar cash injection, plus random cash injections over the year due to new users and resubs (who need to buy the expansion to get up to date).
Do ongoing content updates for an existing MMO really cost that much to make? Given that entire MMOs can be made for a few million, you’d think 30 million a year in sub fees would cover one or two new zones a year in an existing game. What about the paid expansions? It’s not as if a sub based MMO developer really needs to make a profit on expansion boxes. As long as they break even, profit will come from the sub fees. Further, if the revenue for boxes alone isn’t enough to cover the cost of making an expansion, then how on earth do so many video game developers stay afloat charging absolutely zero sub fees for access to online shooters or subless “MMOs” like Guild Wars and Borderlands?
From that perspective, the new trend towards double dipping in sub based MMOs seems much more likely to be motivated by greed than necessity. However, I would argue that I presented you with a somewhat false dichotomy. It is neither greed nor necessity that primarily motivates double dipping, it is “common sense.” If you have a product, should you make as much money as you can off of it or less? If you answered the latter, you are running a charity and not a business.
What it really comes down to is this: double dipping will rarely hurt your bottom line. A tourist won’t be around long enough to notice or care whether you are double dipping. A core user is unlikely to leave due to double dipping as long as the additional goods and services seem optional. Nothing short of an NGE shakeup of core mechanics is likely to chase those guys off. The sub income from small number of core users that will get ticked and leave due to double dipping will likely be more than offset by the additional income from those that remain. Now that MMO developers have figured this out, expect to see a lot more double dipping in mainstream MMOs.