Friday, August 6, 2010

The Quandary of Value

In responding to a recent post over at Bullet Points, it occurred to me that the makers of sub based MMOs have an odd quandary. Every time they add content to a game for free, the value of a sub goes up since it buys access to more. A side effect of this is that if you are thinking about subbing to a game but can't decide whether to do it now or later, waiting until later will always be a better idea from an economic perspective. High value sub fee games such as City of Heroes/ Villains or year one LoTRO, where tons of content is added for free, suffer most strongly from this effect.

At the extreme are games such as Everquest II that offer "all in one packs," where the core game and all previous expansions are included free when you buy the latest expansion. From a pure economic perspective, every year that you put off starting the game adds enormous value to it. Compared to someone that has been playing all along, a late comer gets tons of content for very little money.

Compare the above games to a game like World of Warcraft, where new content is only rarely added for free, and a late comer has to pay for the client and every expansion pack separately. There is little incentive to put off subbing, because it won't get you much additional content and it will make the game more expensive to buy. If you are thinking about subbing now, you may as well because waiting doesn't get you much.

Even more extreme is a FtP game, where waiting to start playing gets you nothing. The same parts of the game will still be free, and you will have to pay exactly the same amount to unlock additional content. The only difference is that there will be more content to unlock, which will potentially make the game more expensive to have unfettered access to for a completionist.

The better value a game provides (in terms of free content) for an ongoing sub fee, and the more generous the handling of past expansions, the stronger the economic incentive for potential customers to put off subbing. Of course the flip side of this is that the more quickly a MMO builds value, the more quickly it will build up to some critical threshold where customers only mildly interested in it might do the trial. That is exactly what happened to me with Star Wars Galaxies. Seeing that I could potentially get half a decade of content for $20 was enough to get me to take it for a spin (even if it didn't stick). Which of the two effects is stronger probably varies from one customer to another, and how interested they are in a game to begin with.


  1. Very interesting post, I never thought about it that way. Reminds me of what they say about earlier adopters always having to pay more. These scenarios definitely apply to the customer who is "on-the-fence" about a particular MMO who will probably get better value for waiting longer to purchase it. Inevitably, the thought that came to my mind is how it's in a company's best interest to "hype" a game, because the more enthusiastic one is about it the more likely he or she is going to pick it up right when it comes out.

  2. Excellent post. I like the all-in-one packs that SOE does with EQ2. It really is night and day when comparing content vs cost with EQ2 and WoW.

    In my mind no game has released as much free content as CoH/V has. For twenty bucks you get two games and something like seventeen free expansions, that is one heck of a deal.

    The only problem with having so much content is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to do.

  3. Great post and a very good point. New sub-based games will generally struggle a bit because of this unless they have a really compelling "new and shiny" part.

    Veteran rewards is one thing that games try to use to keep people playing - but at the same time they cannot provide too good things there which might lessen the appeal for some in game stuff, or mess up game balance.

  4. @MMMOGamerChick: I suspect you are exactly correct. For several reasons, the wise thing to do with a new MMO is wait a month or two and see how it pans out before jumping in. Companies use hype to get us to ignore common sense.

    @Jaybdub: absolutely, EQ II is a much Much better value than WoW. And I agree, the track record of CoX with free content is exemplary.

    @Sente: I never thought of veteran rewards in that context, interesting point. The balance between giving long time subbers more value and making newcomers feel unwelcome must be a difficult line to walk.

  5. While I think I get a better deal with LotRO with a life-time subscription, that's only because I ended up liking it enough to play it long term. If it had been a dog with fleas, it would have been a waste of $199.

    I like that FtP let's you get your feet wet without potentially losing an investment. With the DDO model, I started getting a little put off by the constant trickle of money going out for new content. Eventually reconsidered and think of it like a lifetime subscription with an installment plan:

    You buy an adventure pack then it's been bought for all of your toons. The nice thing is, if you tire of the game at ANY point in time, you've only bought what you've used.

  6. I really like the way DDO handles FtP as well. It may not be a great value compared to "true" FtPs like URU, but I think it stacks up favorably against a lifetime sub or even a typical sub based MMO that forces you to pay $50-60 up front for the client.

  7. I would say great post, but I'm a day late. Excellent post! Haaaa I trumped those fools.

  8. Ugh! I can't believe I haven't commented on this great post yet. Anyway...

    I wanted to say that this is one of the things that bugs me about MMOs, but it is an issue with all games. I bought Dragon Quest IX the other day for $40, which I told someone was a steal for the amount of game there. And this happens all the time. Our lives are a constant cost-benefit analysis.

    The thing with MMOs is that the calculation has so many variables. Payment models vs. content expansion vs. social factors vs. design considerations et. al. make weighing one game against another a huge challenge.

  9. The question of value for money, for me has always been pretty moot with regards to games because of a combination of poor impulse control and distractability. Basically any game I'm excited for I can't wait to buy, and any game I'm on the fence about I don't ever end up getting since there's always a ton of other newer games coming out that tend to bury older ones.

    That said, I do really like EQ2's habit of rolling up all of the clients into one box, something I wish Blizzard and others would do.

  10. @Scarybooster: thanks!

    @Anjin: yeah I do the same thing with offline games as well now. Why buy something for $60 now when I can get it in a year for $20-30. Wish I had that philosophy when I was younger, can't believe how much I used to spend on games.

    @Blue Kae: I was exactly the same back when I was a console gamer. The end result is that I have an enormous library of PS2, X-box, and Gamecube games most of which I have played for an hour or less. At least I have a solid backlog to work through if I ever become jobless :-/

  11. "Even more extreme is a FtP game, where waiting to start playing gets you nothing. The same parts of the game will still be free, and you will have to pay exactly the same amount to unlock additional content."

    Not always. Waiting for a sale on crowns in Wizard 101 has been a great thing for me. (As you've noted, that's like a lifetime sub piecemeal... and when it's on sale, well, that's one benefit of waiting.) I also dodged the glut and lag of high population early adopters (I played in the beta, though, so I know how busy it got at launch) and benefitted from bug fixes.

    Of course, I did also miss out on some very overpowered gear that was later made unavailable. They left existing bits of OP gear in there, but you can't get it any more.

    All in all, it's remarkably like any other consumer model that sells a product or content rather than a membership or subscription... and I like it.

    That instance aside, I agree with you; the value of these things can be pretty wonky and wildly variable.

  12. @Tesh: You officially get the prize for most thoughtful post after my moderator filter goes up :-)

    Actually that's a good point about "game cash" or whatever the currency is called. The best time to get serious about a FtP MMO is definitely when their currency of choice is on sale.