Not this again! I know, I know – there’s nothing the MMO blogosphere likes to talk about more than MMO monetization, and while a lot has been said on the topic, I think there’s still value in adding to the cacophony of public opinion.
MMO Monetization used to be so simple. At first we had subscription games; you paid a small monthly fee and the developers added content to the game which was available to all subscribers. You paid, you played – simple as that. For awhile, the only form of monetization worrying players was pay-to-win. The market has now evolved beyond that, and with the veritable cash cow microtransactions have proven to be, there’s no going back from here. There’s more ways than ever to monetize your game; in a lot of ways, the market has truly gone wild.
The Resoundingly Rejected Competitive Pay-to-Win
Competitive pay-to-win is when a game directly sells a competitive advantage over other players in its cash shop. At first this form of MMO monetization was rather brazen, and it wasn’t uncommon to see free-to-play titles directly selling top tier gear in their shop.
Competitive pay-to-win has been rather resoundingly rejected by the overwhelming majority of Western consumers, and as a result has become a bit more insidious in its implementation. A top tier item might be craftable in game, but with a 0.01% chance of crafting success, whereas spending real money will bypass the RNG and guarantee success. Is this still pay-to-win? I’m inclined to say yes, but a lot of people would throw it in the next category: pay-for-convenience.
The Pain-based Methodology of Pay-for-Convenience
With blatant pay-to-win largely defeated, coercive models like pay-for-convenience have taken up the mantle as the new vanguard for predatory MMO monetization in the West. These cash shop offerings run a gamut from arguably pay-to-win systems like the RNG model above, to still arguably pay-to-win (yet much more widely accepted) systems like experience potions, to truly convenience oriented systems like inventory expansions.
All concerns about competitive advantages aside, where pay-for-convenience systems fundamentally go wrong is in the way they pit game studios against their players in order to make money.
One of the tricks of the trade is something developers at Zynga — which created FarmVille — used to call “fun pain” or “the pinch.” The idea is to make gamers uncomfortable, frustrate them, take away their powers, crush their forts — and then, at the last second, offer them a way out for a price. [Source]
When the designers themselves are literally talking about inflicting “pain” on their players in order to coerce them into spending money, you know you have something to be wary of. Coercive monetization is a deep topic to dive into, but for a quick primer, I’d highly recommend reading The Top F2P Monetization Tricks by Ramin Shokrizade, a game economist with years of experience in monetization design.
The fundamental problem I have with pay-for-convenience systems is that they make money not by adding something new to the player’s experience, but by taking away an undesired element instead. You aren’t paying to unlock new gameplay content like a DLC or to unlock a new cosmetic that you really like, but rather to remove some hindrance that’s been deliberately placed in your way. Whether it’s near insurmountable RNG or simply that the developers have created far more junk loot than freely available inventory space, pay-for-convenience systems encourage predatory design resulting in a game that’s purposefully less enjoyable for those who don’t pay-up. It’s not unenjoyable because you don’t have all the content unlocked (which would incentivize the creation of new content), but because you haven’t paid to remove the obstacles placed in your way.
Perhaps pay-to-not-be-deliberately-annoyed would be a better moniker for this system.
The Long-term Consequence of Psychological Pay-to-Win
Up next is psychological pay-to-win, an unfortunate side effect of some MMO monetization systems. Psychological pay-to-win occurs when a player’s personal win state can be accessed through microtransactions without giving them a competitive advantage over other players.
This typically comes down to collectibles (hear me out on this). Let’s say a player is a mount collector or really into the fashion side of an MMO. For that player, being able to purchase their goal in the cash shop enables them to achieve their win state instantly and without playing the actual game. While not unbalancing to the game’s competitive scene, it does remove long-term goals from the game and the overall health of the title suffers as a result. Psychological pay-to-win is at its worst when prestige items formerly earned through gameplay are added to a game’s cash shop.
Psychological pay-to-win is admittedly one of the least egregious problems that can arise from microtransaction based monetization. Its comparative mildness has relegated it to something most people aren’t even aware of as a possible negative anymore, likely as a result of its contemporary ubiquity. While competitive pay-to-win grabs the spotlight due to allowing a player to unbalance the game’s competitive scene through cash shop purchases, psychological pay-to-win only affects the purchaser themselves.
Fortunately, the negative effects of psychological pay-to-win can largely be mitigated with tactful handling of content creation. If every new collectible added to the game is being introduced through the cash shop, that’s a lot of potential long-term player goals being eliminated from the game. But if the great majority of collectibles introduced to the game come through gameplay exclusively, as is the case in games like World of Warcraft, then the effects of this can be almost unnoticeable. Realistically speaking, cosmetic only cash shops are going to a best case scenario for most titles going forward, so we can only hope they handle their in-game collectible systems responsibly.
The Subscriptions and DLC Models of Monetization
At this point, you’re probably wondering what types of monetization I don’t have a problem with. You’re ready to leave a scathing comment informing me that game developers have to make money to feed their families, as if that were ever in question. Don’t worry – I know. But there are ways to make money without creating an unhealthy MMO.
Let’s address the classic first – a pure subscription model. There’s no pay-to-win (not even psychological), no pitting the developers against the players to make money, and the only financial incentive for developers is to continually improve the game for your long-term players.
It’s great, but for a lot of games, it also just doesn’t work anymore; that last bit is exactly why. The MMO market has evolved, and many players aren’t interested in a long-term commitment any more. These players want to flit between games, to play more than one MMO at once, and to them the subscription model is anathema. The MMO market has to cater to two types of players: the MMO tourist and the loyal veteran looking to lay down roots.
Thus, the solution is a hybrid. The Secret World and The Elder Scrolls Online have both transitioned to a DLC-esque model in which new content additions can be unlocked by either having an active subscription (which comes with additional benefits) or via one-time DLC purchases. This model provides financial incentive for the developer to focus on adding new content to the game in much the same way as the pure subscription model, while allowing short-term players the freedom to play without subscribing. While both of these games do feature cash shops with some objectionable elements, the DLC style of updates provides motivation to maintain a steady pace of content production, as well as creating a rewarding avenue for new collectibles and cosmetics to be added to the game other than the cash shop. Ultimately, this mitigates some of the potential for harmful psychological pay-to-win as well.
Star Wars: The Old Republic and RuneScape have similar models, but without the DLC component. Non-subscribers have access to a base game, while all content updates and expansions are only available to subscribers.
This style of MMO monetization may not be a one-size fits all solution, though. A few years ago, I wrote a short post titled Monetization Models as a Gameplay Shaping Feature, commenting that the subscription model may lend itself better to games designed with more of a reliance on persistent communities while free-to-play and buy-to-play models may work better for games focused on delivering bite-sized gameplay sessions that players can hop in and out of fairly easily.
The DLC-esque hybrid model of MMO monetization specifically may work well for themeparks with consistent content updates, but for sandboxes, which find their longevity more through emergent player interactions than continual developer-driven updates, the model may fall flat. Given that no sandbox game to my knowledge has actually tried it, I think the best we can do at this point is guess. Sandbox MMOs are certainly more reliant on maintaining a persistent long-term community of players than any other model, so perhaps the subscription model will see a resurgence with their impending return to prominence.
The Bottom Line
All things considered, the most concerning trends in MMO monetization come down to monetization’s effects on two crucial aspects of a game’s development: financial incentives for content updates and the long-term health of the game. It’s important that monetization design incentivizes game developers to add new content to the game and doesn’t place the players’ unhindered enjoyment of the game at odds with the studio’s financial interests.
Unfortunately, games utilizing those types of designs are becoming harder and harder to find, largely due to increasing acceptance of pay-for-convenience style predatory monetization systems. The internet reactions to Black Desert Online have epitomized this growing acceptance. The game features pay-to-win, coercive pay-for-convenience, and extremely little cosmetic diversity outside of its preposterously overpriced cash shop, but is widely defended with acknowledgments that yes, it does all those things, but just not in a way that’s bad enough to be a deal-breaker.
And you know what, they’re not wrong (other than the “it’s only pay-to-win for some people” guy). I’m not playing BDO, but none of its monetization woes appear to be legitimately game breaking. I’d probably play it if it didn’t have those issues on top of being disinteresting in other ways. But that perspective is the entire problem – so long as we as consumers accept everything that doesn’t literally break the game, designers aren’t going to cut back on harmful monetization to better promote a title’s long term health; not when the short term cash-grabs are working out so well.