Scott Jennings, rather better known as Lum the Mad, made quite a splash recently when Wagner James Au at GigaOm published a piece called Why The MMORPG Subscription-Based Business Model Is Broken. Well, Jennings didn't exactly mean that, and he didn't exactly not mean that. Heck, really, the issue is a fairly complex one and Jennings takes some pains to clear up what he was talking about in more than nine words, and adds more than a little value besides.
Certainly, 15 dollars per month by twelve months with multiple subscriptions seriously eats into your annual games budget, even though a single subscription is often quite affordable in and of itself.
Jennings acknowledges, though, that subscription-based MMOGs can be fun, and that they can rake in the big bucks as well. That's not really the broken part. To get your fledgling MMOG to release and maybe get a piece of that money pie, it's actually irresponsible to innovate under current publishing models.
That's why innovative films (for example) only get teensy-weensy budgets. People with briefcases full of investment money are frankly rather risk-averse. That's part of the trick to generating briefcases full of investment money in the first place, oddly enough.
Through the 1990s the lesson was clear in the game industry: Avoid innovation -- it's expensive and risky. Besides, games are sold with features that are in juxtaposition to those of existing games. The really innovative games you played were the ones that hardly any investor or publisher would back, but the derivative crap you can find on the shelf at any store; there are people lining up to fund those. Katamari Damacy's development budget was reportedly six quarters, two metal washers and a piece of string (hyperbole alert!).
Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick only one
As budgets get bigger, the problem becomes exacerbated. If you think an investor is timid about one million dollars - what about five million, or fifty million? 'There is little room for creativity and advancing the state of the art in any of those scenarios,' says Jennings, 'either you are working too fast, have too little budget for your scope, or you don't have the flexibility because you are responsible for a blockbuster-sized budget.'
Subscription-based games feed on the MMOG faithful, Jennings observes. It's hard to get someone to pull out that credit card and start tapping in the details the first time. The incentive has got to be there, and for a first-timer, they don't really have much idea about what they're getting into.
An additional valuable lesson from Jennings that we shall try to hold close to our hearts here at the vast and plush Massively offices: Never Ever Even Imply You Will Take World of Warcraft Away From People.
Richard Bartle adds, Never Suggest that Some New MMO which Shares WoW's Gameplay Does, in Fact, Share WoW's Gameplay.
Actually, you know what? It might be good advice, but we'll pass on it. Our clotting factors are good, and we've got this great health plan. We'll tell it like it is. It's not like we need all our limbs to bring you the news, right?
In any case, it's a darn good and thought-provoking read. Pop past Broken Toys and check out the nuts and bolts of Jennings' case, and see what you think.