But that's certainly not always the case. Among the Massively staff, pricing opinions run the gamut, and we're not afraid to tell you what we think. That's why this week's Think Tank column is all about how we would assemble our own perfect business models from the pieces of others. Who does it right? Who does it wrong? Read along for more on our thoughts for the perfect business model.
I also enjoy how Free Realms pretty much forces a small subscription but has a cash shop that is packed absolutely full of wonderful toys, clothes, and neat-looking mounts. If there is going to be a cash shop in a game, it needs to be full of truly tempting items that give me the same wonderful impulsive rush that I get in real life when buying a new gadget or toy. Both of the games I mention offer plenty of options but balance the prices almost perfectly.
But the Guild Wars model is an anomaly in the genre; far more common is that money-grubbing, annoyance-laden hybrid model that Western MMOs love to adopt. Of all of those, I preferred City of Heroes' because it just seemed clean and honest. There were only a few bits (lockboxes, cost-obfuscation) that irked me, and for the most part, I was actually happy to buy costume pieces, new power sets, and new zones that I knew I'd actually use, and I could do so on a reasonably old sometimes-premium/sometimes-VIP account without losing too many gameplay perks. I especially liked the license for inventions, which basically made your uber characters playable on a $2 mini-sub -- that's something we don't often see from other F2P games. They're usually all or nothing.
It seems that these days, most games that convert to the F2P model end up being a bit lackluster in terms of content and the restrictions F2P imposes. So I end up subscribing again anyway, which is quite likely the plan all along, but it means that there is then a dividing line between P2P and F2P people. They can't use the same water fountain as I can, and it seems wrong. In most F2P games, it seems devs continue to build on the F2P model by creating different kinds of "money" and making more items for the shop than what is standard in the game. Make me pay the $15 a month and give me content monthly, or don't make me pay and continue to give me content with the option of buying a new wig, but make sure the wig doesn't have super powers.
That said, I will agree with Beau and advocate for simple and straightforward. I don't care for "Microsoft Points" or "Station Cash," or whatever the BS currency is that's designed to ensure you're always a little bit short. Just charge me whatever you're going to charge me in dollars and I'll gladly pay it. Don't try to weasel more money out of me with that shady stuff. I also wouldn't mind an option for a more expensive everything-is-included monthly plan where you have automatic access to everything in the item shop going forward. That would please my inner-completist and save me the hassle of entering a bunch of $1.99 line items in my budget. I'm not holding my breath, though, because it's probably more profitable for game companies to charge piecemeal.
Of course, cash-shop models aren't intrinsically evil or anything, but I tend to look at most F2P business models in much the same way some others look at communism: fine in theory but with too many pitfalls to work in practice. Sure, there are some F2P games out there that have managed to perfect the balance of power in such a way that those with extra money to spend in the cash shop don't necessarily have an unfair advantage. However, a cursory look at some of the many F2P imports run by the likes of gPotato and Aeria (and so on) will show that such well-implemented cash shops are about as common as unicorns, and most games that feature cash shops tend to require you to spend the same amount of money that you would pay for a subscription (or more) in the cash shop in order to remain competitive.
I think insofar as business models are concerned, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have it right: There's no subscription; you just buy the box and then you can supplement your gameplay with cash shop purchases. But why am I OK with that when I'm generally not OK with cash shops in general? Put simply, the only things on offer in those two games' cash shops are purely cosmetic (new outfits, minipets, etc.) or provide only small conveniences like experience boosts. So to directly answer the question: I think GW2 and TSW are on the right track, and I wouldn't complain at all if more developers began adopting that model as well.
Sure, if you're making yet another fantasy-based MMO with mages, elves, and dragons, you're going to need to get creative about encouraging players to pay for it. And that's the problem: If the most creative thing about your game is the way you're attempting to monetize it, you've already screwed up.
EVE and Wurm both give you the option to pay for your game time by working really hard or just being smarter than the next guy. Earn that money in game and then pay for your time with that money. Of course, the conversion rate is ridiculous in some cases, but that's the price you pay for doing it this way. Guild Wars 2 has something similar, where you can earn in-game gold to convert to gems and use those gems to buy shop items and services (like new character slots), and I like that. I also like the option to buy in-game gold with real money, which helps to eliminate gold farming. I'm just not a big fan of lockboxes or cash shops with nothing new to offer. If a studio is making money selling certain items, get more of those items into that shop regularly.
I also think that every game with a microtransaction or pay-per-content business model should offer a VIP option to give those who enjoy the tried-and-true subscription model the choice to just do that and get everything.
What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.