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Buy-to-Play Games are the Future of MMOs

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By david_jagneauxDate: Jun 25 2013 Views:

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MMOs are different than any other type of game in several ways, so much so that they often require entirely different business models. Most games, once purchased, are yours to play as much as you want, whenever you want. With the boom of MMOs though, came around a new business model that required people to not only buy the game, but continue to pay a “subscription fee” on top of that for continued access. This is what is known as a “pay-t-play” game and while the stereotypes of games discussed here aren’t necessarily the rule, more often than not, they hold true.

It makes sense, though, because maintaining servers, bug fixes and continued support around the clock are expected and required for a successful MMO, and so more fees are needed. With the improvement and increased efficiency of technology and business practices, those fees aren’t as necessary as they once were. While Blizzard still maintains their subscription model for World of Warcraft, for the most part, even they are moving away from the extra money.

Part of this trend is due to the rise of the free-to-play model, and we can see that several games are even switching to free-to-play after failing as a pay-to-play offering. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift and TERA, as recent examples, have ditched the subscriptions all together in favor of offering the base game for free and implementing microtransactions as a revenue source. Microtransactions can and often are, however, the sign of a game’s ultimate death. As what’s referred to as a buy-to-play experience, many shops in games allow players to spend real money in order to quickly become the most powerful. The truly successful games only implement optional pieces for their shops that enhance the game, but are not necessarily required.

Then you have the hybrid of the two, known as the buy-to-play model. This is the rarest of the three types of services, as you simply purchase the game and you’re done. The shop in the game does allow you to purchase optional items and upgrades, but this situation almost always has purely optional items. Things like XP boosters, magic find boosters, special mounts, etc. are often found, but not special abilities or damage boosters. By offering these types of optional upgrades, players can further customize their experience, but aren’t burdened by expensive monthly subscription fees.

The prime example of this method is the less than a year old Guild Wars 2. For the flat fee of the registration code and/or box, you get the full game, all of the races, classes, abilities, zones, everything right out of the gate for no extra fees. ArenaNet also continues to deliver in-game events that are free to the player, but offer promotions and items within the cash shop that further advance and enhance player’s experiences. This method, in my opinion, seems to be the future of AAA MMO development.

While the free-to-play model continues to struggle against the stigma of questionable quality being associated with a “free” game, the buy-to-play model holds more accountability and investment on the sides of both the players and developers. Many recent games that have debuted as free-to-play and transitioned recently are proving the model can deliver excellent titles, but buying a game always feels like it will be better, even if it always isn’t. I’ve played games of all three types that I loved and that I hated. The exceptions, however, are few and far between and do not disprove the majority of MMOs that players have to choose from in the gaming landscape.

One of the other benefits to the buy-to-play model is that players can put the game down at any time without feeling they’ve lost any money. When you’re paying a monthly fee for access, it almost feels like you’re forced to play as much as possible just so you don’t feel like you’ve wasted any money. With a free-to-play game, the quality is often too low to truly grab your attention. The buy-to-play model offers the best of both worlds, by straddling at a happy medium between the two philosophies. You get quality without the extended fees and you get lower obligations without the loss of quality.

Whether the MMO landscape embraces the buy-to-play model, or if more high-quality free-to-play games start to appear is unknown, but the subscription model is nearing the end of its life cycle. From the standpoint of a developer, I’d find it difficult to justify paying upwards of $150 a year just to log onto the same game as much as I wanted. With so many great free-to-play titles and now buy-to-play games that rival (and often surpass pay-to-play games) I expect the subscription model to disappear in due time. With its demise, I hope the buy-to-play model fills in the gap.

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