State of the MMO: Industry Luminaries On The Genre, Its Future

Dana Massey | 30 Apr 2008 23:48
Interviews - RSS 2.0

Microtransactions vs. Subscriptions

There are open questions beyond just innovation, though. Currently, there is a fight underway between two very different methods of monetizing MMOs. For years, games have existed with subscription fees dominant in North America and microtransactions (paying for small chunks of content rather than blanket access to the game) in Asia. Now, as more Asian games are adapted for North America, that model has spread. Coupled with the struggles of some high profile subscription games, it makes one wonder if the subscription model is now on its last legs.

"Publishers love a standard subscription model because they can multiply 'x' players by 'y' dollars and know exactly how much revenue is going to be coming in next month," pointed out Butts. "What they're counting on with MTs is that a small percentage of those players will be so hardcore that they're willing to pay money out of their own pocket each month to gain access to the premium content."

Most seemed to believe that the two models could coexist, but it is notable that while some argued purely for microtransactions, not a soul dared to say subscriptions would win the day.

"I firmly believe that this space is going more towards the velvet rope, microtransactions," said Smedley. "Subscriptions will always be there as a component of that, but it won't always be there as the primary revenue generator in this space."

Firor agreed, "Different kinds of games can support different payment models. Blizzard would have been very careless to make WoW free to play or micopayment based - we're talking Western world here - a subscription model was perfect for them."

The key point is to tailor the payment model to the game or product on the market.

"I suspect the big boys are racking their brains to go micro, and anyone developing a 'network' or an 'experience' is too," explained Weathers, "but I think the smaller products that consider themselves to be 'games' will stick with the subscription model."

There is precedent for markets that employ dramatically different methods of monetization for the same product without issue, Stinnett pointed out. "TV programming happily coexists with pay-per-view."

Still, not everyone thought subscriptions had a future.

"Subscription is on its way out," said Macris. "If there's a segment of consumers that makes sense to reward, it's the ones with cash, and likewise if there's a segment of consumers you can afford to lose, it's the ones without any money. This is just straight economics."

Fantasy, Sci-Fi: Is That All?

It seems every MMO that comes down the pipe is either fantasy or science-fiction. Why have virtual worlds failed to branch out into new settings?

"When you poll core gamers, their favorite genre is always fantasy, by a wide margin, followed by science fiction," said Macris. "So it's natural that we keep going to those genres. That said, we need to either go broader or go narrower, rather than fight for the same core gamer."

Unlike most genres, MMOs have actually tied themselves to a specific setting through their very nature. Stinnett pointed out that at each game's core is a progression system, and in many ways it's inextricably linked to the kind of content fantasy worlds offer.

"The key to unlocking success in settings beyond fantasy will be new progression systems that don't rely so heavily on equipment and magic," he said.

But people don't simply claim to like fantasy games; they also feel comfortable there.

"MMOs are different from traditional games in that they are worlds, and players of MMOs want to be sure that they are entering a world in which they are comfortable before they purchase/download the game," said Firor.

"Part of the appeal of MMOs is that you can escape your day-to-day life and do something completely and utterly different and be completely submerged into it," said Zurrmond. "Maybe the other genres are too close to our day to day life in a way?"

Despite this mindset, there is still definitely an appetite among those with whom we spoke to expand the borders and try a few new settings.

"I think horror will be a big genre in this space; I know that's something we're looking at," said Smedley.

Macris agreed, "I think the comic book genre has the potential to be a big winner right now. Spy/espionage is another. I also think something like World War II Online, updated for 21st-centry conflict, would be very successful. In general, themes that are modern but still escapist and action-oriented."

The consensus was with Macris on this last point. People want to escape; they do not want to leave the real world for the drudgery of another, and the upcoming slate of MMO releases, beyond those in the immediate future, points to a more varied atmosphere. This year we'll see Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, two fantasy games, but beyond those are games like DC Universe, The Agency and All Points Bulletin, which are all firmly in the category Macris described.

Fantasy is by no means dead, and will likely continue to command an inordinate percentage of new launches, but with each generation, the overall balance should shift away from its current virtual monopoly.

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