After perusing a few Book 7 threads on the Lord of the Rings Online forums, I hit an interesting node. It seemed that people were thankful of the fact that Turbine added content to their subscription game. Now, I am a thankful customer whenever I get my product or service without a hitch, but these posts were more in line with getting a free bottle of wine at a restaurant. I was really confused that these people believe that this content update was not part of the subscription fee they had been paying all along. As more and more games (and game playing) becomes a service, rather than a product, consumers should be aware of the service they are paying for and the norms with similar services.
Of course some products and services are still extremely blurry. Take a look at Valve’s offerings. Team Fortress 2 was first offered in the Orange Box, which came with a bunch of Half Life games and Portal. If a FPS player just wanted extremely fast multiplayer action, the player could buy Team Fortress 2 for a mere $20. They have updated Team Fortress 2 to an amount where most players are surprised that there are no subscription fees. Valve has created new maps, polished the most popular player made maps, added new functionality to the classes, re-balanced their maps, made new movies for the game, etc.
Then Left 4 Dead came out for $50. Like Team Fortress 2, it was pretty much purely a multiplayer game, and many people believed that we would get similar updates. Left 4 Dead shipped as a great game, but it only 4 campaigns of 5 maps each (campaign = approx. 1 hour), only half of which were available for versus mode. People figured “that’s alright, it’s still a great game. It will get updated.” The consumers felt that $50 went toward the product and a service. We are still waiting for the “missing” versus mode maps. It’s not the result of the service being printed “on the box” for the given price tag, but it was still expected given Valve’s established history.
Coming back to MMOs, the confusion is no different. ArenaNet’s business model for Guild Wars is very similar to Left 4 Dead’s assumed model. They sold a product and a service for a flat fee. The problem was that before the Live Team was created, it seemed that the service side of things was almost at the developer’s whims. Sometimes we would get a new dungeon. Sometimes a new PvP map. Sometimes a skill update. People were not sure how to value the added service, even if unlike Left 4 Dead, in my opinion, the initial product was worth the price tag. Now, that Guild Wars has a Live Team the service has solidified to a high degree, and I hope Guild Wars 2 follows a similar path.
Full circle back to subscription MMOs. It is no secret that game companies live and die based on subscription numbers. Players pay $10 to $15 a month for a service. And the controversy lingers as to what all that “service” includes. Turbine publicizes it’s frequent “free” content updates. Many MMOs simply patch and tweak their games in between paid expansions. Both practices rely on little more than the conventional wisdom of subscription fees only entitling customers to regular server and software maintenance. Mythic is one company that is doing things very right as far as presenting what players will receive as the service. I have not subscribed to Warhammer Online in some time, yet I still read Mark Jacob’s letters to the community because he forthrightly values the subscriptions. It is clear he wants people to value the service Mythic offers.
At the end of the day, your playtime and your money is what talks, and players have left MMOs for cruder things than a shady service. Still as we move farther away from buy-the-disc games, the value of the services we buy should become more apparent. It will save a lot of disappointment or misplaced thanks down the road.
an equal amount of blueberries