Although there are always cases of companies doing TOO well in collecting money from players, one of the quickest ways a MMO folds is if they can’t get enough income to keep the doors open. As such, putting thought into how that payment model should be structured is critical. Hellgate: London stands out as a game that failed in part due to its lack of time spent thinking through the implications of its box sale plus subscription fee model.
Which is why comments like this from EJ Moreland, Design Lead on the soon to launch APB are concerning:
“We really didn’t put that much an emphasis on the business model at first. But as part of the last two and a half years, it’s been part of my direct mandate to architect a business model together.”
Given that APB is rumoured to cost something like US$50m (I’ve seen the figure US$80m thrown around too) it’s a concern that the question “how are we going to make money?” wasn’t talked about up front. How you get paid is critical to how certain aspects of the game are designed.
Leaving price model development until the very end of the project has a number of risks – the game design may not be appropriate for the chosen price model, for instance. There has obviously been some internal confusion or shifts given how Realtime Worlds previously indicated that APB would not require a subscription fee. If it really has been Moreland’s responsibility to work out pricing, it’s of concern that such things went public on APB’s official site.
The Pricing On The Cake
The system that Realtime Worlds (RTW) launched with suffered two key problems: it was confusing and may actually work against APB’s revenue stream.
The confusing sections came from the mix of options – $50 for 50 hours with the box, then either $7 for an extra 20 hours or $10 for an unlimited playtime month, plus manufacturing costs and RTW points costs. The micro-costs for listing manufactured items on the APB marketplace were pulled that due to player outcry and replaced it with… nothing, in a move that seemed that even RTW wasn’t confident in its own pricing structure. And then there are RTW points that you can use to buy in-game time with. Or maybe you can’t, given that they are no longer included in the FAQ.
The other issue I see is APB’s own payment model working against its survival. RTW is banking on people playing APB like an FPS – short sharp bursts – rather than a MMO – long play sessions – as part of their payment assumptions. However, they’ve also dangled the potential for players to play APB without having to pay, which would likely come from earning RTW points in-game and then converting them to play time (how do you earn RTW points in APB? Crafting and selling things on the market is the only way known thus far). That’s not a system that promotes short, sharp play sessions – it promotes grinding out the tasks necessary to earn points to play for free. So you end up with a group of players who are heavy users who aren’t even generating any income for you.
And then there is the hourly payment model. This one is interesting because it benefits the players, but not the developer. Let’s say you get an APB box. You play it a bit, then put it on the shelf and wait for an update. Repeat for the next update, then the one after that. A casual player could make those 50 hours last for months. Then they buy an extra 20 hours and stretch them out. This kind of payment system front-loads the revenue while only seeing the monthly subscription dollars come in from hard core users. Sure, there is the benefit that players will still have accounts with APB they can go back to, but that’s no good for Realtime Worlds to pay the server bills with. Having a $10 a month sub fee is already lower than the market expectation – a very positive thing in my opinion – but then RTW undercuts themselves by offering a cheaper option that will even further delay casual players from paying fees.
The final way that RTW has potentially damaged its long-term revenue source is in allowing the social area to be free. Since you can customise your character in the social area and APB has been very heavily sold on its customisation options, giving it away for free seems an odd decision. I can see the thinking: “Players might be able to talk to their friends and customise their characters for free, but they’ll actually need to pay to play the game to make friends and buy stuff”. However, the issue there is that plenty of players will be happy to have some kind of graphical lobby to chat with friends and to dress up their paper dolls, especially if it is free. For a player who feels they have no need to enter the game, they can certainly just hang around and not contribute any more revenue to APB’s server upkeep.
Crime and Punishment
Although RTW has obviously put some thought into the pricing model, the fact that questions still exist around it and that they were so quick to change it in the face of criticism raises concerns. By providing options, RTW may have muddied the waters while also developing a price model that works counter to their design expectations. Suddenly backing off without even trialling the system makes me wonder exactly how wedded RTW is to any part of their pricing model (and, for the record, I think having to pay real money to list an item on the market is stupid, but then I didn’t develop a multi-million dollar MMO that would have been supported by that revenue).
At present, the closest example to APB is Vogster Entertainment’s CrimeCraft. Despite the simpler price model of CrimeCraft – two free months play with the box, a $10 monthly subscription fee after that – CrimeCraft still had to move towards a free-to-play model and dropped standard subscriptions to $5 a month. Unfortunately I think APB is going to end up going down this path as well. Once the initial burst wears off, RTW is going to see a lot of players sitting on their remaining hours and waiting for extra content to come out, which isn’t going to do their revenue figures any favours.
EDIT – 3 September 2010, to fix a dead pic.