A little over two years ago, Brian Green laid out why he believes that subscription models for MMOs are doomed. More recently, he touched on money in online games again, and this time hit the reason why I support the subscription model: Gambling impulses.
To use an outside of MMO example that I think illustrates my point well, let’s look at the Lottery. Almost every state in the United States participates in some form of lottery. From scratch off cards to Pick 6 jackpots, and they do it because it has been a proven money earner to fund state projects with. Of course, some people oppose the lotteries for the same reasons I’m about to go into.
Typically, a lottery ticket costs $1. Some scratch off games are more, but we’ll stick with the $1 tickets for now. At that price, I buy tickets now and then, usually when the jackpot goes over $100 million, because really, if I spend $1 and win $100 million or more, that’s a dollar well spent. But I don’t win, or haven’t yet. Looking at the Mega Millions site (the multi-state jackpot Georgia participates in) you can see clearly why. The chances of winning the jackpot are approximately 1 in 175,711,536. Knowing a bit about math, that number is why I don’t buy many tickets and don’t buy very often at all. However, I’ve worked in stores that sold lottery tickets before, and stood in line at gas stations all over, and watched as some people will spend $50 per draw (twice a week) in a quest to win that jackpot, even when its only $12 million.
The kicker to this is that the most money is generally spent by the people who can least afford to spend it. So while I seem moderately immue (though not completely) to the gambling impulse, I’ll spend maybe $20 or $30 in a year on the lottery, but there are people spending much more… $50 a draw, twice a week, that’s $5,200 a year, usually being spent by people who could probably use that money somewhere else to much greater effect.
An MMO with a monthly subscription model is like having a fixed utility bill. It is $15 a month, every month. Of course, some people buy gold and things outside of game, but in general, you could say the overall game design is meant to fit the $15 a month model. Then take a game like Puzzle Pirates. You have the option of paying a monthly fee, or you can play on one of the doubloon oceans (servers). On these servers, certain items, jobs and activities require doubloons which can only be gotten in two ways, 1) buy them from game, or 2) trade for them with other players. If no one does 1, then soon no one will be able to do 2. So, while I play on a doubloon ocean and have never bought doubloons from the Three Rings (the company that makes Puzzle Pirates), my game depends on other people buying doubloons and then needing pieces of eight (the other money in game) which I earn by playing the game. I play for free, my game in unhindered, but requires some effort to get what I want, however it is dependent on someone somewhere willing to pay cash for doubloons.
People with the most time to play are going to, in my experience, be less likely to buy items if there are other ways around them. However, a person who holds down two jobs to make ends meet who likes to game in their little free time is going to feel more of a pull towards buying items to “level the playing field”. So when it comes down to the microtransactions, where you are comparing thirty minutes or an hour worth of time to $1, it begins to slide into that realm of lottery tickets… so much like the lottery, I can easily see myself throwing a couple dollars at it now and then, but I also know there will be people spending fifty to sixty dollars a week.
At the end of the day, I guess it boils down to how much you feel responsible for providing a product that relies heavily on the player’s self-control and restraint not to bankrupt themselves. Personally, I’m not comfortable with it. Overall, while I dislike gold selling and that sort of this, at least it is, for the most part, external to the game design (I hope), but when a game is designed to accept, or even require, cash transactions to advance… I guess its a slippery slope I’d rather not set foot on to begin with.