Massively Multiplayer Gaming

Since it’s Thanksgiving evening, and since I’m not working tomorrow, and since I’m about to go play Battlefield 2 into the wee hours of the night, I thought I’d post some thoughts about the future of massively multiplayer games.

Increasingly, we’re spending more and more on subscriptions to get us through the day. At the moment, I personally am spending monthly fees for:

… and a range of other services. Some services I feel fine having an ongoing, fixed fee. For instance, I use Experts-Exchange enough to make the "on-call" nature of their service worth the money. But more and more, I’m relying on podcasts for my daily commute, which means my XM subscription doesn’t feel very good each month when I’m charged.

Massively MultiPlayer Online Games or MMOGs are becoming increasingly popular, even to non-gamers. Games like Everquest have been insanely popular, but more for the hardcore gamers. The new World of Warcraft game has proven to be incredibly popular, due in no small part to the ease of which new gamers, regardless of previous gaming skill can get up to speed. In fact, one of the games more focus on hardcore gamers, Star Wars Galaxies, recently overhauled their entire game mechanic to try to approach the ease of entrance and participation as World of Warcraft. We’ve heard many stories of "gaming addiction" about and from players of these games – players getting sucked in for hours and hours to these live, vivid online worlds.

Each one of these games require a monthly fee, all of which are fixed. Over and over, I hear and read things like this from gamers of all interest levels.

The one and only problem was that I didn’t play often enough to justify paying $13.95 each and every month. Cancelling my account was refreshingly simple and to the point. Along with a brief note leaving an email address and a phone number, I particularly liked the one line exit poll, which asked me the #1 reason why I left. There were checkbox options for things like “Ran out of things to do”, “Too hard”, etc. No checkbox for “I don’t play enough to pay a monthly fee”

I truly believe that as a consumer base, we’re growing accustomed to paying fees for better services. TIVO rather than normal TV, XM rather than regular radio, etc. In no small part, this change began with the willingness to pay for our gaming. Sure, this is  one small piece of a bigger pie, but it’s a big piece. Without the hardcore gamers, the MMOG business model wouldn’t have proven that people would pay for the software and paying for the monthly fee. This in turn allowed greenlighting of other MMOG games that began to target and draw in typically non-gamers. What started with gamers has now began to extend out to the non-gamers. Monthly fees start with the hardcore and move the average – for gaming, and soon for non-gaming.

As we move further into Web 2.0, we’re going to see many more services popup that allow us to move our offline services online. Writely.com document collaboration could take over sharing of Word documents. Meebo.com could replace our IM clients. Flickr takes over sharing photos with email and storing them on our own harddrives. And that’s just the beginning – who knows what we’ll see next in the Web 2.0 space. And we’ll almost certainly see fee-based services.

And since we know the early adopters for Web 2.0 concepts are going to be us geeks, it’s time to look at the payment models now. As we design services, games, and other "service sales" concepts, we need assess geek feedback on payment models, and issues that they’re having. After all, they’re the Early Warning System for the average consumer.

As often is the case, listen to actual users and they’ll deliver you great concepts – concepts like metered usage plans.

"Where is the metered pay model for online games?" asked bturnip over at Slashdot. Here’s a bloke who cancelled his account in A Tale Of The Desert because, while he still enjoyed it occasionally, it didn’t warrant the continued monthly payment. Gosh do I feel the same way about my SWG account – I still have it, at a cost of 15 bucks a month, and I keep it for research purposes now, but still, that money!

Or how about pre-paid game credits like pre-paid cell phone minutes? [from the comments of the story above]

"Something which surprises me is that nobody has thought of simply making it so that you still pay $12 a month to play the game, but that actually buys you 30 days of play time which are slowly ticked off your account as you use them."

Or something similar to what Sony is trying in Korea:

Meanwhile, there is of course a different model. Sony is moving towards it with their recent announcements, Kart Riderbiggest online game in Korea, and encourages players to spend tinsy bits of $ here and there on things like hubcaps to rare car mods.

Or micropayments to get in-game concepts with real world money.

And then there’s Puzzle Pirates, quietly getting on with it. They’ve had micropayments for over a year now, and it’s working like a dream.

There’s also tons of potential in creating games (or by extension Web 2.0 services and concepts) that allow users to spend money – with the creating company and/or consumer-to-consumer.

Almost every major online game has an in-game economy, where players exchange in-games goods for in-game currency. Most also have a real-world economy, where in-game currency and goods trade hands for hard cash.

But most such offline trade is part of an underground economy discouraged by game publishers such as Sony Online Entertainment, which has blocked auctions of items for "EverQuest" and other popular games, claiming such trade infringes its intellectual property.

A few online game publishers, however, have decided to embrace the intersection of virtual and real-world economies, providing approved outlets in which players can convert in-game assets into real-world wealth. The result has been an intriguing blend of typical game dynamics and the free market.

So what other business models exist? What else can you think of?

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