Funding MMORPGs – What Are The Options?
Neil Kewn (Murxidon), OnRPG Journalist
Developers are known to implement cash shops, power ups and other premium features to fund their free MMORPGs. After all, how can you expect games that give a huge chunk of their content away for free to survive? Today, subscription numbers are falling on many of the more popular pay-2-play MMORPGs. Is it time for even well-known publishers to begin including additional money making systems into games for a much needed cash injection?
In game advertising
I know some have a deep hatred for in game advertising; especially in fantasy MMORPGs were the suspension of disbelief is obligatory. Some may find an advert for Coca-Cola plastered over a town hall notice board too distracting, or thirty second promotions playing before they can login frustrating. From a business standpoint, there are many unique and dynamic ways ads can be incorporated into persistent worlds, and not all of them necessarily have to prove a detriment to the gameplay experience.
For example, could you imagine seeing a banner ad pop up below your quest log promoting a new fantasy movie about to hit cinemas? Aiming at the perfect target means it would undoubtedly garner interest.
Would this bother you?
Anarchy Online offers free accounts for players who don’t mind the odd advert. Movie trailers and commercials play on virtual billboards, and rarely seem to be a detriment to the gameplay experience, nor do they hamper the ability to become drawn into the game world. As the MMO is set in a futuristic corporate ecosphere, it wouldn’t be unusual for promotional material to pop up every now and again on the streets of Rubi-Ka.
Less “in-your-face” advertising methods could include sending promotional e-mails to your in-game mailbox. Having to clear out spam from your virtual inbox each morning is a small price to pay to play a game you’re not actually paying for.
It is unlikely that indiscreet in world advertising in P2P MMORPGs will be well received, though. Players are already coughing up $15 to experience a product, logging in one day and finding an advertisement for half price pizza concealing your action bars would undoubtedly cause uproar. Yet, free MMORPGs could benefit greatly from integrating ads into their game world. Anarchy Online has sustained a respectable player base for over six years now using this technique, coupled with premium items and expansion packs.
Promotions and Campaigns
EverQuest II ran a short promotion enabling players to order pizza from popular food chain Pizza Hut whilst in game. Hungry adventurers could bash “/pizza” into their chat box to bring up a browser window with an online order form. It is a dynamic and impressive scheme to gather Pizza Hut customers, whilst providing Sony Online with a slice of the commission.
Advertisements like these won’t prove to be a distraction for the player, nor do they have an influence on the game world in any way. Using well-known MMORPG mechanics to get players to part with their cash was dependant on how seamless and natural the process would be. If it detracted or removed the player from the game world for an extended period of time, it is unlikely that many adventurers would have bothered with the offer.
Appetising, but not intrusive
Most MMORPGs provide a trial of some sort for new players, unlocking a portion of the game to new players before they commit to any payment plan. In every trial, the character created is barred from being accessed once the trial expires until the player purchases the full game and extra play time.
To combat this, the unlimited trial has become a popular marketing drive for many P2P MMORPGs. Both Warhammer Online, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and EverQuest II give new players the chance to experience the game for as long as they are so inclined without parting with any credit card details.
I can imagine this being particularly effective with long-time F2P MMORPG players, when 10-day free trials provided by other games experience severely hamper the gameplay and lock them out of the game world they’ve spent over a week becoming accustomed to. Using this scheme, gamers can play at their own leisure and experience what the game has to offer in their own time, before upgrading to the full version.
B2P games usually go hand in hand with P2P games, requiring that players pay a fixed price for a copy of the game before subscribing to a recurring monthly fee. This is quite discouraging for customers new to MMORPGs, and gives the impression that these types of games are overly expensive.
One way to save bump up player numbers could be to eliminate the Buy-2-Play aspect of some MMORPGs. Give players the option to download the game client from the official website and play the game by committing to a $15 a month sub. There is little sense in forcing new players to part with $30 just to own a CD key, or to “activate” their account.
£34.99 for a serial code?!
On the other end of the spectrum, could eliminating the Pay-2-Play aspect encourage a lot more players to congregate in a developer’s game world? Guild Wars has proven that B2P alone works, with many players not willing, or able to commit to recurring billing. Making a P2P game F2P (with in-game advertising, cash shops, promotions or otherwise) may jumpstart growth in an otherwise ailing investment.
Although some vendors have added “unlimited trials” (giving players access to limited content with an irritating nudge to upgrade), making a game completely free-2-play is sure to incite droves of gamers to try it out. The question is whether or not the implementation of other funding methods will be enough to sustain the game once the guaranteed monthly cash pool is no longer being replenished?
Developers Need Gold Too!
There are a number of alternative ways to fund both free and P2P MMORPGs, some of them more risky than others. Closing down servers on P2P titles or bumping up the price of cash shop items can only do so much, and if the cash reserve dries up, content development is slowed and players begin to look elsewhere.
When cash shops irritate players and server merges infuriate them, it’s definitely time for developers to bring new and dynamic funding methods to the table. Countless more MMORPGs are finding space in an already convoluted online world game space, is this the only way they can avoid closure and avoid becoming indexed in the annals of MMORPG history?