Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Subs and Cash Shops - An Examination

Massively posted this article yesterday, a soap box rant about how the author dislikes the recent combination of cash shops and subscriptions. I'm inclined to agree with the author on a few points, but I wanted to do a bit of an examination of this style first before tackling the author's argument.

Firstly, I think we should make a distinction: There are games that have cash shops and require a subscription, and and there are those that are free to play, have a subscription, and a cash shop. These two, though similar in approach, are different in how they treat their players. The ones that the article specifically mentions are EVE Online, SOE titles, Star Trek Online, Champions Online and Age of Conan.

Let's tackle subscription games with cash shops. That would be STO, EVE and DCUO. Should we believe the authors argument that a subscription is far more than it takes to support one player on a server, then we can then assume that the cash shop is, in fact, a cash grab. There is the argument that the cash shop items are only fluff, and not required to play the game and all its content. This is correct, in a way. You are not required to buy a monocle in EVE to play the game. I pick this example specifically because it is the most obvious cash grab out of all of the titles. No, these items are not required to play the game in any capacity, but (most of) the players in EVE are already paying the company to play the game. Now they have to pay again to use some unique toys?

If we make this akin to a theme park, the type of theme park that charges you at the gate rarely, if ever, charges you for any of the rides. If they do, it's under two circumstances: One is a third party sets up shop with one of those slingshot rides that shoot you up in the air, which, hey, if that's your gig then go for it. The other is those "pay a dollar, throw a baseball at some milk bottles and embarrass yourself in front of your significant other to win a stuffed cheeseburger as a consolation prize." Yes, that was specific, and no, I'm not still bitter. Those stands are meant to make money first and foremost, not to entertain the consumers in any way other than some flashy lights and sounds.

I think it's obvious at this point which side of the fence I'm on when it comes to subscription games. But as for Free to Play? Well, that's an entirely different story. Age of Conan, Champions Online and the upcoming City of Heroes Freedom come to mind. Let's use that theme park analogy again. This theme park does not charge you to walk in and enjoy the surroundings, but all the fun rides cost money to get into. You can pay for the rides you want, or you can buy a pass to ride as many rides as you want until your pass expires.

Now, some may argue that the metaphor isn't perfect due to the fact that you have to ride certain rides over and over again until you can get up to the bigger rides. And there is no room for free rides in a theme park of this style because there would be people who would ride those rides until there is a tragic accident, possibly involving a circus elephant, that shuts it down. But the general gist is that they aren't charging you to get into the park, only to ride the rides.

I think Massively's author has a solid point, but only when it comes to cash shops added on to subscription titles. The free to play games that have subscription options and cash shops are giving their players more options, and frequently the subscription members are given a stipend of points per month to buy from the shop anyway. In time, they could unlock the entire shop's contents, making subscriptions very appealing to their customers. The company receives a steady amount of money from subs, and the players get to reap the benefits of the cash shop for no extra charge (as long as they keep within their stipend). I find this option far more agreeable.

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