For Love or Money? Making MMOs pay

September 18, 2007

Glad to be back after a very busy month. So what’s new…?

Virtual Worlds News has a whole series of blog entrieswith transcripts/notes from the Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC) which are very interesting to read. This discussion of MMO subscription models managed to cover a whole host of other fascinating subjects so I recommend reading the whole thing. Personally, I feel that there are plenty of opportunities to do MMOs without the monthly subscription fee and the monthly subscription model it seems is becoming less of a norm. For example the up and coming online FPS Kwari will be buit around micropayments for guns, equipment and ammo, in return players receive money for succesful hits, the discovery of special items, and the completion of quests. Hellgate: London has opted for a standard free play option and a ‘premium’ option that requires a monthly subscription fee that gives better customer service and access to ‘elite’ items, new quests, monsters, areas etc. Both these approaches are very interesting, but clearly are as yet unproven (both games are in beta, I believe). The ‘success story’ for the conventional MMO is Guild Wars, which offers a free to play service following purchase of the initial game, with revenue built from the purchase of expansion packs. Although Guild Wars is rarely included in discussions of ‘successful MMOs’, Xfire’s recent data publication put it at the number 2 spot for MMOs, compared to Eve Online and Lord of the Rings Online at number 6 and number 8 respectively.

Raph Koster’s list of successful non-subscription based MMOs unsurprisingly focused on the less graphically superior examples, aimed at children, tweens and teens – Barbiegirls.com, Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel. All three have been very successful, with Barbiegirls.com registering over 4 million sign-ups in just a few months, Club Penguin being snapped up by Disney for $350 million and Habbo Hotel claims to have 7.5 million users. However, all bar Habbo Hotel are relatively new and their subscription models are in the long run unproven.

Beyond revenue, what is it that players of these games are actually getting out of them, are we seeing similar levels of blogging, forum chatting and machinima that are associated with an MMO like World of Warcraft? One thing I feel that Raph overlooks is that to engage with the most interesting features of many of these MMOs players need to pay a subscription fee or make some other kind of payment. A $6 subscription fee in Club Penguin will allow you to buy clothes for your penguin, and according to this article from 2006, 850,000 of Runescape’s 5 million user base pay the £3.20 for access to new areas, monsters, skills etc. that non-paying accounts don’t get.

If I understand this article correctly, Barbiegirls.com requires users to have purchased the MP3 player to access most of the important content which at approximately $75 (Canadian), the price of a boxed retail game, and with the promise of $9.99 accessory packs ‘free’ goes out of the window really.

While I appreciate Raph’s insistence that the typical computer game developer isn’t really clued in to ‘web 2.0’ themes, so far the players seem to have made up for that gap in the business model through UGC mediums, especially machinima. It might be fair to say that the models used by Barbiegirls.com and Habbo Hotel have more in common with web 2.0 practices but that may be out of a necessity to develop a business model that depends on players who, in the majority of cases, don’t own credit cards.

The big question concerning the success of these MMOs will be their response to the use of their IP outside the game environment. Runescape RMT abounds and there is plenty of Runescape machinima on Youtube, and Club Penguin seems to have a strong tradition of machinima that doesn’t seem to have slowed down following its purchase by Disney, but how will a home-grown IP like Barbie work in this kind’ve context. I found only one or two examples of Barbiegirls UGC on Youtube, which used stills rather than ‘action’ footage, but it will be interesting to see how it evolves and what Mattel’s response will be should any video cross into ‘unsuitable’ territory.



  1. You’re right about UGC. How a company approaches it (or doesn’t approach it) says a lot about how invested they are in embracing “web 2.0”. Will be interesting to watch.

  2. Definitely, part of the culture of MMOs/virtual worlds is the sense of ownership players develop for their characters/property even though the EULAs might state otherwise.

    I think a lot of Raph’s support for these non-traditional MMOs/virtual worlds has been strategic in order to prepare us for Metaplace, which sounds great by the way. Pretty much every other MMO/virtual world site has covered Metaplace, so I’m going to wait until we know more about it before I do so myself.

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