From Subs to F2P – Which Subscription Model is Best?

Today in the MMOG market, there are almost as many ways to subscribe to a game as there are games.
Today in the MMOG market, there are almost as many ways to subscribe to a game as there are games. Debates have been taking place on numerous forums regarding the wisdom of the various subscription models and their impact on the games and their players. Looking at the posts, you would think the very lifeblood of the posters is in peril when it comes to a game’s subscription model. To that end, let’s take a look at some of those models and detail the pros and cons of each, both for the game companies and for the players.

Let’s get one thing clear first: I have seen many posts bemoaning a game or being highly critical of the game company which always end in the wail, “This game should be free to play!” This attitude drives me crazy. A game company exists to make a profit. How they make that profit is up to them as is how they offer the game, whether via monthly subscription, microtransactions, advertising, or other means. My viewpoint of a gamer is that the game should deliver quality in proportion with the money that I spend on the game. I am not entitled to an awesome game with amazing graphics, constant updates, hellacious PvP action, and other bells and whistles without compensating the game company for my game play. The game company has employees they need to pay, and creating/maintaining a game costs money. This entitlement mentality needs to end. Nothing in life is free, folks. If you want to do something for free, go play Watching the Grass Grow MMOG. I hear it’s riveting.

City of Heroes/Villains


The monthly subscription is the standard subscription model for most AAA MMOGs. For a monthly fee, the gamer gets to play in the online world of his choice. Usually, a game company offers discounts if multiple months are purchased at the same time.

Game Company
Pros: It seems to me that this revenue model would be the most desired by game companies. Primarily, it guarantees a steady, monthly flow of income for the company. The number of hours played by individual gamers is irrelevant as that no matter how much, or how little, a gamer plays, they are still paying for the service every month. A steady income allows stability in the company and allows them to dedicate resources to enhance the game, usually through new content upgrades.

Cons: The main con for a game company with monthly subscriptions is that players expect regular content updates and a quick response time to in-game problems. If a game company does not stay on top of the game, they will very quickly face a hostile player base.

Pros: The main pro for players is that most monthly subscription-based games are AAA titles, which take that monthly revenue and funnel it into new updates and improvements to the game. By their monthly payments, they are ensuring that the game company has an incentive to keep the game stable and prosperous.

Cons: The sad truth is that many non-AAA titles charge a monthly fee, and their monthly investment is not guaranteed to be funneled into improved game play or new content.

The primary con to this payment method is that no matter how little you play the game, you are still paying the same amount as some psycho who never leaves his computer desk except to answer the door to get his delivery order. In fact, I actually feel pressured to play a game if I’m paying a monthly subscription fee. When I realize that I’ve already paid for a month, but haven’t played the game much, I feel compelled to play so I don’t feel like I’m wasting money. Also, the game company might try to squeeze some more dollars out of you ala Blizzard with their recent purchasable mount or City of Heroes and Champions Online selling costume pieces even though you’re already paying a monthly subscription.

All Points Bulletin

This subscription model allows players to purchase in-game time, be it in hours or days. A recent example is APB, where you can purchase a set number of hours to play. This method is a bit more flexible than the monthly subscription method.

Game Company
Pros: While not generating as much revenue on the surface as a monthly subscription, the buying time method does result in a positive revenue stream. The game company also hopes that by allowing players to buy smaller chunks of game time, the players will enjoy the game and purchase more and more time. An unwise gamer could actually spend more money using this method than they would with a monthly subscription if they purchase a lot of days/hours individually.

Cons: The principal con to buying time is that players can get into the game by spending less money. The game company risks the chance that a player will try the game for a bit and then wander off, never to return. They need to hook the player almost immediately and they don’t have the luxury of a subscription-based model for a player to spend a few days trying out the game.

Pros: What is a detriment to the game company is a boon to the players – they can get into a game for less money. There is also a great deal of flexibility to this model. If you don’t play for a week or two, it doesn’t cost you anything. It only costs you money if you do play.

Cons: Depending upon how much you play, this method can be more costly than a monthly subscription. If you’re playing the game a great deal, you should check to see if they have other subscription models, such as a monthly subscription. In addition, sometimes this method is poorly implemented. In APB, you have a little clock ticking down showing you the time you have left in the game. Watching the clock wind down serves as a serious buzzkill. It’s hard to get excited over a new PvP match knowing you only have 12 minutes of game time left.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

This model is becoming increasingly popular here in the West. This subscription method relies upon microtransactions to generate revenue for the game company. Many new MMOGs are coming out as free-to-play, and some older games are converting to this method to stay in business. The conversion of Dungeons & Dragons Online to free-to-play served as an earthquake in the MMOG community, shaking things up and showing that this model is here to stay.

Game Company
Pros: One pro of the free-to-play model is that it greatly expands access to the game. Practically every gamer is willing to try out a game for free. This model can be extremely profitable in that while gamers will normally spend less per month as opposed to a monthly subscription, there are more players who are willing to pony up a few bucks for some additional content or in-game items. In fact, by keeping prices low, there is a good chance that quite a few players will spend way more than they would on a monthly subscription fee.

Cons: Having a large number of players does not guarantee that they’ll spend money on microtransactions, so there is a risk involved in this method. The game company also has to make sure that they walk that fine line between getting players to purchase items and infuriating them by destroying game balance with in-store items. If a player can make himself a god by spending a few real dollars, then why would dedicated players want to stay in the game? A game company needs to work constantly to offer new and useful items for sale while preventing balance destroying items from chasing away the more casual gamer.

Pros: Simply, the main pro to the F2P method is that it is FREE! You don’t have to lay out cash to play the game. If you don’t like the game, then you’re not out anything. If you keep your head while purchasing microtransactions, then you’ll spend less per month than you would with a monthly subscription.

Cons: You get what you pay for. There are a ton of dreadful free-to-play games out there. Game play is usually limited in some way unless you make some kind of real world purchase, such as expanded levels or new character slots. Also, since the game is free, don’t hold your breath for updates as they tend to be a lot less frequent with free-to-play games. This method can be a money pit if you don’t watch your spending on microtransactions. Those 2 to 3 dollar purchases add up!

Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online was the first big title to offer this subscription method. Basically, with this method, you pay about two years worth of a monthly subscription fee (around 300 bucks or so), and you never have to pay again for the life of the game.

Game Company
Pros: The main pro for this method is that the game company gets a huge amount of revenue up front. Even if the game goes belly up after a few years, you’ve still got the cash. Also, the game is guaranteed a player base with lifetime members, who will want to keep playing the game they shelled out a lot of money for and, hopefully, will talk their friends into playing.

Cons: The truth of business is that you need money coming in on a regular basis. If most of your player base opts for the lifetime subscription, then the game won’t be generating any revenue after a few years. No incoming revenue equals no game.

Pros: If the player really loves the game and intends to be playing it for years, then this method is pretty good. For one, it doesn’t matter if you take a month off because it doesn’t really cost you anything not to play from time to time. You’re also guaranteed to be playing as long as the game is active, which brings us to…

Cons: You’re screwed if the game folds early. If you only got around six months of game time in at around a year’s time, and the game company closes the game down, then you’re out of luck unless you were guaranteed the game would be active for a certain length of time. Another con is that the initial cost is quite high, and if you made this purchase early on, you might realize later that you’re not thrilled with the game after all. Also, just because you purchased a lifetime subscription doesn’t mean that you won’t ever lay out any more money for the game. A new expansion might require your purchase to enjoy the new content. Just ask players of Champions Online.

World of Warcraft

As you can see, there are quite a few subscription models a game company can use to generate revenue from the players. Which one is best? The answer really lies with the game and the player’s preference. Personally, I don’t like the lifetime subscription at all because every time I’ve seen a similar method (usually for magazines or table-top games), the company tends to go bankrupt. The lifetime model is only economically viable if only a small portion of the player base chooses that option.

My personal choice for best model is one that I didn’t list above, which is a hybrid model, which takes two or more of the subscription models listed above and uses them all. The best example of this is DDO, where you can play the game as free-to-play, but you can also purchase a monthly subscription. If you go the monthly subscription route, all the game’s content is available to you and you receive a certain amount of credit in the microtranscation store. This model provides the greatest amount of flexibility in my opinion. You can try the game out for free and see if you like it. If you really love it and play it regularly, then you can get the monthly subscription and go to town. If you simply like it and play it from time to time, then you can just purchase what you need from the microtransaction store when you need it and save yourself from paying to play a game when you’re not.

I think most game companies should really look at Turbine’s model and adopt it, thus allowing players a great deal more flexibility in how they play the game. Plus, revenue went up 500% for Turbine--a win-win for everybody!

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