Two different yet related items have sparked this post about why we pay a monthly fee; the upcoming release of Cities XL and Tobold’s re-review of WoW. Cities XL because some are questioning why they would need to pay monthly for the game, and Tobold’s WoW post because it’s a good reflection of what paying that fee can get you.
Let’s start with Cities XL. I know very little about the game itself, other than it’s basically trying to be SimCity with a monthly fee and some minor player-to-player parts. The issue some have is justifying that monthly fee (which is $5 mind you, not $15) for what amounts to a chat room and perhaps some city to city trading (sorry if there is more, again, I’ve only read two items about the game).
In my opinion, looking at a game like Cities XL and complaining that it’s not MMO enough seems a bit off, especially in today’s solo-hero-dominated market. In my mind that $5 a month is not paying for a fancy avatar that can walk around a player built city and collect ‘epic’ loot and random achievements. That $5 is going to pay for future content and enhancements to your 99% single player game; for a team dedicated to expanding and improving that game. I’d pay $5 or more monthly if the team behind Civilization 4 offered a product like this, with each month bringing new content or changes, with every 6 months or year bringing large update to the features, graphics, and sound. How many single player games would you love to pay $5 a month for if the original team behind it continued to pump out more stuff? I mean hell, people already do this with games like Madden, but instead of paying $5 a month they pay $60 a year. Madden sells millions of copies each year despite changing very little year-to-year; know any other games that fit that description?
On the other hand, Tobold’s re-review of WoW is a good example of what five years of $15 a month might get you. Read his review, and now remove everything about WoW that was already in place in 2004; what’s left/changed? Do the same exercise for EVE Online. Now adjust for the fact that EVE just recently hit 300k subs worth of money coming in, while Blizzard has had millions paying $15 and $40 for two expansions. Going forward, which game would you place your money on to improve more in the NEXT five years?
Buying any MMO is in some ways a two step investment. The original up-front cost covers what you get at launch and shortly after, the basic idea and core of the game. The justification behind a monthly fee is that the game will expand and improve as time goes on; that the games lowest point is its first month and each month after things should only get noticeably better. That aspect is part of the appeal and charm of the MMO genre; that if you find a game you like its appeal won’t end when you reach the final boss and see the ‘game over’ screen. You’ve found a virtual world that fits you, one in constant flux that will continue to entertain you thanks to its setting, community, and development.
Early MMO games certainly followed this design. UO was a near limitless world of opportunity, and the player-run aspects of the game gave it almost endless ‘content’. EQ, while a bit more linear, was still updated at such a rapid pace that only the very upper elite reach what could be called a ‘game over’ point, and many expansions and updates went beyond just tacking on ‘more’ at the end of the carrot stick. Asheron’s Call had its monthly patches that changed up the world and progressed the over-arching storyline.
Today WoW gets a major patch once every 6 months (if that), a patch that might add one end-game instance and other tweaks. Every two years (for $40) the level cap will be raised, new zones will replace (not compliment) the old zones, new gear replaces old, and the treadmill of rep/gear/tokens gets reset. There is no progressing storyline like in AC, there is little player-driven content like in UO, and the PvE update pace is a joke compared to EQ1. All this done with profits (resources) that dwarf what UO/EQ/AC had to work with. At the current rate of updates, EQ1 will soon be graphically superior to WoW.
And while I use WoW as the most blatant example here (due to overall resources and glacial pace of timid updates), how do other current games in the MMO genre compare. LotRO started out with a furious (at least in comparison to WoW) pace of monthly updates and story progression, yet this (according to what I’ve read) has now slowed, and even at it’s peak did not stack up to what Turbine was doing previously with Asheron’s Call. How is EQ2’s pace of updates compared to EQ1 back in the day? DarkFall has seen one major expansion (patch) since release, with another set for this month. It’s a little early to compare it to 97 UO, but let’s hope Aventurine can keep pace.
I don’t have an answer as to why, a few exceptions aside, the overall pace of MMO updates has slowed. Is it just that most studios are trying to be Blizzard, pace of updates included? Has the technology really gotten THAT complicated that it makes major updates more difficult? (And if so, how is it that CCP, with the most technically advanced MMO out, is lapping everyone else yearly?) Or is it simply because we, the MMO gamers, have shown that we will settle for 6 month updates, pricy expansions on top of subscription fees, and five year old feature sets?