What’s that monthly fee really buying you?

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?

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Asheron's Call, Civilization Series, Console Gaming, Darkfall Online, EQ2, EVE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO design, Patch Notes, Rant, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to What’s that monthly fee really buying you?

  1. Thoms says:

    Today you’ll also get slaugthered if you release a buggy expansion. Bad reviews will scare new potentiel players and former players will read it and be happy that they left.

  2. Tipa says:

    How often do you change your bed, or even the kind of pillow or mattress you like?

    Most people don’t want to think too hard about what game to play. Playing WoW is easy, everyone else plays, and there isn’t anything in it other people haven’t already done for you so you never need have any questions or thought. It’s as simple as going to sleep.

  3. hirvox says:

    To be fair, expansions in Eve require a different kind of effort. A new dungeon in WoW is not just programming, it also requires a lot of art: dungeon itself, doodads, monsters, loot, effects. It also requires voice acting and additional sound effects. By comparison, an Eve expansion might just contain one new ship which uses existing equipment and a lot of game mechanic tweaks and additions, which are 99% programming work.

    • Letrange says:


      Evidently you don’t read EVE online patch notes. Not to mention last time I checked WoW still has it’s original graphics engine (at least I haven’t heard they ripped it out and replaced it the way they did with EVE). As for the artwork – well lets see – until Cataclysm comes out all the original release artwork is still in WoW. For EVE, by the time Dominion releases (note – for free, no stupid you have to buy a box like WoW), the only piece of original artwork left will be some item icons and the nebulae.

      • hirvox says:

        Evidently you don’t read Eve Online dev blogs. For example, those fancy planets arriving in Dominion are procedural content: A piece of code that allows CCP to generate tens of thousands of unique planets from a relatively small pool of artwork. That same design philosophy also makes every star system somewhat similar: there’s only a handful of stargate models, a handful of station models and so on. Once you’ve seen a few star systems, you’ve seen them all.

        Conversely, WoW dungeons and zones have limited re-use of art assets. For example, Silithus, Sunken Temple, Shadowfang Keep, Black Temple, Sunwell, Zangarmarsh, Icecrown, Sholazar Basin and Ulduar all look wildly different. While this provides more variety, it is also more labor-intensive for the art department. Even locations using the same style have wildly different geometry, which need to be manually adjusted to fit.

        Eve and WoW represent two completely different design philosophies in this regard as well. WoW has a great variety of art, but the game mechanics are relatively shallow. Eve has great depth in the game mechanics, but relatively little variety in art.

      • Adam says:

        Hirvox makes a good point about Eve’s procedural content generation…it’s a pretty low bar.

        However he way overestimates the amount good work done by Blizzard in it’s new content.

        It’s mostly trash redos of old content. Tuning raid bosses with the same old combat sequences over and over?

        Flying snakes? You know the ones with different colors and levels but the same dumb attack spam and animation?

        The new content in a game like Eve and Darkfall is usually actual -game play- differences.

        New features to the game versus more rehashed themepark.

      • syncaine says:

        I fail to see how a ‘custom’ created planet in every system would benefit EVE over having a formula generate one using a combination of existing art. If you had never read a blog or seen patch notes, could you tell the difference? Because after seeing 1000s of planets, I’m guessing you could not.

        But lets face it, one new dungeon every 6 months (if that) is not because of some bottleneck in the art department or because you simply can’t product content faster. It’s simply much cheaper to produce things at the absolute slowest speed possible without a serious hit to your player base. As WoW players have shown in the last few years, the toleration is amazingly high for a glacial pace, and bright shiny lights (achievements) instead of actual content will keep people distracted for months on end.

      • The planet designs are a side note anyway. In fact they were actually created as part of the Dust 514 development process then simply integrated into EvE.

        What CCP really do well is not so much adding content to the game each expansion, (which they do do) but that they add new tools for the players to create their own new content.

  4. sid67 says:

    There has been a lot of content added to Warcraft, it’s just mostly been in the form of expansions.

    But more directly — to answer your question: What is your monthly fee buying you?

    It’s buying you the right to play the game. That’s pretty much it. And I don’t really have a problem with that model. $15 / month really isn’t that much money.

    No one made any promises to me when I signed up that I would get a bunch of other stuff for my $15. I just don’t get the sense of entitlement players expect.

    You pay a monthly fee for a service. That service provides you access to the game, a customer support staff, and a patches to fix bugs.

    • syncaine says:

      I totally disagree with that. The $15 goes a lot further than just power to a server and fixing existing issues with the product you launched. Those are my expectations for a game WITHOUT a monthly fee. WC, SC, Diablo, C&C, TF2, etc. All those get the kind of service you list below, and should, for free. The right to play the game is why you pay $50 for the box initially, not why you pay $15 each month. No one playing UO in 1997 was handing over $10 a month to keep the servers running.

      • sid67 says:

        I think it gets a bit more muddled when you talk about a sub-par game. Or in other words, a game that launched which wasn’t 100% ready.

        In those cases, the devs “patch-in” updates for what should have been in the game from the very beginning.

        But that’s the exception, not the rule. Point out to me a Terms of Service or EULA where it says the game company needs to provide content updates as part of the monthly subscription. You won’t find it for any game.

        The subscription fee is for the service, not for the game itself.

        Name any other industry where you buy a subscription “plan” and get free content updates. And not little service updates — but major updates.

        Cell phones? No. Internet service? No. TiVo? No. Cable TV? No. Direct TV? No. A car lease? No. Newspaper? No.

        The sense of entitlement that MMO users have for what they get out of a subscription is unique to the MMO industry.

        And IMO, it’s an expectation that is brought on primarily because many MMOs launch with less than the promised features. If a game launches with all of those features, why do we still expect updates as part of our monthly fee?

      • syncaine says:

        Name one game in recent years on the PC that was released in a 100% ready state? One step further, name one MMO that since release saw nothing but fixes to it’s established feature set?

        And why would every major MMO retain a dev team if the expectation was to only provide that the servers are up, someone answers the phone when you call, and everything on the back of the box is working in-game? Come on man, this is just getting silly now, are you honestly trying to say that since 1997 and UO, all those dev teams have just been trying to fix their game without evolving or adding to it in any way?

        But maybe that’s the issue, too many people today follow your line of thinking, and accept the very limited updates by a company like Blizzard that they receive. Hell by your logic a patch with a dungeon every 6 months is a bonus bestowed to you by benevolent Blizzard.

      • sid67 says:

        I’m not talking about my expectation for content updates. I’m answering your question: What does my $15 monthly fee buy me?

        It buys me a subscription and access to a working version of the game for 1 month.

        Content updates? Expansions? I fully expect to PAY for those and I fully expect the MMO to have developers — well, developing new content.

        But what I don’t expect is for that to be included for free as part of my $15 subscription.

        By no means am I saying that game devs should just be sitting on their ass waiting for the next monthly subscription check. If you want people to keep playing your game, you are going to need to update your content.

        But I also expect TO PAY for that content. And I don’t think of that as being included in my monthly fee.

      • syncaine says:

        Fair enough then, we just have radically different expectations. I’ll happily continue to expect CCP-like support for my $15, while you can continue to expect less-than-Blizzard like support for your $15. And I’ll continue to expect ‘free’ expansions like Dominion, while you can save up your $40 to get Cataclysm.

      • Perhaps a better question is “What is the initial $40-50 investment in Wow buying you?” if your subscription fee is what covers the right to play the game.

      • sid67 says:

        Agreed. I’m certainly not going to bash CCP for providing ‘free’ content. I would just point out that it’s ABOVE reasonable expectations.

        Partly it’s the context. My take is that CCP-like behavior is above and beyond what you would expect. And that they should deservedly receive praise for that.

        But I’m not going to bash on Blizzard, EA or any other company for not going above and beyond.

        It’s like recognizing that Nordstrom customer service is better than at Macy’s. I will gladly applaud Nordstrom but I’m not going to start holding Macy’s to that standard.

        It just means that given the choice, I’ll shop at Nordstrom.

      • syncaine says:

        And I’ll point out that what Blizzard is doing with WoW is BELOW reasonable expectations in the MMO space, as EVE might be the game furthest ahead, but plenty of others outpace WoW easily, and only after WoW did the ‘average’ pace drop to such a low level.

        The sad part is that unlike the shopping example, too many people are rewarding the lower service standard rather than supporting those who are trying to raise it (although EVE continuing to grow is a good sign, WoW’s continued support is not)

  5. Thallian says:

    your money goes farther with smaller companies. They work harder and more innovatively because they have to. Blizzard is too big just like Microsoft and EA and hence moves like a big slow ship instead of a maneuverable speedy small boat.

    • sid67 says:

      I disagree. Change is relative. With a small company, you often have a less polished or finished product. It’s easy to list a bunch of improvements because the game dev HAD TO make those improvements just to bring it up to industry standard.

      With a AAA MMO like WoW, a lot of the spit and polish is already there when you buy the game. Any improvements that are made will seem minor by comparison because the game is mostly complete.

      • Adam says:

        Whenever I see people talk about “polish” in regards to WoW versus another game?

        I substitute the phrase “easy and dumb”.

        Polish is a catchall for lots of things in not-WoW like “I was confused by the quest system”, “I was killed by a mob which should never happen” or “I had to stop and think what I wanted to do with my skill points”.

        It’s true that most games aren’t as easy and dumb as the AAA World of Warcraft.

  6. sid67 says:

    I’m not talking about WoW specifically. I’m talking about the “completeness” of a game. Or more to the point, I’m talking about how “finished” a game feels at release.

    For example: Game A is released and is 90% finished. Game B is released and is 70% finished.

    When both games are up to 100% industry standard, it’s easy to point out that Game B improved much more than Game A. And it did — but only because it had so much farther to go than Game B.

    The improvement comparison is relative to the starting point. Since Game A was much worse to start out, it appears as if they are making lots of improvements relative to Game B.

    That’s the problem with citing these examples where you point out, “Oh look at all the stuff they did.” Right — that’s because they HAD TO do that stuff or the game would be considered broken.

  7. Xyloxan says:

    Even in China people are allowed to vote with their wallets. And they voted WoW to be their #1 MMO game. Oh, the same happened in EU and US, lol. Oh, and I bet that most of WoW trashing posters gladly transferred more of their own money to Blizzard than to any other game shop. And speaking of other game shops. I bet that they would love to be the next Blizzard. Unless, of course, they are not run by grownups.

    • Anti-Stupidity League says:

      Yes, and because “American Idol” is the most watched TV show in the US of A, it must be teh bestest #1 TV show ever; why else would so many people be watching it. And speaking of TV shows, I bet that every other TV program maker would love their show to be just like American Idol, unless, of course, they are not grownups.

      You’re so smart.

      • Xyloxan says:

        I don’t know whether I’m smart (although I do have an advanced degree) but, seems to me, I am more realistic than you are.

        Are you really disagreeing with my observation than many gamers (including Syncaine) that today are trashing WoW were gladly paying Blizzard $15/month for many months to play WoW?

        I am also curious what, in your opinion, is the “best” show on TV in US of A? And why.

      • sid67 says:

        The problem with using “popularity” as a measure it isn’t a measure of quality. It’s a measure of the most common denominator.

        The best example of this can be seen in the “World’s Funniest Joke.”

        The joke itself is funny enough, but it’s hardly the funniest joke you or I have ever heard. That’s mainly due to our specific taste and regional preferences.

        The result is that the funniest joke really isn’t anyone’s very favorite joke — it’s just the joke that is highest rated amongst all people.

        I think WoW is a bit like that. I might not be the best joke, but it is the joke that appeals to the most people.

  8. Yeebo says:

    @Sid: certainly there have been some examples of MMO companies calling the %30 that should have been in at launch “new content” (see WAR). However there are as many or more examples of companies adding in new content to a game that was already up to par when it launched. It’s not as if WoW is the only MMO in history to have most of their systems up and running at launch.

    Even compared to other MMOs that were reasonably polished and complete at launch, the pace at which Blizzard has added new content in between paid expansions has been absolutely glacial. You really do get less for your $15 a month than in just about any other MMO I can think of. Hell, some FtP MMOs release content faster.

    • Xyloxan says:

      “You really do get less for your $15 a month than in just about any other MMO I can think of.”

      Clearly, it doesn’t matter. Or, more precisely, “getting more” is not the only, and not even the major, point. As sid67 said, adding “a lot” is easy when you start fairly incomplete.

      • Yeebo says:

        Good job there not reading my post. As I said, among “complete” launch MMOs that I have followed, WoW has added content the slowest …and by a wide margin at that.

        No, what you get for your $15 is not all that matters. If it was WoW clearly would not be the smash hit that it is. No-one but Syncaine is saying that WoW “sucks.” However, that’s irrelevant to the point at hand. The point Syncaine makes, and that I agree with because it pretty irrefutable, is that players in WoW get much less free content than is the norm for a sub based MMO.

    • sid67 says:

      I think Beowulf is asking the right question: What is the initial $40-$50 investment in buying the game get you?

      Because from that perspective, you get A LOT more content from Blizzard (and EA with WAR) for your initial investment than many of these smaller MMOs.

      Point being, that you get your content up front when you buy the game (or expansion). It doesn’t trickle in with incremental patches.

      You might be able to argue that it’s just more of the same (and perhaps that’s true) but it’s still A LOT of new content.

      I think of it as two approaches:

      a) You get a bunch of content up front, but little in the way of content from incremental patches.

      b) You get a basic framework up front, and the depth and detail come with the incremental patches over time.

      Major devs tend to take approach (a) and smaller devs take approach (b). If you are simply looking at the incremental patches and monthly fee, then (b) looks like a better value.

      However, if you are looking at the upfront cost of the expansion or game itself — then (a) would appear to be the better value.

      My point here is that I’m not going to judge (a) as inferior to (b) based on the incremental patches. Not when you get so much more from (a) to upfront.

      That said, I think it’s very fair to be critical of (a) if they don’t provide expansions in a timely fashion. When you make a billion dollars off an MMO, you can afford to put out product a little more frequently than once every two years.

  9. Graktar says:

    I have two words for those claiming your $15/month is solely for access to an online game — Guild Wars. Guild Wars is an MMO with no subscription fee and very little in the way of free content. Additional content is provided by buying it.

    Guild Wars does, however, provide a constant stream of patches, bug fixes, and gameplay changes, and there’s no charge for that beyond buying the game in the first place.

    So, if your $15/month ISN’T paying for additional content, what exactly is it paying for? Guild Wars has demonstrated that access to the game and server upkeep/bug fixes are not worth $15/month, and must needs be a fairly insignificant cost per customer per month to the company or ArenaNet would be out of business by now.

    The understanding by gamers has ALWAYS been that MMO players pay a subscription to support ongoing development of content. That some posters here are happy to pay that money for nothing in return is nice, but not all of us want to throw our money away.

  10. Crito says:

    Yea, there are two points of view, I think it’s simpler in the minds of the marketers: how much do you want to play our game.

    I really think it’s that easy. For the most part, content is added to keep people playing. This goes for everything, new areas, tools, graphics. If charging a fee for that content will cause people to unsub then its better to keep it free, but if people are willing to pay for it, they will.

    Sandbox and linear games are completely different in this respect!! When competition is the center players only need eachother to keep playing (paying). Compairing EVE and GW to WoW only proves this. Each game is providing content the players want at a rate they are willing to buy. i.e. free balancing and upgrades vs bigger content additions. (GW is the best example of this because they give it free for pvp-er’s and huge expansions for pve-er’s)

    digression-If GW was such a success, why aren’t all
    games free? Subs also make you think about why
    you’re playing a game, keeping the true fans and
    weeding out spoilers (while the company makes the

    Sorry, I dont see how WoW players “deserve” more content. Blizzard seems to be keeping them happy. What does interest me is DF where people are paying, not for the current game, but for the future of the game. Sure, they might like it now, but they are paying for the promis of the game. Sounds like investing; most of us are just consumers.

    • Crito has the right of it here. Saying subscriptions pay for content is putting the cart before the horse; content is added to keep you paying for subscriptions.

      At the core, all you get (according to most terms of service, EULAs, etc.) is access to the service. You get nothing beyond that from a strictly legal point of view. But, few people are going to keep playing a game in the long run if it doesn’t continue to change form time to time.

      To answer Beowulf’s question above: the initial box sale is intended to cover development before launch, marketing, and producing and shipping a box to stores (or paying portal fees for downloadable games).

      Ultimately, you have to decide if what you’re getting is worth the money. I enjoyed WoW for several months, but at this point the fee isn’t worth it to me. LotRO may not offer more than WoW does in terms of content, but I’m enjoying LotRO a lot more than I would enjoy WoW right now. So, I have a subscription to the latter but not the former. For Syncaine, EVE offers the right return for his investment. If you don’t like what you’re offered, don’t pay for it. Simple as that. ;)

  11. Crito says:

    Should we consider the link between paying and the linear progression of a Character? People pay because of their attachment to a character and the ablitiy to expand him infinately. CS and GW don’t have this attatchment and don’t have a fee. In one, I killed the other person, in the other, my character did. Are we paying for access to characters or systems?

    • sente says:

      That may potentially be true for some players and perhaps primarily achievement-oriented characters.

      Personally it does not really matter whether I can develop a character further or not. It does matter that there is some kind of development/exploration/learning path in place, but the character is secondary in this equation.

      I disagree that Guild Wars does not have character development. You *can* get a character at max level instantly ofr PvP only and you can get a load of skills to use for PvP by paying extra. But you also have the option to get that through character development activities.
      It is rather a game that provides different options to different types of players – an important game feature in itself which few games have copied yet.

  12. Cliff says:

    There’s an old saying in business. You can make things Cheap, Quick, and Good but you can only ever do 2 of those three.

    It sounds like (and I don’t disagree) that you are suggesting Blizzard could and should go with the Good+Quick combo (because their sub income pays for it) but they are most likely aiming at the Cheap+Good combo at this point, and that is most likley a pure business decision. With roughly 5 million still shelling out the $15 a month in the US and Europe, they will no doubt continue at that rate unless those 5 million become fed up enough with where their money is going that they quit paying. That’s a bit like suggesting people in the USA might get fed up enough with where their taxes are going to start a revolution (Not that I am against that idea either).

  13. I know Blizzard like to make sure everything is perfectly polished before releasing it but I do find their content to be lacking for the subscription fee. Compared to other games like EQ, EQ2 or EVE (which gives free expansions) and how much profit Blizzard make, their rate of patches and updates is pretty shocking.

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