On Special Editions, Pre-Paid Subscriptions and Founder's Clubs
I was one of the twelve people that actually liked Hellgate: London enough to buy a Founder's subscription. Did I get my money's worth on that investment? Probably not. In fact, if you do the math, it's more like exactly not - by about half. Hellgate was yet another classic example of a great idea with a ham-fisted execution and a premature release - which seems to typify the management of MMO properties. Recent news swirling around the alleged collapse of Flagship Studios further begs one (one me, at least) to question the true value of "collector's editions" and pre-paid or lifetime MMO subscriptions.
Don't Listen to Me
A bit of background that should illustrate why I am not a financial advisor: In a previous career, I was an anti-consultant. That is to say, people paid me large amounts of money for my opinion and then did the exact opposite of what I recommended. I'm quite comfortable with that, as it was usually the correct course of action. Turns out I'm wrong a lot.
I also genuinely, but for no rational basis that I can discern, believed that the NGE would lead to the renaissance of Star Wars Galaxies. The general theme has been that if I think you're an idiot you're going to be a billionaire and if I approve of your plan you are doomed. So, please - I beg of you - don't heed my opinion on anything.
Galaxies wasn't my first MMO, not by far. I played Ultima Online on and off for five years before SWG, though I can't say I actually enjoyed most of it. I played it because it was there. I also dabbled in Asheron's Call and Sega's highly underrated 10-Six. When SWG launched in 2003, I bought the limited Collector's Edition box (I did it for the goggles, lol).
Though no longer in the anti-consulting racket, I still make make a decent living - so the extra twenty bucks for the CE really wasn't that big a barrier for some cool IG swag. In fact, I kind of decided back then that if a CE was available for any game I was playing that I'd buy it. Because, it turns out, I am the target demographic that really, really wants those exclusive items. After all, any game worth playing is worth paying extra for the optional leather bound heirloom grade slipcase - especially if it's got phat lewtz I can strap to my avatar while I preen and strut around the game like a peacock as if to advertise the superiority of my intellect, income and mating potential.
If I had bothered getting into World of Warcraft at launch, I would have picked up it's limited edition box. But I didn't and it became the most wildly popular MMO in the history of all mankind, achieving a level of success never to be duplicated no matter how often imitated. On the other hand, I pre-ordered Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning from Amazon Prime and the developers are already managing expectations for a gimped launch. Spin it however you want, but do take heed.
I was going to get Age of Conan in order to pass the time until the W:AR launch, since I can't seem to figure out who I must fellate to get into the latter game's closed beta, but all of my acquaintances who rode AoC's rocket-sled of a grind to the top arrived there only to find the PvP endgame bugged beyond salvation and have already quit. I had enough of that crap in Galaxies to last me a lifetime and I figure the cash I saved by not playing AoC almost makes up for what I lost by paying for Hellgate up front.
I started out month-to-month in SWG, but for some reason fifteen bucks per lunar cycle is a difficult turd to swallow. It averages out to around fifty cents a day, which won't even buy a cup of coffee anymore. It is certainly a value proposition if I'm going to play 4-8 hours a day every day which is what addictive personalities like me do. However, I also evidently have some kind of aberrant psychological condition that causes me to shun recurring monthly costs over the magical $9.99 mark. I eventually upgraded and paid up front for an annual sub because lowering the effective monthly price by pre-paying is a potent enticement for folks so afflicted.
Of course, the downside to pre-paying is running the risk that three to six months into your 12 mo. (or lifetime) subscription period you get a Combat Upgrade or an NGE pulled on you. That just leads to a lot of impotent rage and causes otherwise rational people to flame out with idle message board threats of class action lawsuits, arson and grievous bodily harm.
So, before you whip out that credit card to cover your next year's worth of intended game time, reconsider that "Game experience may change during online play" label on that beautiful special edition box in your hands. Sure, that's in the context of an ESRB disclaimer, but you can just as easily read that as: "We can change the game anytime we want and we've already got your cash, suckas!"
Whither the Founder's Club
When Turbine announced that Lord of the Rings Online would have the option for a $199 lifetime subscription for pre-orders, I pondered the wisdom of such a ploy and questioned whether I would have bought one for Galaxies had it been offered. I decided that I probably would have. SWG just passed it's 5-year anniversary and sixty months at $15 per is $900. Now, I haven't been an uninterrupted paying customer during that entire stretch, but that number makes me cringe nonetheless.
If I had paid SOE $200 at SWG's launch in 2003 and played all the way through, I'd have a net savings of seven hundred dollars. That's crazy! On the other hand, everyone I knew who signed up for LotRO quit within three to six months. If I'd bought that lifetime sub and subsequently quit when they did I'd have effectively paid between $33 and $66 for each of those months. That's just insane! I laid out $149 for the Hellgate Founder's offer. At the standard rate of $9.99, I would have had to play for fifteen months in order to break even. I knew that when I wrote the check, and I was skeptical then too. Instead, I got eight months out of it - which is an effective monthly rate of $18.75. I knew the risks involved. It was a gamble. I rolled the dice and got screwed. Am I bitter? Not really. A little wiser? Maybe.
The conspiracy theorist that dwells within me believes the notion of a "Founders Club" begs the question as to the developer's motivation in making such an offering. Any pre-paid lifetime subscription model ensures two things. First, it provides the developer with a skewed and front-loaded income stream, which may reflect internal cash flow problems and/or indicate a tacit acknowledgment that they intend to deliver a product that they don't expect will go the distance. Call this the "Distract Unagi with a shiny trinket then take his money and run" gambit (though cynical SWG players will recognize this maneuver as "Sacrifice support of the live game by using subscription fees to finance the next expansion"). Secondly, it incentivizes the Founder to stick around and endure a sub-par experience merely to justify his expense long after a month-to-month player might have walked away. This merely breeds spite, hooliganism and a misplaced sense of entitlement.
When considering the amount of money and commitment of time that developers ask players to part with, do we at some point cease being customers and become investors? Of course not. But that doesn't stop the disgruntled Founder from acting like T. Boone Pickens and demanding that the President, CEO and Lead Designer all owe him something. Maybe we are owed something. Maybe we are owed assurances that the game we are paying for and the company we are paying it to are both viable enough to allow us to see an equitable return on our subscription fees.
Is it time for an MMO Player's Bill of Rights? Perhaps, but that is a topic for another article. There is no easy solution to this problem. With the dust still settling at Flagship, assuming the rumors are even true, the short answer is that if a game with over a million paying subscribers can manage to tank eight months into it's live service then I probably won't be joining any more Founder's clubs - irrespective of keen swag, early access or promises of exclusive content.
TL;DR = Grab the special edition but pay as you go.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
On Special Editions, Pre-Paid Subscriptions and Founder's Clubs