Right now, the MMO industry is in flux, with much discussion over whether the subscription or free-to-play model is the correct one for ongoing projects. When you figure in the world market, things get even more complicated.
Gamasutra was at a panel at last week's Austin Game Developers Conference which featured Robert Ferrari (VP Business Development, Turbine), Hilmar Veigar Petursson (CEO, CCP), Nicolay Nickelsen (VP, Business Development, Funcom), Min Kim (VP of Marketing, Nexon America Inc.), and was moderated by Jessica Mulligan (COO, ImaginVenture SA). It delved into the complexities of the two models -- how are they performing, and what do users want this year?
Can one business model work in the west and the east? Nexon's Min Kim, coming from the massive success of Maple Story, said, "Yeah, we do feel it's possible to have one business model... but I feel you have to tailor it to both sides. We're finding more and more that business models are not exactly the same -- but they're very similar."
Nickelsen, on the other hand, believes it "depends on the game." And Petursson noted that it's not just the location of your players that matters -- server tech is a consideration, too.
"Since EVE Online is centrally hosted in London for all of the world, we have to have multiple business models that work on the same server," Petursson says. "You have to build multiple different business models people can choose... it's part of the game designer's toolset in building a complete service."
Petursson, in fact, says he quickly became a champion for the need to support multiple business models in all territories within one game. "I think it is possible to have more than one business model in a game.... and that can actually be quite interesting," he said.
"For the game operator, it's best to realize that most business models will be implemented by the players in your game, and it's best to proactively address that."
Petursson doesn't believe that subscription games are resistant to being exploited by users, and put it bluntly. "If you are building a pure subscription game you have to think very hard about how you build a meta economy that cannot be turned into a free to play after the fact... you will always be a victim of people doing what they want to do, and it's a losing war... you shouldn't fight your customers."
Despite Petursson's vehemence, the question remains. Will any one model dominate the industry? Ferrari doesn't think so. "I truly think it's the demographics," he said.
"If you look at the audience right now for fantasy MMOs, the demographics tend to be older, over 25, mostly male... whereas the free to play games tend to be younger demographics, female demographics.... they're less and less hardcore."
Nickelsen thinks it's not really demographically based, but more learned behavior: "I think that the hardcore gamers are used to subscription-based games because that's what they've been playing for the last 10 years... but I think that once you start adding microtransactions to these games they will start using them."
Though Maple Story is free to play, Kim said, "What we're trying to do is trying to have a subscription without it being a subscription.... we'd probably add various items to mimic that subscription model."
Kim also said that the company allows users who play free to earn the in-game currency, Nexon Cash, by selling earned items at the auction house to paying players. He also thinks some free to play staples could be adopted by subscription games, to bridge the gap in business models.
"I think that the biggest criticism of subscription model is that you're overcharging some users and undercharging other users," Kim said. "I think if you add some things, like let someone buy a pet or get a badge next to their name, it would work in a subscription game." He also said that in South Korea, many gamers have a subscription game they concentrate on, but play a free to play game on the side to unwind -- and he expects that might become true on the west as well.
Asked about the five year evolution of the MMO genre and its business models, the participants had this to say.
Petursson: "I think most companies will evolve ... I think a dual currency system is the most efficient way."
Ferrari: "Games will evolve to all platforms -- PC and consoles -- and you will see multiple payment methods, it's not one-size-fits-all."
Nickelsen: "I think also you need to look at the local aspect and you need to have local services."
Kim: "I think three to five years out, and we're starting to see it now, that the PC's going to make a hardcore comeback... I think that online will become mass market entertainment.... the kids who are playing Club Penguin five years out are going to become our players."
Petursson's parting shot: "I think we will see more companies like Nexon. It's not a small company, but it's a company that grew up in the industry... I don't see a lot of offline companies evolving."
In response to Petursson's complimentary words for Nexon, Kim replied, "The scary thing is the diversified media companies... you see Viacom starting it now, and Disney with Club Penguin... I'm not worried about the EAs, but the big media companies."
But Petursson said, "I am actually not worried about the diversified media companies... when I talk to them they are so unable to understand our business, which involves a direct relationship with consumers." He thinks they are too used to producing content and sending it out via linear channels to fully engage.