Lately I've been playing the new World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. I'm going to have a full review soon, but in the meantime, I'd like to talk about an underappreciated aspect of World of Warcraft and other MMOs—how we pay for them, and how that affects the gameplay.
As every MMO player knows, three different funding models have emerged in the genre. The classic model relies on subscriptions: Even if you buy a boxed copy of the game, you have to keep paying your monthly fees, or you can't play. Another model, employed by the Guild Wars series, treats an MMO like any other video game: Once you buy a copy, you can play it as much as you want. And of course the third model is "free-to-play." There's no charge to access the game, but you do have to pay to access various special items and features.
The advantages and disadvantages of free-to-play are well known. The chief advantage, obviously, is that it's free. But there are serious disadvantages as well. For starters, many developers can't make a lot of money from free-to-play, so these games are typically smaller in scale, with less to do and graphics that aren't as pretty. And there's often the temptation toward "pay-to-win," where the developers sell "optional" items that are really necessary, and you can't win without opening your wallet.
Gamers have paid a lot less attention to the differences between the World of Warcraft and Guild Wars models, though, and I think that's a mistake. World of Warcraft is, of course, free to play until level 20, but after that, it requires a monthly subscription fee. Meanwhile, everyone who purchases Guild Wars 2 receives unlimited access to the game.
Obviously, a big plus to World of Warcraft is that you can try it for free, and the big plus to Guild Wars 2 is that you won't get sucked into paying hundreds of dollars a year in subscription fees. But does a different economic setup actually affect the gameplay? In fact, I would argue that many of the biggest differences between the games stem directly from the presence of a subscription in one and the absence of one in the other.
Start with World of Warcraft, and think for a second about the incentives created by the free-at-first/pay-after-level-20 setup. Clearly, the most important thing for Blizzard to do is to hook players for the long term. If you play for a little bit and then quit, Blizzard doesn't make any money. Everything that Blizzard does stems from this simple fact.
The company clearly tries to hit that sweet spot where every task is just interesting enough to keep you going, and yet lasts long enough to burn up some subscription time. As a result, the game can feel slow-paced when stacked up against its competitors, and only recently has the company tried to streamline things. Blizzard also goes out of its way to make the game addictive—to dole out rewards at just the right pace so that playing becomes a compulsion. And of course, when the existing player base runs out of content, Blizzard needs to add expansions—raising the level cap by just five or so, but requiring hours and hours of work to meet the new cap.
While Guild Wars 2 is a remarkably similar game in many ways, the powers that be decided not to charge a subscription fee—and the effects of this decision reverberate throughout the game. Again, think about the incentives created by the economic setup: ArenaNet's goal is to make sure that as many people as possible buy the game, no matter how long they play. In fact, if the game drags on needlessly, the company will lose money as the bandwidth costs add up.
What results is a game that doesn't skimp on content, but focuses on entertaining players rather than retaining them. The combat is quick and exciting, fast traveling is a breeze, the leveling curve is flat (no spending several hours to gain a single level late in the game), and you rarely feel like you're just killing time. Guild Wars 2 might never have the longevity or even the subscriber base of World of Warcraft, but it will provide a more efficient (and in some cases healthier) experience for its users.
We consider many things when we decide which MMO to play. But too few gamers ask themselves: How am I paying for this, and how does that affect how the game is designed?
Date: September 26, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*