Someone on Slashdot games asks the question: why don’t we have hourly pay-to-play muds, i.e. muds that charge by the hour vs muds that charge by the month?

“With exciting MMO games like World of Warcraft and others existing, the current monthly fee plans that all MMO games that I’m aware of aren’t necessarily worth it for people that don’t have as much time to play games as others. For instance, I have about 3-5 hours to play games per week, if I’m lucky. On top of that, I like more than one game but I’m still interested in MMO games. I was wondering what Slashdot thinks about newer MMO games implementing some sort of pay-as-you-play system or at least having that option alongside the current monthly fees.”

Sonny, you missed the golden days. Before Meridian 59, all the ‘big guys’ (i.e. Simutronic’s Gemstone games, for example) were pay-to-play. This was the internet model in 1996, and the games followed suit. Now, the internet payment model is simpler (at least for end-users), and the games have followed suit as well.

 There are several reasons:

1. Simplicity is good. Late in my tenure at 3DO, they changed the billing model of the game to something like ‘$2.49 per day, but never more than $10 per week, and never more than $29.95 a month’. Only explained much wordier. The end result: the players weren’t SURE what they were being billed, but they were vaguely sure they were being ripped off.

2. Clockwatching is bad. You want players to get lost in your game. You don’t want them to back out of activities, saying things like, “that quest looks like it had 45 minutes. I only have an hour of play time left. I don’t want us to risk going over, leaving me to disconnect while fighting the boss monster.” Clockwatching is also bad if you have game activities which take a long time. How happy would you be if you paid a dollar to spend an hour just trying to gather a group or raid together? Hourly payments make moments of inefficiency really grate on the players.

3. You wanna love your hardcore. There are a lot of people, especially beancounters, who are fundamentally bothered by the fact that the hardcore gamers are getting more money for their buck than the casual gamer. Which is an understandable instinct, but consider – your hardcore, who is spending more time in game, is also acting as the social hub of your community. They enable and facilitate the rest of your community. Now then, if you have a game that only costs $5 dollars for a casual gamer, this will raise the price on your hardcore user to $20 to $30 dollars per month. At that point, you’ll lose them to your competition, and be left with a casual, non-sticky player base that is more apt to walk away. Not good.

4. We want to extract more money from the customers – and we want them to feel good about it. I don’t suppose the first part’s a shock. We are, after all, in the business to make money, and parts of running a service are incredibly expensive. Currently, multi-accounting is the most effective way to get more money from your hardcore players. When Meridian 59 changed it’s billing model, effectively making its accounts $30 instead of $10, players went and cancelled their mule accounts. The end result was that we were making about the same amount of money from about the same number of customers, only now they didn’t have enough space to store their crap, and they were really pissed at us.

Players who don’t feel good about it leave, and leave disgruntled, dissimenating all sorts of nasty things on message boards on the way out.

All this being said, I think there’s a lot of experimentation to be done here. I’m very intrigued by Funcom’s approach, as well as I am by what Guild Wars is planning. I liked the elite EQ server where you payed an extra $50 bucks to play with other people willing to pay $50 bucks a month (i.e. not kids). And UO is dabbling in it as well.

And for what it’s worth, I think it’s possible that increasing subscription prices is possible a short-serving and bad trend. It’s just a random musing, but for example, when an Everquest account cost $9.89 a month, I let that thing linger for years. However, when forced with the decision to keep or cancel my $13 SWG account, I cancelled without a second thought (tossing away one of three Master Armorsmiths on the server I might add). Was that decision a product of the game design and my attachment to it? Or did crossing the $10 threshold factor into the decision?