PC – The Subscription Platform

There is an urban legend in the restaurant industry that often quotes a study with the following conclusion:

“Over 90% of Employees surveyed said they would steal if they were guaranteed they wouldn’t get caught”

I don’t know of the study, and can’t google-find it, and if you know if it is true or a lie please chime in. Regardless of the factuality of that statement it seems reasonable in its truthfulness. While we all pretend to be good little people (and many of us wouldn’t do it) if you picture the poor little employee who hates his job and his employer who makes bajillions of dollars, I can see how it would be hard for a lot of people not to under those circumstances.

This analogy easily transposes into the gamer and the big bad developer relationship. Gamers don’t want to spend money to support million dollar developers, because they are evil. Because they are evil it is okay to pirate their games. You can pirate, easily, and you won’t get caught. If you do somehow get caught nothing bad will happen to you. So why not pirate? Rhetorical question, before the morality arguments ensue. Developers use piracy as an excuse for lost revenues and the validaty of those arguments range from rediculous to maybe-somewhat-truthful. The counter arguments have been hashed, rehashed, re-rehashed, and re-re-re-rehashed that it isn’t even worth discussing anymore. We are at a stalemate as consumers with our entertainment partners. They want more, stronger DRM, to which (vocally, at least)  we tell them legitimate consumers won’t play. Developers are in a no win situation. Develop a game with DRM and lose consumers. Develop a game without it and lose sales. I discussed the possibility of a new purchase model that would only work on PC games sometime ago, somewhere, and want to discuss it again. Maybe we can design a program that will save PC gaming. If it really needs it.

I don’t play a ton of PC games. I buy the titles I am interested in but with limited time to game I am very selective about which I buy for the sole reason that I know I won’t have time to enjoy them. In MMO’s I get to max level, mess around, and decide if I stick around or not. In single player games I am far from a completionist – I still haven’t finished Doom 3, although I really enjoyed the game. I play for as long as my attention is grabbed. DRM doesn’t bother me and hasn’t given me a bad experience to date, but DRM does bother a lot of people and seems to hurt games more than it helps. The solution? Every PC game should be a subscription model. Or at least the option to be one.

Simple enough. Developers have a login/authentication/account model for all of their games. This in itself isn’t the solution unless the pricing model is changed. Let’s look at how to do that.

1) You can buy a game outright, for $50. Login, play while connected to the internet, log off when done. Basically the same now.


2) You can buy the first “chapter” of the game for $5. Play it while connected to the internet and when you are done the content, can choose to buy the next level, for $5. The entire game this way will cost more (say, $60?) but that way you can truly pay to play.

You can twist and turn different purchase models to give the consumer incentive to make larger purchases (first 1/4 of the game, first 1/2, etc) but it all leads to easing the entry into a new game. I can list 10 games right now that I would “buy” under that model to give a shot – all titles which I will not purchase otherwise. Once I get into the game, if it is good, and captures my imagination, I might buy the whole thing – or, just buy the “next” part if I am on the fence to see if it improves, and/or still captures my imagination. I won’t download the demo to give it a shot because it would still be a $50 purchase afterwards if it is good – and what is stopping a company from front-loading awesomeness to get me on the hook – and not follow it up with a good game afterwards? The lack of trust between game company and gamer is hurting the industry. Create a purchase model that gives me the option to trust the company outright from the beginning, or give them the opportunity to earn my trust – which I will gladly pay for once won. Even if it is in small chunks.

I am not sure if a developer would even buy into this model as it puts an awful lot of pressure on them to perform, but it is truely a win win for that reason. Instead of developers turning away from PC gaming altogether (bye bye Madden 2009 on the PC, RIP) I believe the extra income from people willing to give their game a chance with a small up front purchase would turn into substantial revenues. I would probably pay dual/triple MMO’s under this model – $5 for levels 1-10? Sounds good. If I like it maybe I will pay $10 for levels 11-20. When (if) I hit max level, then, and only then, I will pay a monthly recurring rate.

I know we are all tired about talking about this, and the same ideas get churned around and around like butter (mmmm.. butter) but if something isn’t done, and there isn’t a change in the  model more and more marquis titles will go the way of the Madden and PC’s will turn into MMO/Casual platforms. Let’s just skip the arguments on the drama and move all PC games to a subscription model in the meantime, get rid of other DRM schemes and hokey pirating headlines, and game away.

18 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Y’know, I can see market forces moving that way already. Steam was a step in that direction. It wouldn’t surprise me if more games moved into that model.

    I can, however, say without hesitation that such a move would mean that I would stop buying new PC games. I would play my old games and my console games. I can’t stand being tethered to the internet just to get a game working.

    If it’s an MMO that looks to some server somewhere to provide game play that only the internet multiplayer environment can provide, I don’t mind. If I’ve got to be logged into the internet just to play a game I paid full price for and the internet connection doesn’t provide anything but a constant reassurance to the company that I’m not a pirate, I’m not playing. It’s part annoyance that I’m guilty until proven innocent, but mostly the fact that I don’t want to rely on a costly internet connection to actually be able to play the game I bought. Also, an “always on” internet is still a security viability, and sometimes I just don’t want to deal with it. I suppose that privacy is another concern, but it’s hard to come by these days anywho.

    So yes, I can see the PC gaming market leaning that way. If it does embrace that model, it loses me as a customer. Why should it care? Well, maybe it shouldn’t, but I’m a staunch believer in paying for a product (I will not pirate), and I work in the industry. I sympathize with the desire to be paid for your (my) work as a game developer. I have a deeper loathing of subscriptions (one size does not fit all), and a deep love of freedom and independence. A subscription based internet tether to my gaming runs contrary to those interests.

  2. I understand your concerns as a dev Tesh but what I am curious about how you think (as that dev hat on) about easier entry into games for the average consumer with a inexpensive entry point. I may not have tried any of your games – perhaps your marketing didn’t reach me ? With a $5 entry point surely that would open up a vast new market – hey, I spend $15 to try a 2 hour movie experience and that cash is disposed whether I liked it or not – I would be much more likely to try new and different games at a lower price point. Upon that entry and exposure to your product you now have the possibility to rope me in for the full price (or pieces if that price) where you would have received zero from me otherwise. The $50 entry point prohibits companies from a chance at my business which is where I feel my described model above would in essence, open the floodgates.

  3. True, I didn’t comment to that. I agree that selling games in increments is an interesting idea. Sort of a smaller scale Starcraft, as it were; charge a smallish price, say $5-$10 for the “core” game, and then sell expansion packs with more content.

    It’s actually a business model that I’m likely to use if and when I can get my own independent game created. I agree that a $50 entry point is a barrier that really doesn’t need to be there. Not only that, but developing in smaller chunks allows for better scheduling and a better read on the actual demand for the product. If I make my core game and price it at $10… but it doesn’t sell, I don’t have good reason to work on the expansions. That would be a losing effort. I may love the design, but if there’s no market for it, there’s no point in making it as a commercial product. (Labors of love don’t really factor that sort of hard analysis in, so I’m intentionally ignoring them.)

    Similarly, if I make my core game and it sells well at $10, not only can I presume that there might be demand for an expansion, but I’ll have the funding to develop said expansion.

    Going even further, Daniel James of Puzzle Pirate fame has suggested that an initial free experience is a great way to get people interested in your game. Yes, freeware and trials have been part of the PC gaming world for a long time, but you can literally play Puzzle Pirates without spending a dime with no limit on either your experience or your time. Paying for the game is completely optional. (Or, more accurately, your play on microtransaction servers is subsidized by players who have more time than money and are willing to trade real money for one of two of the game’s dual currencies, hoping to exchange it for the other currency.)

    The game is designed to be fun to play, with great core mechanics. The idea is to get people enjoying your game, then if they feel like it, they will voluntarily give you money. At that point, the demand is there, and as a dev, you only have to supply stuff to buy. PP sells cosmetic stuff that doesn’t affect game play, and has seen modest success at doing so. Sure, they aren’t Blizzard-heavy, but boy, howdy, are their forums nicer, and the community is much, much better. People are there because they love the game and the people, and it makes a world of difference.

    So yes, I heartily agree that providing a low barrier to entry is a great way to get people playing your games. It’s still baffling to me that more people don’t develop that way. There’s just a huge difference in mindset between Mr. James and the Blizzard bigwigs.

    Of course, I don’t necessarily believe that such an idea of low barriers to entry predicates a subscription model or internet-reliant play. I don’t see much interdependence of the two. Certainly the low barrier to entry can work for offline or online games, but the sub model isn’t required for a low barrier to entry in my mind.

  4. Perhaps the word “subscription” was misplaced my be. Component/Chapter purchases is the way I envision it. The word subscription was meant more for the login credentials (to prove ownership) instead of a flat monthly fee. The reason I think that part is crucial is that it is it’s own form of DRM – so companies can’t cry foul, and are assured of pirate-free (ish) gaming. Low entry, online credentials, win my longer term dollars over with a solid product = profit.

  5. Aye, “online credentials” is a good term for it. That’s what I can see being a predominant form of pseudo DRM here in a few years. My earlier concerns still stand, though, looking at it as a player. I don’t want to have an always-on internet connection for cost reasons, the hassle, privacy and independence. There’s also the desire to resell the games; I love the secondhand market, both as a buyer and a seller. If I could easily and painlessly bundle the “online credential” with the game, that part wouldn’t be bad, but I suspect that game publishers (not necessarily designers, by the way) wouldn’t let that fly. As I noted on my blog a couple of weeks ago, even Microsoft wants residuals from resales of Halo, and it’s a bloomin’ console game.

    I think that the publishers want a service business model (it’s more lucrative), but players want a commodity model (with all the rights and convenience thereof). So far, MMOs have banked on the twilight zone between the two by operating like a service while parodying a commodity. (Remember, Blizzard can outright delete your account whenever they feel so inclined, for any reason, and don’t have to justify themselves.) If games as a whole move that way in an effort to combat piracy, I suspect that they will lose more customers and potential customers than they gain.

  6. Fair enough Tesh. Although I will argue that anyone who choses PC as their main gaming platform most likely has an internet connection =). Those without probably lean console-wise.

    An easy way to set up the authentication would be to have it by publisher, so you have your EA account for all EA games, Valve for Valve, etc. Indy publishers can use a shared authentication service to keep costs down. I would like to think those most ardent anti-DRM people would prefer the method over a limited install, etc. I would guess that they would lose more consumers over the Spore-like debacle than a simple login and password.

  7. True enough.

    I’m just spoiled by the old PC gaming days, I guess. You know, Myst, StarCraft, MechWarrior, Descent, Warcraft, that sort of thing. *shrug* Simpler days.

    I don’t disagree with your analysis. It’s merely the fact that you’re probably right that is depressing. 😉

  8. A long time ago, in a place of employment far, far away, my Boss (a horrible man, a sentiment shared by not just me but pretty much all of his employees) had a contract with a couple of local schools to supply the text books the students needed for that year. The catch was the parents needed to order the supplies through my Boss’s store, so he stood to make a lot of money out of this deal. We’re talking well over 1,000 orders for books, stationery, etc, with each order being (IIRC) $200 or more. And when the books arrived I was put in charge of serving the parents and keeping the lines moving.

    As the day progressed and I rang up transaction after transaction, hundreds of dollars in cold, hard cash passed through my hands into my register…and a thought entered my mind. An evil little thought. This particular Mom, this one right here. She just gave me $200 in cash to pay for a $180 order (as an example). How easy it would be to ring it up as a $150 transaction, while still giving the Mom her correct change. And later, when I balance my Till, I’ll be $30 over. That’s $30 for me. And how easy would it be to do it for another transaction. And how easy would it be if I’m really busy to just leave the drawer open and not even ring up a transaction here and there. And so I did.

    When I balanced the Till that night I appeared to be almost $1,000 over. I counted and double-checked, then I took out the $1,000 (or so) and recounted and rebalanced…and now I was good. I discretely slid the “extra” cash into my pocket, completed the balance, then took my till drawer to the Boss’s office and slid it into his Safe. I waved goodbye to the evening shift clerks, left the store, walked down the road to my bank and, like an idiot, promptly used the ATM to deposit almost $1,000 in cash into my account.

    The next day at work as more Moms came in I repeated my trick, confident I would once again have a nice little bonus waiting for me at the end of the day. Then midway through the morning the Boss’s wife called me into their office. Yes, to discuss my Till balance from the night before. Apparently I was a hundred dollars or so off. I was sweating bullets, but I’ve got an innocent face and because my Boss was such an arrogant prick he assumes everyone else is stupid; that includes us, his employees, which is just one of the many reasons we despised him. So I was able to play dumb and act bewildered quite convincingly. I said that while I was closing out the night before a couple of Moms had come in to pick up their orders, so that may have messed up my count. And they bought it.

    That evening when I balanced my Till I was once again $1,000 or so over, but this time I triple checked my counting and calculations. I made dead fucking sure my Till balanced correctly this time, and again I pocketed another $1,000 which also got deposited into my bank via the ATM. Had my Boss suspected I was stealing from him and got a court order to check my bank account, I’d have been fucked, but he didn’t. And that was the second & last day I ripped him off…except when I quit, when I helped myself to a couple of really nice $100 ballpoint pens as a “retirement” present. Who the fuck uses $100 pens? I do 😛

    I’d be willing to bet good money that 9 out of 10 employees would steal from their boss if they thought they could get away with it.

  9. @Pt5: That right there proves my point that pirating is as much about opportunity as it is about “stealing”. So, your bet, let me guess – you are willing to put $2000 down on it? =)

  10. I fondly recall my Commodore 64 days, where the average C64 owner had at least one shoebox-sized case filled with floppies of copied games…and maybe 5 legitimate games.

    Everyone I knew loved what the C64 could do, but none of us realized our boxes of floppies were probably the biggest reason Commodore was forced to bow out of the home PC market.

    I’d have to agree with PT5 about the 9/10 employees taking advantage of their employer. Is it stealing to bring home a stapler, hole punch, box of pens, ream of paper? If you keep it/them, absolutely. Am I guilty of doing just that? Yes, yes I am.

  11. @Cap’n: LMAO. I had a VIC 20 first, then a C64, and yeah, in the same boat (although I had completely forgotten about it)

  12. Alright, alright! I’ll admit it! I’m a former owner of a Vic-20, and yes, it was when all my friends had C64s 🙁

    It wasn’t until my friends had Amiga 500s that I upgraded…to a C64, of course 😛

  13. @Cap’n: My uncle was a higher upper with Commodore back in the day so I was ALWAYS on the BLEEDING EDGE with Commodore products. Tape drive? I had it FIRST! I am good like that. He probably had to go find a new job because of the piracy that I participated in back then. I should probably call him and apologize.

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