[Get Critical]: Subscriptions

First off, this isn’t a discussion about free to play vs. subscriptions and the inherent evil of one or the other. So save your righteous fury; it won’t be needed here. This is a list of subscription types, and the positive and negative effects it has on developers and players alike. We’ll take a peek at how it changes a company’s motivations, and some psychological differences in how gamers feel they have to play.

Just remember that at the end of the day, the quality and community of a game will typically outshine whatever payment model it’s using. So, with our critical-goggles firmly in place, let’s inspect the 3 types of subs!

Monthly Subscription

Pay a flat fee for 30 days of access, whether you use them or not.

Developers are motivated to:

(1) get more players

(2) keep existing players for as many months as possible (preferably for many years)

The perfect customer plays at least once each month.

– Bad designers focus too much long-term time sinks and grinds. Heavy reliance on long-term leveling and personal progression to keep people invested.

+ Good designers produce content updates, and seasonal events every few months to keep people resubbing.

The consequences:

+ Whether it’s grindy or not, this model requires a massive quantity of content with more replay value. If the company can pull it off, you end up getting a great deal in terms of quantity for your dollar. They have your long-term interests in mind when designing.

– A psychological “obligation” to play as much as you can to get your month’s worth. Breaks and vacations are simply wasted money.

Daily Subscription

Buy 30 days at a time, but use them whenever you want. You’re not charged for days that you don’t log in.

Developers are motivated to:

(1) get more players

(2) keep existing players for as many days as possible

The perfect customer logs in once per day, whether it be for 10 minutes or 10 hours.

Bad designers rely heavily on artificial limitations to make people feel obligated to login each day. They restrict how much of [Feature X] you can do daily. Too many one-day only events to tempt you to login each day. (365 collectible pets… etc.)

+ Good designers encourage active participation by having frequent special events, and a very fast-paced content update cycle. For example, mini-content injections every two weeks. A sign of a good designer here is the lack of “daily” restrictions. Many overlapping week-long, or even month-long events to check out whenever it’s convenient. (Double-XP weekends, promotional events… etc.)

The consequences:

+ No obligation to play more days of the week; use your days whenever it’s convenient. Take breaks and vacations for free, come back anytime. You can leave indefinitely without “unsubbing”.

Hourly Subscription

You pay per hour of total time spent in-game.

Developers are motivated to:

(1) get more players

(2) get existing players to play as much in-game time as possible (more hours per day, more hours in general)

The perfect customer plays 24/7, nonstop.

– If the goal is longer hours, there’s no way around time-intensive content. This method inherently caters to those with dedicated hardcore schedules, and needs to encourage casuals to spend more time in-game.

The consequences:

+ No obligation for how much to play, since you can use your hours whenever you want.

– But there is an obligation to ‘get the most’ out of the time that you do play, trying to be efficient and not wasting time. You’re anxious to burn through content as fast as you can, frustrated with perceived ‘setbacks’.


Some people seem to think that game designers sit around playing games all day. And in some ways, it’s actually true…

Extrinsic rewards get players to do something they normally wouldn’t. Designers, no matter how noble, still have to play the business game, and the extrinsic reward is cold hard cash. It’s important to understand that nothing we can do will perfectly link “revenue” to “fun”. There will always be a chasm where players are paying, but not having fun. But some models definitely make that gap easier to cross, while others inherently get in the way.

See no evil – Monthly Subscription

To be honest, it’s a dying, unpopular model, because it requires so much to maintain. But nothing else has the long-term best interests of each individual player in mind. A monthly sub must keep you entertained for a really long time, and constantly push the limits of what it offers. Each player has a voice and the right to suggest improvements.

It’s not a bad model, in fact it’s great for keeping you satisfied for years. But very few titles are worth a monthly sub, and thus fail. You have to live up to every expectation. There’s also a cultural issue — gamers associate success or failure with monthly sub numbersI think it’s a fine model that promotes long-term satisfaction, but the tides are simply against it right now.

Hear no evil – Daily Subscription

It’s good for both the casual and hardcore player, removing the sense of obligation to play. There’s the temptation to make a Zynga-style flop based on daily restrictions, but otherwise it’s a balanced model for everybody. Feedback on whether people are enjoying the game is immediate, rather than staggered. Profit comes in terms of daily active users, which camouflages perceived ‘success’ or ‘failure’. However it still needs to be worth the payment.

Speak no evil – Hourly Subscription

There’s no obligation to play, but every time you do log in you’re racing against the clock. Even for a cheap price like $0.13 an hour, the psychological drive to be efficient still lurks in the brain. It’s a dark day indeed when the main objective is to get you to play longer and longer hours. I think this method is more of a problem than a solution.

In Summary…

Certain models lean towards certain kinds of gameplay to keep you paying. But in the end, it’s only a minor factor of success. All subscription types must have ample high-quality content to even charge a subscription in the first place. Anything below that line of quality, is simply not worth a sub no matter the model. And gamers recognize quality when it hits them.

*gasp* that was a long post. Share your comments or forever hold your peace.


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