There’s an interesting discussion taking place on Slashdot… a user of A Tale in the Desert says he cancelled his account because he wasn’t playing enough to justify the monthly fee, and asks “where is the metered model for the casual gamer?” The lead designer of Tale responded that he might set up a server especially for casual gamers that limits playtime to a few hours a month, but costs the same amount. His rationale: most casual gamers complain that they can’t “compete” with hardcore players who give the game more time; they don’t complain (at least outwardly) about cost.
First, I think it’s really important not to lump “low playtime” users into the larger category of “casual gamers.” Someone who wants to play WoW for eight hours a week is not a casual gamer; a dedicated user of Pogo.com probably is. That said, I think a “casual” server is a compelling idea, but I doubt you can charge all players the same amount. People feel very strongly about fairness, and as a game developer, you violate those feelings at your own peril. If a casual server is identical to a “hardcore” server but has limits on playtime, gamers will probably expect a discount (and I see no reason why not to indulge them.)
Of course, there are other pricing models that remove emphasis from playtime altogether. Second Life’s “play for free, pay monthly fees for land ownership” model, for example. This could be extended to MMOs like World of Warcraft by, for example, charging a small monthly fee for ownership of a mount, a guild hall, etc. Ultimately, hardcore players would still end up paying a fair amount.
Pricing solutions aside, I’d love to see an MMO that makes both “low-playtime” and “high-playtime” gamers happy by truly addressing the problem of competitive disadvantage. WoW tried to do this via rest experience bonuses (the longer you’re offline, the easier it is to gain experience while online) — but it only helps so much. How about designing an MMO in which “important” functions only require a limited amount of time (say, one hour a day) but “less important” functions can be enjoyed endlessly? For example, a space trading game that limits crucial mercantile functions to a given number per day, but places no limits on exploration, combat, etc?
The game industry is currently underserving two markets: people who would love a casual MMO (like Yo Ho Ho Puzzle Pirates), and “low playtime” gamers who enjoy hardcore games but hate to be left behind by high playtime friends and/or enemies. Going after those markets would probably entail less risk than making the next traditional hardcore MMORPG, too.