Playing with MMOG Pricing

A couple of days ago, Sony announced a new MMOG bundle. Starting March 14th, you’ll be able to buy EverQuest Evolution, EverQuest II, PlanetSide Aftershock, The Matrix Online, and Star Wars Galaxies for just $39.99. The move (among others: 1, 2) has its fair share of detractors; this Penny Arcade comic sums it up.

While I do believe that the game industry generally over-emphasizes the importance of pricing signals (we desperately need more $30-$40 high-quality games), I have to agree with Sony’s critics on this one. The MMOGs that Sony is pitching are (mostly) “high playtime” games which, when they’re successful, tend to encourage long and frequent gameplay sessions. And they all appeal to a hardcore audience. The problem is, a hardcore gamer who’s going to play an MMOG for ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week isn’t going to care overly much about the initial price of the game. He/she is going to care about who’s playing it, and how it compares to other MMOGs on the market. When you’re going to pay $10 or $15 a month for something, and play it constantly, the first $50 doesn’t mean a whole lot.

On the other hand, I think there is room for experimentation on the recurring fee side of the equation. Significantly reduce the recurring fees, and/or increase the “free” initial play period, and people may choose to try your game (and/or maintain a mostly-inactive account) just because it’s “cheap”. This is different from waiving the fee but capping the player to a newbie area or restricting their level growth; that strategy might work for casual gamers, but not the hardcore gamers who want to level up fast, and who are the most likely audience for a game like EverQuest II. Of course, if you’re battling for the hardcore audience on price, you’ve probably already lost the war…

Long story short, I think this is one case where a negative price/quality signal will be sent. There might very well be an influx of new players when the bundle hits the shelves, but I bet they don’t stick around for long — unless subscription fees go down. And even then, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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