The Best MMO Payment Model Ever

Neverwinter, Payment model

We have experienced the MMO sphere from Ultima Online (or even before) all the way up to games that haven’t even been released yet. We’ve seen payment models ranging from open to all free to play cash shops, can’t subscribe if you wanted to (Neverwinter), to a paid box plus recurring subscription and a cash shop thrown on top of it (WoW). But which is the best? I hope, in this article, to expound on the positives and negatives of each kind of payment model and then using those traits come up with a new payment model to appease everyone. Impossible? Of course it is. But why not try?

First off, lets look at the three most widely used structures of payment models: Free-To-Play with a Cash Shop, Buy to Play with a Cash Shop, and Subscription.

Free-To-Play with Cash Shop

This is the model used by games such as Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and many, many others.

Where it goes right:

The ability to draw in a very large player base.

– Ways to earn store credits through playing the game. A currency exchange, a static reward for completing larger accomplishments, etc.

– Easy to return to after an extended absence.

Where it goes wrong:

– Nickel and diming of items that would be used to show progress. Larger bag capacity, More bag slots, cosmetic changes, retrain tokens.

– Largely transient community. With no vested interest, the draw to stay with the one title isn’t that high.

– Game pushes you to use the store as that it their primary source of income.

Personally, I don’t mind games that are Free-To-Play. With some games even having a way to earn store credit by playing (STO, LotRO, NW), it turns the payment model into a game itself. However, the “payment model” game… is not that fun. I guess it would be if you are an auction-house tycoon and enjoy the manipulation of markets, but these F2P games usually put failsafes in to prevent it. Also, the earning of store credit feels like a separate game, and not part of the game itself.

The sheer number of players that Free-To-Play generates are an asset all unto themselves, though. If 80% of your income comes from 20% of your players, you’ll want to increase the base amount of players as much as possible. And then having more players around at all times gives more people to group with, more guild or fleet members, and makes a game feel “full”. Also, you’ll generally have more fun in F2P titles if you are capable of showing restraint and maturity. If you understand that you don’t need everything, that some items are just frivolous, and keep yourself from splurging, you’ll be just fine.

Buy-To-Play with Cash Shop

This is the model used for games like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World where you pay for the game’s client and content and then have a cash shop included for more non-essentials, cosmetics and boosters.

Where it goes right:

– Has a very large playerbase

– Easy to Return to after an extended absence

– Gameplay and content is the main focus

Where it goes wrong:

– Community is not as transient as F2P, but people still take long breaks in between major content updates.

– Similar to single-player games. Once story is completed, the want to stay around reduces.

– Cash Shop still a focus in the game, though not as bad as F2P.

As elitist gamers are fond of saying, a payment wall tends to keep out the “riff-raff”. These “riff-raff” are, of course, present in every game, but having the wall throws a stigma to those that are just looking to be pains and cause trouble. This leads to friendlier communities, in a game that still has a very large playerbase. I’ve been playing a lot of GW2 and TSW lately, and both games feel ridiculously full. Players are still EVERYWHERE. Even if the majority are off fighting in the endgame, the starting levels are far from empty. In fact, a Buy-To-Play model even makes the timespan of when players join the game more spread out. It’s not all at once at launch, it’s over time as more reviews and sales causes players to jump in when it’s more convenient for them.

The cash shop, of course, is still there, and is still an eyesore, but it’s not at front-and-center. Finding the Cash Shop in The Secret World took me ages, as it’s hidden in the menu and there isn’t an on-screen big flashing button.  The more hidden it is, the more gameplay doesn’t revolve around it. This is a good thing.

Guild Wars, no pants, payment model


This is the domain of the lucky World of Warcraft, EvE Online, and upcoming titles Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar (until they maybe change their mind soon after release, that is).

Where it goes right:

– Very faithful, but smaller community with long-time, experienced players.

– All content can be earned while playing the game.

– High payment walls keep out non-serious players, and remaining players are more passionate about the game.

Where it goes wrong:

– Cash shop still exists, but not by name and only for items like server transfers, name changes, expansions, and is outside of the game’s client.

– Starting new feels like a ghost town. Players are usually clustered in the highest levels and the starting zones feel “dead”.

– Content you don’t engage in and don’t want you still end up paying for, and is usually unavoidable.

I could keep going, but it’s not all bad. For the really serious gamer, it truly creates the most even playing field there is, one of time only. A comment on a previous article posits that the distinguishing character of subscriptions is that effort = reward, and only effort. You can’t buy your way to the top, you follow the same path as everyone else. If they have a fantastic piece of armor, you can get it too with enough effort. In subscription, then, is the only true PvP found, that of social standing. Dominance is by sheer effort.

In a perfect world, yes, that would be the case. However, as long as gold sellers exist and people keep using them, the playing field will never be even. In fact, due to the pure effort = reward system, the value attained from using gold sellers is more dramatic than it would be in a F2P title. So even in these games, RMT’s still occur, whether the players and developers like it or not.

The Best Payment Model Ever!!

So, combining all of these together, what do we have?

What we want:

– Lots of players. And the more faithful and spread out, the better.

– Easy to Return after an extended absence. New games happen, and we like to play them. Breaks are inevitable.

– All Content Earned Through Gameplay

– Effort being the primary source of Reward

What do we NOT want:

– An invasive cash shop that nickel’s and dimes us.

– Transient and immature players.

This image is credit of Star Trek Online forum member 'centersolace'. Awesome.


Looking at all of the reasons and managing the negatives, the best payment model we could have is this:

A Buy-To-Play model base, with the ability to earn all content through gameplay. A store that would have to be around, since it’s BTP, but very non-invasive and optional.

This system sounds a lot like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, doesn’t it? Well, I agree that their payment structure is very well done, but both can be better. If we combine them together, we may have something. How about this?

Instead of the gold/gems exchange we have in GW2, why not have gems be a drop in the game, too. Random drops. Kill a mob, find a few gems. Complete a quest, get a few gems. In TSW, this would translate the same way, kill mobs, earn a couple points. Nothing drastic, of course, just here and there. Make it random, like a slot machine. If you play for a long time, put in the effort, they will add up.

Have an optional subscription, like TSW, that also gives store points. Then the store won’t be invasive, it’ll be a destination for people to spend. If they want the items sooner, they can spend and get it.

Content should be good enough to necessitate a fee. I like that GW2 is pumping out content left and right, but it feels overwhelming and insufficient at the same time. Why not release it in overall-story-progressing content packs? The whole Queen Jennah conflict with the crazy plant woman could be a featured paid top level story arc, for instance.

So what do you think? Think I’m on to something, or did I miss something entirely? Would this cause runaway inflation the likes of which has never been seen? Or will it help to be a stabilizing effect for in-game economies? Think this post is too long and want me to stop ranting?! Let me know!

And as always, thank you for reading.

// Ocho


20 thoughts on “The Best MMO Payment Model Ever

  1. I’m all for a “buy to play” with an optional sub rider for people who want it and a minimal interface invasion for the shop (though a tangent could be run on the nature and inventory of the shop). I don’t mind paying for my games. I just detest paying for time.

    • I detest paying for time as well. My games list that I could play at any given moment is sickeningly and embarrassingly large. If I sub in a game, though, I literally rope myself into playing that one game…. unless they give me good enough reasons where the rope is not tight. Take The Secret World, for instance. I sub to TSW, and yet I play other games. I don’t feel it’s wasteful because of what the “sub” gives me, essentially $10 worth of store points, a 10% discount (making all points worth more), a special membership item per month (pet, outfits, etc), early access to new content, and veteran points that can be spent on veteran-only items. Well worth it, imo. Even if I don’t play for a month, my account will still get $15 worth of stuff. This is the way to do a sub.

  2. I played star wars the old republic before it went ftp(well I played for the free month). It was a fun game but I couldn’t justify the sub at the time. When it went free to play I tried it again and was immediately put off by the items that were being sold in the shop. They wanted me to pay for a second hot bar, side bars, etc…seriously?? They wanted me to PAY real damn money for more hotbar options? I closed the game down, uninstalled and left without a second thought. For a free to play game I will pay for content and such, possibly more bag space if its not crazy but UI enhancements? Hell with that. That may have put a bad taste in my mouth for most MMOs afterwards because I have yet to go back to any for the most part.

    • Yeah, SWTOR’s shop at FTP launch was a disaster. I don’t know if it’s changed or better since then (I hope it is), but as far as an example of “restrictive” FTP, they’re the poster-child. It all comes down to the company giving it, really. Turbine and Bioware are very restrictive in their FTP, where ArenaNet, Funcom, and Cryptic are very open. For that reason, I’ve even shied away from LotRO and DDO from how many walls I kept encountering. I don’t like it, but they are encountering success with it. Where it would stop us, it still doesn’t stop others.

  3. Oh on an unrelated note, those damn steam cards are my new addiction. I have yet to spend a real dime on cards or anything on the market but its fun to play around with and see my small gains.

    • Haha I know. My Steam Wallet has 10 cents in it right now. Even if I buy a new game, I refuse to use that 10 cents to make it cheaper… that is trading card money. 😛

  4. Buy-to-play with annual, major buy-to-play expansion. Effectively, sell the same game once a year, every year. Sustain interest between expansions with low-investment, high attraction “holiday” content every 2-3 months. After the first year this will be self-sustaining so long as new skins, pets, etc are added to each holiday event every time it rolls around. Don’t waste money on adding free content beyond that – save it for the expansions.

    Personally, I’d also like to have a cash shop as well, even though I rarely spend any money in them. I love window-shopping in real life – indeed I frequently tab out of MMOs to go window-shopping on Amazon. Cash shops in games are fun, especially when you don’t spend any money. Definitely keep it on a small, discreet UI button though or, even better, at an actual location in-game that you have to make an active decision to go visit.

    • I agree with Ursan, that sounds almost exactly like what GW1 has. No sub, and then they subsequently released Factions and Nightfall (which didn’t even require the original Prophecies to play), and finally had the Eye of the North expansion. Plus, they still had a shop, but it was mostly bank tabs, an extra mission pack, skill packs (earnable in-game), character slots, etc.

  5. Just to chime in on this “In a perfect world, yes, that would be the case. However, as long as gold sellers exist and people keep using them, the playing field will never be even.” Most of the BiS or even high level gear that is “worth” something in the form of showing achievment can’t be bought through real money (unless you buy an account ofc) so I think the playfield is that much more even then, because even though there are probably a lot more people out there who have bought accounts with good geared toons than what I think there are, they only make out a fraction of the population and unless you show that you can play your character in a way that your gear suggests these people are more likely to be shunned because they bypassed the effort = reward rule. As such the disturbance in the playfield is so minimal that it does not get noticed (ofc if the practice was rampant it would be far more noticeable).

    As well as to the sub model having dead starting zones that has only very little to do with the payment model (if at all) and more with things such as zone structuring (why can’t a starting zone have a subarea with say level 20 mobs for example?) and mostly with the system of levels that is used to show the player progression. Having a game that conciously takes it’s nature as not having zones gated by levels into account would go a long way of solving that problem, something TSW failed horribly at. Games like WoW show the dead starting zones also extremely well (on some servers) as the difference between a level 1 character and a max level one has gotten very big (89 levels and 3 continents). Or simply that a game has reached the point where new players that are interested in the game are few and far between.

    The reason why I also dislike a cash shop for in game items is the fact that there is a subset of the population (maybe very very small) that like me play MMOs as “world simulators” thus for me anything coming “outside” of the game, especially in a manner that is condoned by the developpers (cash shop) shatters piece by piece the feeling of the MMO being a virtual world that works within it’s own set of rules with no outside interference, which is done more frequently with a cash shop as it of course attracts more customers to it. And that is something I would like to suggest as an addition to your list.

    • I think the numbers of gamers who have purchased gold or characters or whatnot from a game’s black market is more than you think. The practice is pretty rampant. I’ve found research stating that upwards of 30% of MMO players buy gold, and a fully specced out WoW account, with all the end-game items and such, can sell for upwards of $1500. The price would not be that high if there weren’t buyers. Those that make it their business run games 8-10 hours per day, and there are companies in China, real companies offering health insurance, decent salaries, and retirement plans built all around selling in-game gold. If the business is big enough that it’s capable of sustaining small country economies, it’s rampant. You might not notice it because it’s been there all along, but it is there.

      And ahh, but zone structuring itself is based off the payment model. it’s all inter-linked. They want players to progress quickly and so the zones are structured as such. Exploration of a zone, in WoW, is almost laughable these days. If they wanted to encourage players to spend time in lower zones, they would, but it makes them no money to do so. A sub creates a necessity to get the most of the time you pay for, so if you spend it doing activities that aren’t conducive to that efficiency, you’re wasting that time. When you stop paying for time, efficiency stops being a top priority. As an example, recently WoW removed the limit on the number of daily quests you could do per day. They have essentially admitted that was a mistake. Why? Because it caused players to want that efficiency and so did dailys until they absolutely burnt out, and WoW’s subs dropped because of it. Crazy, right?

      “The reason why I also dislike a cash shop for in game items is the fact that there is a subset of the population (maybe very very small) that like me play MMOs as “world simulators” thus for me anything coming “outside” of the game, especially in a manner that is condoned by the developpers (cash shop) shatters piece by piece the feeling of the MMO being a virtual world that works within it’s own set of rules with no outside interference, which is done more frequently with a cash shop as it of course attracts more customers to it. And that is something I would like to suggest as an addition to your list.” That is a very good point. A cash shop does break immersion quite heavily and does cause a disruption. Hence why I’m not a fan of interfering cash shops, like you find in LotRO or DDO that are hounding you at every step with a big on-screen button. I like immersion, I love immersion. I LOVE Skyrim (and Oblivion before it, and Morrowind before it), for example, because of this. If it’s one thing Elder Scrolls does right, it’s immersion. But MMO’s are an entire other animal… you can’t control other players, and sometimes it feels like the developers just stop trying. The very last time I logged into WoW, I was in Stormwind by the bank. I stood there and watched the following happen: a guy on a dragon passed by, then a flying carpet, then a motorcycle. Then a person dressed as a pirate, then a tree, then flying helicopter. I was done then and there and haven’t looked back. WoW wasn’t immersive anymore, it was just ridiculous. It was catering to every fantasy trope it could think of, and the combination was a circus. Warcraft lore is very large (if not that deep), and it felt like the players, with the developers approval, were trampling all over it. So since then, I’ve realized that if I want immersion, it won’t be found in the MMO-space (I mean hell, since when do Starfleet captains have to worry about money and farming dilithium?!! ARGH). And, yes, there is a small subset of people who demand that immersive experience, but even the developers know that they can’t truly deliver it.

      • I do agree that if you want as much immersion as humanly possible MMOs are not the top contener. But MMOs do have a very big potential to be immersive and have shown that they can be immersive in the past. For instance I’m playing a Vanilla version of WoW on a private server that is exactly like the original (no fast levels, or special gear vendors etc.) and I do notice one thing very fast. 1) Retail WoW has essentially sold out its immersion factor by pumping the game full of different types of mounts (I for one liked it when the Netherwing was really hard to get so you did not see a lot of them, I do still thnk that flying mounts in retrospect were a misstake) and making a majority of them very easy to obtain. 2) Past incarnations of WoW like Vanilla had tons more immersion because how the quests actually were laid out (a more loose hub and spoke system) and that all the tongue in cheek humour was very hard to spot (whereas now we have Rambo in Redridge).

        I do however disagree that “the zone structuring itself is based on the payment model”. Maybe the remodeling of Cata did exactly did but it was not the case before (Redridge has an elite sub-area that is 6 levels higher than what you usually are when you got there; Loch Modan has a similar sub-area that is meant for as high as 22+ toons and it is a 10+ area). WoW changed the way it tried to envision the game dramatically in WoLK (everybody should raid) and thus we have a game that is far more a kin to lobby games than a virtual world and that is why your quote seems to make sense. Before the focus on endgame and especially raiding (granted a game that wants to show progression must have some sort of focus, but it must not be as forced as WoW’s is) I had tons of friends who just ran dungeons or heroic dungeons. They explored proffessions and tried to find various well hidden places (like the burning bush in HInterlands that is now gone). A lot o f the proffessions themselves required exploration when you wanted to specialise (Uldaman for Enchanters anyone?).

        Anyway long story short a lobby game that focuses on one thing above all (raiding) like the modern WoW needs to make sure you get the most out of your time in the game. An MMO that presents itself as a world does not need to do that since it operates on “the journey” rather than “the destination” being what matters. And you are right players will still feel forced to get out as much as possible from their game time, but if the game sets a deliberately slow pace it would be like trying to sprint on a slow treadmill and at one point you will fall into the rythm of the treadmill. Therefore efficiency has a much smaller meaning in the grand scope of things. (WoW Vanilla did this for instance by having it being impossible for Rogues to pull more than 2 mobs at the same time and less than that if ranged mobs were involved in the 10- 20 bracket; as such efficiency= survival, yes you could be more efficient by not dying but your progress was still very slow). That is also one aspect why I support properly done MMOs with non-level-gated content (sadly we don’t have them) as they eliminate the thought of max level and putting a destination to your journey.

        And as a parting thought I think the developper should never try to save people or players from themselves (like the daily quest burnouts) I’d rather there be the choice of people burning themselves out than there be no choice not to as choice also makes these worlds richer; after all it is ultimately the player that has responsibility for his or her own actions

      • Vanilla WoW is a bit of an exception to the overall rules. As in any endeavor, when taking averages, you always throw out the top and bottom figures as anomalies, and WoW is, by far, an anomaly. I happily played Vanilla WoW, and played WoW up until the Argent stuff in WotLK. It was very immersive, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it, and the game’s culture changed significantly during that time. After a while, I noticed that I was not the target audience, I was not who the game was designed for, despite being a open-walleted gamer, and my money was going to waste if I continued playing a game that would never satisfy me.

        Immersion was a big part of that, as the “fantasy for everyone” story I described. How can something be immersive if you’re trying to include Everything. There is only so far the willing suspension of disbelief stretches before it breaks.

        And I’m not saying there will never be people who will not care about the most efficient way to play, I am one of them. I hate using builds I haven’t designed myself, I abhor watching boss videos before I run a dungeon, I hate… cheating. I don’t flip to the back of a book to read the ending first, so why would I do it in my games. I explore the worlds. I talk to everyone. I read quest text. It bites me when I run into players who just play efficiently and think otherwise is wrong (sadly, they’re in the majority). I don’t have the best Gearscore? /kick. I don’t have time to run dungeons all night long? /gkick. I’ve never run the dungeon before? /kick. I lost count how many times this has occurred. So, yes, there are those that explore, and those that enjoy discovery… but that’s not who these games are designed for. It’s designed for the “efficient” gamers, and as such, zones are developed to push them down efficient paths, and the payment model is a big part of that. If the payment model were different, damn right the game would be designed differently. If free, it might focus more on the journey, extend it out to encourage buying exp boosters… but the zone design would be different.

        As to developers not trying to save people from themselves, that isn’t the case at all. They removed the limits on daily quests, players burnt-out, and the game lost hundreds of thousands of subs. That isn’t so much saving people from themselves as it is a financially terrible decision. Having limits makes them more money, and what will make them more money is the path they are going to take.

  6. Sorry for the double post as for the numbers it would be interesting to know how many of those 30% play WoW and even if all of them play WoW that would mean that if WoW had 10 servers than on an average 3% of a servers player base buys gold and as suh the effect of it while regrettable are far from noticeable. I do agree however that there should be better design solutions preventing this kind of activity.

  7. yeah last one had a serious math error in there so you can ignore edit that part out or leave it anyway I’m aware of that but i think you get at least the gist of what I tried to say in the top part.

  8. Man your story about playing vanilla made me miss old wow and realize why I eventually quit. I remember starting the day the game came out. Everything was new…for everyone. I was running around trying my hardest to get a silver or two to purchase a bag from someone. The crazy bugs in the first months were frustrating but at the same time made the game what it was. At that time it was all about the exploration and was hard to do because of things like you mentioned(elite subzones). Mounts were crazy rare to. I had to help a friend save to get his mount when he hit 40 and afterwards he helped me save. That was a monumental achievement when I first got my mount(the slow one). It was an even crazier achievement when I finally saved enough for the fast mount at 60. I did it before they nerfed the price, originally was a thousand gold. I miss those days. After Burning Crusade things started going down hill. I did get my netherdrake way before they made it easy. That was a long grind.

    Thanks for reminding me about those days heh.

    • Yeah, its sad, really. I caught the articles recently showing the end cinematics for Mists of Pandaria and thought they were well done. The game is still good, but it’s just not the same as it was. We can’t recapture the spark that WoW had, and so even trying at this point is futile. It’s just not the same. Although my favorite WoW experience was the first guild I was ever a part of, like I described in an earlier post, my second favorite, hands down, was when I met you guys in Hellfire Peninsula during BC, and hanging out with you, Nyah, Grim, and the whole bunch. Those were good times. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Listmas 2013: For My 100th Post, My Top 10 Favorite Posts on Casual Aggro | Casual Aggro

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