The FPS Subscription Model: Why Everyone is Right

2008_1219_shutterstock_goldeneggSince Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick is definitely on the short list of the most despised people in gaming, his words tend to garner an inordinate amount of attention. So, when in mid-June 2010 he mentioned in an interview that he wished Call of Duty would be an online subscription service, naturally the internets exploded. The fire of nerd rage got some fresh gasoline poured on it when a video of a Modern Warfare glitch surfaced about a month later. Official sources and more gamer-friendly community people including Infinity Ward’s spokesperson Robert Bowling (@fourzerotwo) and Activistion public-relations rep Dan Amrich (@OneOfSwords) spread the word in clear terms: neither Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer, nor the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer, will ever require additional fees to play.

I don’t think many of the people who raged on the internet were mollified by the responses. After all, dislike and suspicion for Bobby Kotick is burned into people’s synapses and it’s going to take a long, long time (if ever) to change people’s minds. However, in reading gaming press and podcasts lately, I was somewhat taken aback by the general response of even eminently reasonable and respectable members of the gaming press. While generally agreeing that Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops multiplayer would not be whored out for monthly subscription fees, even the gaming press seems to believe that it is only a question of when Activision will find a way, not if.

I’m not ready to believe that this is the inevitable fate of the Call of Duty and/or Modern Warfare franchises in the hands of Activision. It’s not hard to understand why, given the oceans of cash that Activision rakes in on a monthly basis from their World of Warcraft customers. Activision also can’t be happy that despite the massive sales of the Call of Duty and Modern Warfare titles and their impressive popularity on the Xbox Live charts they don’t get a slice of the Xbox Live subscription revenues. The motivation is definitely there, but the question is, where will it go?

I’m beginning to think that everyone is right.  There may very well be a shooter subscription model down the road, but it’s not going to be for either Call of Duty or Modern Warfare.

A subscription model is possible, but it is simply not going to happen with the current paradigm for the development of shooter games. The prime audience for shooters is too familiar with the value proposition of a one-time payment of $60 for a game that they can then proceed to play for hundreds and thousands of hours without having to pay additional money for the privilege. Sure, they may shell out additional money for Xbox Live once a year, or for a couple of map packs, but this doesn’t fundamentally alter the value proposition because gamers understand that there are alternatives to Xbox Live (like the Playstation Network), and that there will still be a healthy population of players who don’t buy the map packs. Activision could simply bolt on a subscription model, but unless they convince enough of the other big-shooter franchises to follow suit (like Halo, Gears of War, Battlefield, SOCOM and more), I have to think that Activision would hemorrhage enough customers to their competitors to dissuade them from such a brutal action.

This means that a subscription model won’t take place in the near future. First, some genius has to come up with a model for developing shooter games that adapts the lessons of the MMO space to the shooter genre. Getting people to accept the notion of a monthly subscription fee for a shooter will require the publisher to demonstrate a long-term commitment to improving a game (by incorporating technical improvements) and to producing a consistent stream of small nuggets of content interspersed with large impressive expansions. If people don’t believe at the outset of the game that the support will be consistent and give them additional value each and every month, it’s going to be a hard sell. In order to produce this sort of a steady stream of content, developers would need to change away from the “develop a big game then push out a couple of map packs before moving on to the sequel” model into one with a continuous long-term plan. What motivates players in the MMO space isn’t necessarily going to motivate shooter players, and simply doing a cut-and-paste from the WoW business plan would be a risky proposition.

Second, the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare franchises need to stay big. As it stands now,the lure of translating one-time sales from hugely popular games into waves upon waves of monthly cash is enough to make any business executive decide to keep pushing the issue even in the face of some risk. If the franchises start to suffer from gamer fatigue and lose ground, then the reward-versus-risk calculations change and some of the motivation is lost.

Third, the pending litigation involving former Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West is a big wild card. As long as the lawsuits are pending, Activision is likely to be averse to trying a subscription model until a settlement or a court affirms that they will retain complete control. If the resolution of the lawsuit cedes any rights or control to Zampella and West, that might stick a fork in a Call of Duty/Modern Warfare subscription model.

However, Bobby Kotick is no dummy. He clearly would like the revenue possibilities of a monthly subscription model, but he won’t want to unnecessarily risk damaging the brand of his marquee shooter franchises (which still make his company loads of cash) by springing it unawares on the gaming public. I would wager, if they do solve the subscription riddle, that elements of the plan would be incorporated into future games to get people used to the idea. Think of it this way — if a game has been offering you the option to purchase individual bits of optional (but valuable) content on regular basis, might you not be willing to consider a lower, monthly package price? Also, I would not be surprised to see Activision maintain the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare franchises as-is and try an experiment with a subscription model on a separate game. That way, if the experiment fails, the harm to the golden geese is limited, and if it succeeds, more’s the merrier! This also has the benefit of avoiding issues relating to their pending litigation.

So, in the end, enjoy your shooters for now — but keep an eye out for the future.

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