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Opinion: Would A Subscription FPS Be The End Of The World?

Anytime there's talk of Modern Warfare starting a subscription program, the Internet erupts in flames. Doing it with an existing game would be marketing suicide. But subscription FPS gaming could benefit publisher's bottom lines AND the game's players.

The future of online warfare? Image source (via Google).

Every time Activision CEO Bobby Kotick or analyst Michael Pachter shoots their mouth off about possibly charging a subscription for a game like Modern Wafare, gamers take it as a sign of the "gamepocalypse" (to borrow from Jessie Schell). Missed that item? Check out this article--news that was quickly squashed by Activision (here, among many other places).

I'm not here to rehash that debate. It's clear that Modern Warfare 2 will never use a subscription model. Taking something from being free to paid after millions have already bought the game "in good faith" would be the worst PR move ever. And, for Activision, that would be saying something.

The more I think about it, though, would that be such a bad thing--keeping in mind it would have to be a new game and/or property? Let's take a look at how it could work:

What it Can't Be

A blatant cash grab. I still can't understand how analyst Michael Pachter gets quoted all the time, but he's one of the ones who started this whole discussion. To my slightly more than casual observer mind, the claim that Activision has to charge subscriptions is ludicrous. Modern Warfare 2 has made a ton of money--and paying $60 up front involves the expectation that multiplayer will be free for the life of the servers.

A subscription model is just that--a new model for doing business. I'm all for companies generating profit--which allows for them to re-invest that money back into even more awesome games--but as a consumer it also has to give me something as well. Otherwise the first company to try it will fail under the weight of countless other non-subscription alternatives.

The Minimum Requirements

A traditional single-player campaign and multi-player suite retails for $60. Using round numbers for simplicity, let's assume a $5/month subscription. A good game should keep me online for at least 2 months--until the next shiny thing comes along. A discount to $50 retail makes it break-even if the game keeps me for those two months. A property like Halo or Modern Warfare would keep me for a lot longer--which could become quite profitable.

The pricing model becomes stickier for a multiplayer-only game and would really depend on regular high-quality maps being added for free (i.e. included with my subscription). I like stories with my games, especially co-op experiences with my wife (who is my biggest gaming buddy) to complement fragging random strangers online.

The price tag could be $40 for a really polished experience--putting the break-even at 4 months, or closer to 6+ depending on the pace of DLC that's now free vs. free-play and paid DLC of the current model). Something less polished, like the recent Blacklight: Tango Down, would have a hard time getting me to pay $20 plus a subscription when it doesn't charge one now.

There's a lot of detail we're glossing over here in the interest of brevity--please feel free to tear my argument apart (or help support it) in the comments!

Extra Credit

Ars Technica recently took the stance that the death of modding tools for FPS games is inevitable (something I criticized here). Bringing that back would be a way for me to sign up for a subscription experience. Wait, paying for something that used to be free? The idea would be to use a subscription game with robust tools as a way of fostering a vibrant community. Here's a few details of how I imagine a developer/publisher who's wiling to experiment could do it:

The bare minimum would be an object editor for multi-player maps a la the Forge 2.0 of Bungie's upcoming Halo: Reach. I'm all for developer polished maps ("premium" content) but an active fan base can far outstrip the resources of even the most committed dev team. The daring aspect starts here: use a system similar to Bungie's Atlas program to get the highest quality user content into public match-making.

Users who succeed in doing so would get credit back on their subscription (either a refund or future months free). This way there's a nice financial incentive to offset the new subscription fees. I could also see some sort of partial credit being issued players who didn't want or have time to create maps but participated in alpha/beta testing of user maps--expanding the dev and test teams beyond the actual company administrating the game.

Something more ambitious would be including a full mod toolset to create new single or co-op player experiences. This could be fully voiced/cinematic experiences (something a lot of fans already use various game properties to do via YouTube "machinimas") on par with campaign levels or something more akin to Modern Warfare 2's Special Ops mode (essentially challenge levels/shooting galleries that would require a lot of editing and AI scripting but could realistically be done by a single user).

Again, users would alpha/beta test and the content would make its way into the larger community. Or, it could be an online marketplace--users "sell" the content at a price they set (up to a maximum), again to defray the cost of the subscription.

One of the difficulties comes from the current console/PC divide. My hope (as someone who loves dual-analog sticks for my primary gaming but also owns PC versions of  many games just to tinker with the mod tools) for such an ambitious game is that, even though the actual gameplay would have to be segmented because of the different networks of servers involved, the mod tools and content would be universal.

Whether the mod tools would be based on the consoles a la Forge 2.0 (which entails two different UI creations) or based on some sort of desktop environment (more costly in terms of programming and then uploaded to the player's console via a game server is open for discussion.

Using a PC interface to create content specifically for a console game has taken a very small step forward already with Fable III's (admittedly somewhat gimmicky) Villager Creation tool.

The Cost: I'm paying for something I used to get for free. It would take someone actually taking the plunge with this model to figure out the true cost/benefit, but I imagine that the discounted retail box plus a monthly subscription (but free extra content) would net out similar to players who pay the full $60 and then also buy map packs at $10-$15 every few months).

The Benefit: A good game out of the box would get only better with constant user-created additions. The fan base gets larger, more loyal, and spends more and more time with your game. The players, in turn, get lots of excellent content to keep the experience fresh and new. Plus, if something's missing or they want to tweak their experience--they have the means to do it.

Am I totally smoking something here or could this actually be feasible? Please sound off in the comments!

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