If you set any store by the predictions of the Wedbush Morgan group, or the businesslike tone of Bobby Kotick’s investor conference calls, the monthly subscription shit may be about to hit the online console shooter fan. And by ‘fan’, of course, we mean Call of Duty fan.
WM’s Michael Pachter (never far from a headline) opined to Industry Gamers this month that it was ‘incumbent’ on Activision Blizzard to ‘monetize’ the multiplayer scene, as the largest fish in a pond lately ruffled by sales slumps the analyst part-attributes to the lasting success of Modern Warfare online.
While there’s no real proof that Activision intends to charge for online offerings in future, despite the efforts of bogus videomakers, the actions of other companies may force matters to a head. Electronic Arts recently introduced an ‘Online Pass’ system for several major upcoming North American sports titles, under which users must fork out an additional $10 to access key multiplayer functions. Sony, meanwhile, has rolled out a top layer of paid-for PlayStation Network content in an indication that the glory days of free network services may be drawing to a close.
Taking a stand
These are Dark Times, readers. But lo, a ray of light doth burst through the gloom! A ray of light fired from the muzzle of a Spartan Laser, wielded by the men and women of Activision’s latest and greatest development partner, Bungie Studios. All you Slayer fanatics, yell ‘hurrah!’ All you money-grubbing CEOs, yell ‘IT BURNS!’
Yesterday, VGD braved the labyrinths of London’s Churchill War Rooms to chat with Halo: Reach Campaign Designer Niles Sankey and Bungie Community Director Brian Jarrard. Among other things, we asked them what they thought of subscription models for online shooters, and were relieved to hear that while the pair consider the issue an ‘interesting dilemma’, there are no plans to pull a World of Warcraft on Bungie titles.
‘As a gamer, I don’t know,’ commented Sankey. ‘I obviously have a limited amount of income to spend on stuff, whether it be a Live membership or the game itself. We’re fortunate that we’re able to create all these core features and make them a part of our game, and a lot of that is provided to us by Xbox Live.
‘But you know, to be fair,’ he conceded, ‘we do have a paid service that’s a part of Halo – it’s our Bungie Pro video rendering, a hardcore niche feature. In the case that somebody has an in-game saved film and they want to render it out to the web and have it become a high res video they can share on Youtube or something, that’s an incremental workload on us – we have to have a server farm for it, we have to have additional bandwidth, instruments…
‘That’s an example where for someone who’d like to do that we’re going to have to charge a small amount of money to accomplish that. But we feel it’s a fair trade.
‘I think our philosophy is probably always going to be you should never have to pay for core entertainment, for core enjoyment. In that example, the rendering – not doing that has no impact on your ability to fully enjoy all that Reach has to offer, that is an outlying hardcore feature. I don’t think we would ever want to start dissecting core components of our game and making it so that you have to pay to enjoy the full experience.’
Asked whether he thought Pachter’s argument that paid-for online shooters are vital to industry growth held water, Sankey was dubious, observing that a monthly fee might bind a player to a particular game at the expense of new releases.
‘I mean, I think DLC’s been adding incremental online revenue for a long time, and it’s become even bigger now, but I don’t know – I feel like as a gamer, from my personal perspective, it’s a fine line, because if you’re into a game like World of Warcraft, you’re heavily invested in it, you’re paying a monthly fee…
‘It certainly starts to impact your desire and ability to play other games, and I do think it’ll start to cannibalise itself in some ways, because people only have so much time and disposable income, and once you start putting money into something you’re going to feel obligated to stick by it and keep doing it, to get that return on the investment, and you’ll be less likely to play other games.
‘It’s been my personal experience in some of the games I’ve played with. It’s an interesting dilemma, because everybody wants to get a piece of the pie, and it can only be carved up in so many ways.’
No fate but what we make
Bungie will be watching all the pie-carving closely.
‘I’m sure the industry will test a lot of those bounds, you know,’ said Jarrard. ‘The process of natural selection, learning from the mistakes of others or yourself… I’m not concerned about the industry in general. Obviously there’s a lot of exciting things happening.’
‘It’s really up to consumers right now,’ Sankey concluded. ‘It’s a pretty incredible time. If people try it and consumers buy into it, then suddenly that’s going to become the thing that everybody starts to do.’
There you have it, readers. The power’s in your hands. We’ll be publishing our thoughts on Halo: Reach (which releases on 14th September) shortly. Sneak preview: break out the awesomesauce.