Why should I be charged for online gaming?

There are currently a few payment models used for online gaming.

  • Totally Free
    • This is always the more preferred model from a customer’s point of view.  I mean hey, its free!  After buying a game, any online functionality is free of charge.  You can play, chat, friend request to your heart’s desire.
    • The most recognizable company that usually always uses this model is Valve and their multiplayer games(Left4Dead, Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2).  Valve has a key difference here when facilitating online play for its games, the servers are for the most part owned by the users.  When a user wants to play a game he can either join a server already hosting one or create his own.  This functionality drops Valve’s cost to host all the multiplayer games almost down to $0.  Valve doesn’t have to keep up the maintenance to ensure no lag or keep all the servers patched up, the users do.  Valve merely hands them the tools along with the game and says, “Go have fun!”  I think this is genius.  Not only does it keep the product’s cost down, it makes the users happy because they don’t have to pay to play, AND gives the users the tools to create and modify the game’s mechanics on their own servers.  If you want to have zero gravity when fighting zombies, you can do that.  If you only want your friends to play on your server, you can do that.  As long as the users want to play this game online, they will find ways to do it because they have to.  Meanwhile Valve can focus time and energy on making new games.  Starcraft also uses this model, one of the most popular games of all time.  I think it is important to mention that the fact that these games are targeted for the Computer platform instead of a console is important here.  You can’t host your own console game server as easily, but maybe that problem should be looked into…
  • Pay to Play
    • Conversely, this is the model that a big majority of online gamers hate.  “Why should we be charged continuously for a game we just bought?” they ask.  World of Warcraft is an excellent example of this model, racking in millions of dollars every month from its monthly subscription costs alone.  Most MMORPGs use this model because of the HUGE upkeep it takes for the environment to always be online so all the users can play together.
    • The biggest company that uses this model is Microsoft with Xbox Live.  Now, technically someone can argue that XBL falls in the next category, but since you can’t really play games online with XBL Silver(Microsoft’s free service) I am just going to talk about XBL Gold as the standard here.  XBL costs about $60 for 12 months of service($5 per month).  The features included are online multiplayer gaming(guests playing on your Xbox with you can also play), free and exclusive betas/game demos/premium downloadable content/Microsoft Game Store items, Netflix integration(if you have netflix streaming), friend list, movie rental service, and they also just added free ESPN3 through your Xbox.  Since Xbox is a console system the game servers can’t be hosted anywhere so Microsoft has to do some upkeep with their servers for most of these services; I don’t think Microsoft themselves hosts the multiplayer game servers since the actual companies who produce the games do that.
  • Pay for Premium Features
    • I see a lot of online systems use this model since it has the best of both words from the other two.  The consumer gets the free functionality to a point, but if they want some better features or items then they have to pay for a premium service.  This premium service may very well be the same functionality and price as the Pay to Play model.
    • Playstation Network uses this model.  The PSN is the free service; features include online game play(no guests allowed), access to the Playstation store, Netflix integration(if you have netflix streaming), friend list, and movie download service.  PSN+ offers these features plus some more for $50 for 12 months of service($4.17 per month); free/exclusive betas/game demos/premium downloadable content/PlayStation Store items, and a free subscription to Qore(online gaming magazine).

If quality games produced by Valve can make them free to play online then why aren’t all the other companies doing that?  “Well duh, they are greedy” you might say.  I’m not entirely convinced of that argument.  I won’t say that turning a profit doesn’t have anything to do with it, but I think that fact that console game servers are propriety(at least for now) means that we will have to pay to have other people(mainly the game companies) maintain them.  PSN isn’t some magic where the multiplayer servers don’t cost anything, Playstation probably covers that cost.  Playstation knew that Xbox already had a hold over the console multiplayer gaming with XBL so it decided to offer its service for free in order to appear as a better alternative.  Unfortunately, PSN still couldn’t offer everything for free that XBL could for a price and that is where PSN+ came into the picture.  A more concrete idea is that even for a cross platform popular game like Modern Warfare 2, the Xbox sales were almost double that of the PS3 sales.  This translates to bigger server upkeep, more cost, for the Xbox multiplayer servers.

So, why should I have to pay for an online gaming service?  Well, because gaming online takes work to upkeep the servers you play on and update the game if needed.  And that work costs money.  And if you aren’t going to do the work(or can’t), then you are going to have to pay someone else to do it for you.  Personally I don’t mind paying $5 a month for XBL.  Heck, I usually find 12 months for XBL on sale for $40 and buy one or two in advance(only $3.34 per month).  Yes I am glad that gaming on the PC is free, but I don’t see anything wrong or complain worthy with paying Microsoft to ensure I have a good online gaming experience to play Halo, Perfect Dark, or NBA Jam.