Although most of my success is with the traditional free-to-play (F2P) in-app purchase business model, the big opportunity will be on layering additional monetization on this model. One old model that I think represents a great opportunity for casual games is the subscription model, a model that pre-dates online gaming. A recent article on Alist, Subscriptions Reborn for Gaming, does a good job summarizing the history and pointing to the future of the subscription model.
Subscriptions in gaming in days past
First, it’s important to note that the subscription model is not new to gaming. The rise of MMORPGs, think World of Warcraft or Everquest, was driven by subscription revenue. At it’s peak (2010), World of Warcraft had over 10 million subscribers (most at over $20 per month).
The importance of subscriptions, however, subsided with the growth of in-app purchases. Most MMORPGs moved to a mixed or purely F2P model. Now. World of Warcraft is the only major product that is largely subscription based, and it offers free play up to level 20.
Other online entertainment have gone the opposite way
While gaming has moved away from subscriptions, it is increasingly important for other online businesses. Amazon Prime, Amazon’s streaming media and free delivery service, with over 50 million US subscribers and about 80 million worldwide. Music has evolved from selling albums or singles to subscription services like Spotify and Pandora. DVDs sales have plummeted while Netflix now has over 80 million subscribers. Thus, in other entertainment spaces, the subscription model is driving revenue now.
Subscriptions in gaming now
While not many games are offering subscriptions, yet, many gamers are already subscribing. Microsoft and Sony both have tens of millions of subscribers to Xbox Live and Playstation Network, respectively, for access to multi-player gaming and new, free games. Electronic Arts is seeing success with its Origin Access subscription service, which for about $4/month gives players access to classic EA games as well as new games before other customers.
The opportunity for subscriptions in gaming
While there is clearly a demand for game subscriptions, one hurdle that remains is Apple’s restriction on iOS subscriptions. With Apple, to offer an “auto-renewable subscription,” that is a subscription that automatically renews rather than asking the customer to purchase it again after a set period of time, you must provide a product that cannot be used up over time, what they call a non-consumable. A consumable could be an hour-long experience point boost in a game app. On the other hand, a non-consumable could take the form of an unlocking a theme, since it could be restored again later.
If you assume that Apple will not change its policy soon, you should not create separate strategies for Android and Apple given the importance of the iOS platform, instead build a subscription model that works for both. While there is no set of best practices yet in the mobile space for leveraging the subscription model, I suggest following the plan below to test this model
- Look at micro-subscription, small monthly amounts. $0.99 or $1.99 is not a large burden on players but not only will it generate revenue but will get them further invested in your product.
- Consider multiple subscription tiers. $0.99 for the silver subscription, $4.99 for the gold. This provides opportunities for your most engaged players to get the most benefit but is also accessible for all players.
- If you have an in-game VIP or loyalty program, offer subscriptions for players to move up or stay at a certain level. I would pay $10/month to retain my Platinum Status on American Airlines, let other people buy into status (plus it puts a monetary reward on it for players who earned it).
- Decide whether it is a company wide subscription (like EA’s Origin Access) or if it is game specific. The former obviously makes sense only if you have, or plan to have, a broad range of titles.
- Decide what to include in the subscriptions but always test. Different options include early access to new content or games, discount on purchases (which also may include IAP monetization), special avatars or themes or a regular XP boost. The benefits are game/company specific but should be broad enough to ensure a majority of players would see value.
As the model evolves, it will be interesting to see what does and does not resonate with players. By watching the space, you can learn best practices and build from there.
While the subscription model is unproven in casual games and there is no defined model on how to do it right, you should still try it. It is increasingly difficult to monetize mobile apps, or at least monetize at a level that covers your acquisition costs. By adding subscriptions, you may find a secret to increasing lifetime value and thus enabling growth.
- Gamers have responded to the subscriptions model since MMORPGs, though it lost favor to in-app purchases recently.
- Other areas on online entertainment – music, film, video – are driven by the subscription model.
- Subscriptions represent an opportunity, though currently unproven, to increase revenue and customer lifetime value.