I certainly object when a publisher offers a single-player game as full-priced rental. Single-player games are static, and once the transaction is over the publisher has nothing more of value to offer. They have nothing to sell you except “access” to something you’re already holding in your hand. I expect to buy one and use it the same way I buy and use CDs and DVDs.
But an MMO genuinely is a service. You pay a subscription fee for a very particular form of live streaming data: The state of all the other players in the gameworld. The most basic MMO will offer some social tools – chat, emotes, friend lists, etc. A good MMO will have gameplay which makes this data relevant to your experience. (That is, make the game more than just a chatroom and a shared-space single player game.) It will have groups, raids, guilds, auctions, and PvP, all of which offer things that single-player games simply can’t.
A single-player game is a static bit of software. An MMO is an ongoing stream of changing data, and the software (often free) is simply there to make that data relevant to you in the hopes that you’ll subscribe to it.
So in my view most MMO’s don’t have any DRM. That is, there’s no system in place to arbitrarily restrict or control your usage of the software. Certainly an MMO denies you ownership, but I wouldn’t expect to be able to “buy” an MMO any more than I’d expect to “buy” cable television for a one-time fee and use it forever after. (I know some MMO games actually work this way (Guild Wars) but I think the ongoing fee is reasonable for the care & feeding of their server farm. (Nested parenthesis for, as they say, “the win”.) )
I know this makes MMO games more expensive for the consumer. A lot more expensive in some cases: Just ask a four-year veteran of World of Warcraft how much they’ve paid for the game so far. But my DRM protests have never really been about money.
What I’ve been expecting is for there to be a move towards adding online play functionality to what is essentially a single-player experience in order to get access to a bite of that crazy MMO money. (The single-player game with a chatroom I mentioned above.) That money is huge, and you don’t have to share it with retailers, distributors, et al. I haven’t seen it happen yet. Perhaps the up-front cost of servers and bandwidth has warded off anyone who wasn’t serious about making an MMO. How would people have reacted if Spore incurred a monthly fee due to its quasi-multiplayer creature sharing? (I’m talking about before release, before people know the game was shallow.) Would they have balked at it? I don’t know.
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