MMO Rentals

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 23, 2008

Filed under: Video Games 73 comments

Eric Meyer asks:

I’d be interested to know how MMOs fit into your three evils, Shamus. Those seem like the ultimate rentals to me, games that are by design set up so that you never own them and can only be permitted to play them wherever and whenever so long as you keep forking over cash without end.

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.


From The Archives:

73 thoughts on “MMO Rentals

  1. Apathy Curve says:

    “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.”

    That’s a very interesting way of putting it. I’d never really thought of it in quite that way, but now that you said — er, wrote — it that way, it brings to mind a nearly-ubiquitous plot device from the old cyberpunk novels: “merging with the data stream.” I used to read those books twenty-odd years ago and think to myself how great it would be when cyberspace was finally made real and I could “merge with the data stream.”

    Lo and behold, it snuck up and merged with me while I wasn’t even looking — and for a paltry 15 ducks a month, to boot! Think I’ll take the second half of the day off and go merge with Warhammer Online some more.

    Vive la Gibson!

  2. Cat Skyfire says:

    Good explanation. It’s also why different MMOs still apply. No one would compare the gameplay of Everquest and World of Warhammer with, say, Second Life, but both types have a money making stream.

  3. Ian Price says:

    Many MMOs also give you continuing content updates on top of the simple MMO experience, the maintenance of which is, as you said, the basic service you pay for. WoW has a patch with new content every 2-4 months, for example. Sometimes these patches just tweak game mechanics that have been re-evaluated since the last patch, but sometimes they put whole new zones and dungeons into the game.

    As an approximately 3-year player who’s bought both expansions, and who pays the lump sum every six months for the lower rate, but whose subscription is taxed because he lives in Illinois (grumble)… and I bought the game initially and both expansions… $575 so far. Then again, my main character alone has more than 40 days of play-time logged. I’m paying less than $0.50 an hour for my play-time, so it’s cheaper than laser tag if you count it that way.

  4. karln says:

    Most MMOs’ terms and conditions or whatever tend to prohibit running your own servers (or accessing third-party servers using the software), though. Even though you have a WoW CD in your hand, it’s still useless without access to the servers provided by the company you got it from, even if you’d rather use a different datastream to keep you updated on a different set of players. And if it’s OK in this case because ‘you don’t buy the software, you rent access to a service’, then why does that same logic not apply to single player games?

  5. Alter-Ear says:

    Because there’s no service in a single player game. An MMO cannot be played, by definition, without continued input and assistance provided by the company. Even if you wanted to run your own server, the fact that you are using the company’s servers means they are providing you with a service, and that service costs them money.

    In a single player game, what continued service is the company offering me? What is going to change between now and next month, the month after, and the month after? Patches? Fine, let’s say patches for the sake of argument. Do I not have a right to NOT download the patches? I can decide whether I want to make use of the company’s post-purchase content or not, which means that they have no right to force me to “rent” access to that content. (More often, of course, there isn’t any such content.) In an MMO, it’s impossible not to do so, because the company is renting out an instrumental portion of the use of the game.

  6. karln says:

    @Alter: so what if you’re OK with not using updates with your purchased MMO client? I don’t see how it’s ‘impossible’ to play without updates and official servers, except that the software comes with a license agreement forbidding this.

    What do you mean by ‘the fact that you are using the company’s servers’? My suggestion is that one may wish to NOT use the company’s servers, substituting some other servers that you either run yourself or find online.

  7. Duffy says:

    Karln: Also, even with a private server whats the point? You are looking for a small group or single-player game, that is not what MMOs are designed for and as such that is not how they are optimally ran. Besides, if you do not want to play on a private server for the above reasons, it means you want to avoid paying the monthly fee, which means you rather take advantage of someone else’s money then spend your own.

    Not to mention the Server software is not the same as the Client version we buy from the store. So if you want to be technical and nitpicky, you get exactly what you are buying: a program that lets you interface with another program. You do not purchase a copy of the “world” so to speak, just the “window” into it. This is clearly defined by the game’s description and is the essential trade off for this style of game.

    The general point here, is that the monthly fees and the security/technically DRM, are valid due to the manner in which the game is hosted and updated. You may complain about the cost, but if I have an MMO that can keep me occupied I’d rather pay the $15 then buy that one extra $50 game this month that I might not reallllly care about playing that much.

  8. Claire says:

    Wow, nested parentheses calling attention to nested parentheses? A man after my own heart. I’d warn your wife to watch out, if boys didn’t have cooties. :’P


    The same logic could apply, if it were marketed as a rental. However, when I pass by Bioshock at the store, it’s sitting there on the shelf as if it’s for sale like all the other games. The reason MMOs get a pass is because the rental model is almost a foregone conclusion… indeed, the few non-subscription MMOs count this as a very noteworthy feature. For games not reliant on continued allocation of resources from the publisher/developers, however, just the opposite is true. They make like they’re selling a game, and then you get it out of the box to discover it’ll only last you 3 (5?) reinstalls or hardware changes. For a gaming enthusiast with a little money to burn, just hardware shifting will eat up your install limit in perhaps just a few months… for an average windows user, 3 installs will carry you, what? A year and a half to three years? Maybe two months, on a Dell trying to run Vista.

  9. Shamus says:

    As for running your own WoW servers:

    I would say this is one case where the pirates can’t compete. Raids, PvP, and the auction house will have diminished value with lower populations. Unless your friends are also pirates, you can’t play with them. I’ve never been on a pirate server, but I doubt they’re inhabited by the low-key, friendly, mature, adult players that I generally seek.

    It’s like sneaking into a party. But, if you don’t have an invitation then you’re stuck in some parallel version of the party where you can’t see or interact with any of the invited guests. Sure, all the food and booze is there, but the only people to party with are other party crashers. Actually this isn’t the best metaphor but it is a really cool idea for a short story now that I’m thinking about it.

    I’d better save this someplace…

    (Wanders off, muttering to himself.)

  10. Samrobb says:

    A slight restatement occurs to me:

    “The internet 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.”

    Which sums up just about everything anybody needs to know about online business, I think.

  11. “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.”

    Didn’t Quake 3 have almost all of these things? Quake 2? Quake 1? Doom?

    They were called clans, not guilds and chat was possible, although not desirable, when you were getting fragged. An MMO is not so different as you think from regular shrink wrapped boxed software…

    What’s more, use of the servers were FREE for all those games I mentioned, no matter how many people bought, borrowed or stole the game, and those servers still are free…

  12. Luke says:

    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.

    I don’t think anybody argues that MMORPGs are a fantastic value for the money. A decent single-player game runs around $50 and provides maybe 30-40 hours of gameplay, which means about $1.25 to $1.67 per hour of gameplay. How much more time of gameplay per dollar do you get from an MMORPG? Say $15/month, if you play an hour per day, you’re getting around 2 hours per dollar. I know many people play much, much more.

    Now there is some question as to whether that gameplay is worth it. For me, it’s not, I would play Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment rather than WoW. However, for those that enjoy it, they can hardly get a better deal for their money.

  13. karln says:

    I actually try to only play with IRL friends in MMOs anyway, and avoid strangers. In fact I mostly end up playing them as a single player game that my friends occasionally join in for. I doubt I’m the only one who plays this way; certainly I run into a lot of reports of MMO soloers among my friends and on web forums and such.

    If I were allowed to take my purchased copy of WoW, run my own server and play there it would be inhabited by me and my friends. I would enjoy this, particularly as I would never run into all those annoying strangers who get in the way of questing (one reason I’m a GW fan). But I’m not really concerned with whether it would be fun to play on a private server; I’m concerned that even if you think it would be, you may not.

    Duffy: “you get exactly what you are buying: a program that lets you interface with another program”. Yes OK but my point is you are arbitrarily restricted from using that program – the client – with any servers other than the official ones. I’m not proposing that buying the client should mean you’ve bought the world. I’m pointing out that you may not use your client to access your own private world. This is not a technical restriction; it’s prevented only by the license agreement.

    So why is it unacceptable for single-player games to forbid you to play them without staying in touch with the publishers, but not for MMOs to forbid opting-out of the official servers once you’ve bought a client? (assuming you do pay for the client separately from the monthly fees)

  14. Chilango2 says:

    Another critical element is the context of the purchase.

    It’s *understood* that you’ll need the suscription to play an MMO game, and there are natural, logical reasons why this is so. It’s like cable: You may need an initial installation fee, but there is certainly a continued “access to the service” fee. And there *is* a service. Ignoring patches, etc, playing with this largish group of people is a service.

    What service, exactly, is the “you don’t really own it” DRM of things like Bioshock providing?

  15. Mart says:

    I see MMOs as a game with a persistent world, where other players’ interactions make a difference to your character. Single player games give the illusion of a persistent world, usually through scripts or random rolls.

    Also, in single player games, reloading a save game can usually take you to a point “back in time” in the gameworld, so to speak. You can’t do that in MMOs, hence the term “persistent”. The ganeworld carries on and changes, even though you’re not playing.

    Thus, I see the subscription as upkeep for the centralized server to maintain the persistent gameworld in an MMO.

  16. karln says:

    “playing with this largish group of people is a service”

    OK what if I don’t want that particular service, just the client?

  17. Nick says:

    “”playing with this largish group of people is a service”

    OK what if I don't want that particular service, just the client?”

    Then you don’t want to play an MMO.

  18. Shamus says:

    karlin: That is not an option offered to you by the publisher. If that’s really what you want, and you won’t accept the product as given, then you can skip it or pirate it.

    I’m skipping games more and more these days because I can’t abide by their single-player terms.

    Although if you’re going to argue that MMO’s should be playble offline then that’s going to be a tough row to hoe.

  19. Duffy says:

    I’ll concede that point now that you clarified my assumption. Unfortunately my follow up answer is: tough. I know it’s a dick answer, but thats pretty much it. An MMO is not designed with the ability to play by yourself as it’s selling feature, even those that are solo friendly have a limit on how long that works, at which point the rest of the game is out of your reach if you do not change play styles. That is not the game they are selling, they clearly dictate this, why do you expect it to be different? There is no cloak and dagger stuff going on here, we know what we are getting, we know how it works and why. The problem with single-player DRM is that it doesn’t even make sense, much less actually stop pirates or people who want to unlock what they bought.

    @Recursion King
    You mentioned the FPS (Q3, Q2, etc..) servers and I thought we should clarify that the game developers only provide the lobby, all games are actually ran on either your machine or a private server. Occasionally they keep a couple “official servers” for tournaments and what not, but they are usually limited in size and accessiblity. Also very few FPSs have a clan/guild infrastructure built into the game. This is one of the reason’s that certain lobby programs used to be bundled with games, to cut the cost of hosting your own lobby. (They are paid for by the advertisement’s on the 3rd party lobby. Think Gamespy Arcade and Microsoft Gaming Zone)

  20. Novarum says:

    Sorry I didn’t have the time to browse the other comments to see if anyone made this point, but I actually SAVE quite a bit of money playing an MMO; the reason being that I’m (typically) an avid gamer, and so will burn through many games in a single month.
    With the MMO, I’m only paying $15 dollars a month as opposed to 60+.
    Point in case: I quit the big ol’ WoW with the start of the semester, and have bought four games for myself just in the past month, giving me somewhere around $100 for the past twenty days, rather than the sweet and tiny 15.
    Of course, I realize that some people will do the MMO and other games, but when I MMO, I MMO :) (It’s not a verb, I know, I know, but it sounds so fun!)

  21. Al Shiney says:

    Coming at this from the console side (360) rather than the PC side (my home PC is a 7 year old laptop running Windows 2000 … eeep!) I’ve been watching APB with interest, although nothing has happened for quite some time on their website.

    From the folks who created the surprise 360 hit Crackdown, it looks to be the first attempt at a joint console and PC-based MMO. There’s been some strange stuff behind the scenes crossing over with the GTA people and nobody really knows where it’s all headed, but as someone who loved Crackdown but hasn’t gotten into the whole MMO scene, it will be interesting to see where this goes.

    Edit: OK, apparently there now won’t be a crossover between the PC and 360 console as was once rumored. APB appears to be headed only to a PC platform. Crap.

  22. karln says:

    Nick, Mart, see 13. And sorry to keep repeating myself all the time, I’ll stay quiet now until any new points emerge.

  23. Singe says:

    With LOTRO, they offered (and will again with the release of Moria) a Lifetime Member package. You buy the game for the publisher’s standard price, and then get the Lifetime Membership for $199.

    I, knowing that I will be exploring Turbine’s version or Middle Earth for many years, felt this to be too good of a deal to pass up even if I left for a while and came back when they add the Lonely Mountain, etc. Right now I’m in my 18th month ($270 in subscriber’s terms) for only $199…and I see a few more years down the road with what Moria brings to the party.

    There are members of my Kinship that regret not getting that deal a while back, but are planning on getting the lifetime from here on out with the Moria release rather than paying the $13 (bulk month) price.

  24. Oleyo says:

    I totally agree here. The live data stream from an MMO that one is willing to pay for is almost entirely the drive for owning this sort of game.

    Also concerning pirate servers for MMO’s: of all of the people that I know that use these (I dont care about them), all of them use it to try out end game content or see/preview endgame bosses that they are excited about for their “real” character on a legitimate server.

    None of them would replace their normal play with this type of server. Why? Because they desire the live data that they pay for (I have gear x and y, retrieved from an epic battle with boss z with 5 of my buddies, and you have gear a and b, and are currently blasting me with a fireball).

    This live data is vastly superior to the pirate data (I have gear a,b,c,d bought with free gold and start at highest lvl), and the pirate server is relegated to mostly a content and/or combat previewer tool (which you may have even payed for, if you bought the actual game, even if you dont pay for access to the data stream.)

    Also, concerning how this is not very different from single player games with multilayer content; I believe Shamus is throwing a red flag about this very trend to “tack on” multiplayer “services” as an excuse to use a pay for play payment scheme, even when it is not wanted. Unlike an MMO where this data is a desired part of the product.

  25. Belzi.ET says:

    There are a few games that offer both. The client with the world (so to speak) and the option to play online in the permanently changing world.
    Diablo2 is a fantastic example for this. You were able to solo-play through the whole story or play it online with friends, strangers or solo.

    My biggest point against DRM is the fact that a single-player game has to be designed to work on standalone computers without internet access. Damn, it’s called single-player and during playtime you don’t need an internet connection, so WHY need it to install?

  26. Duffy says:

    That’s pretty cool Singe, and due to their place in the market, rather brilliant on their behalf.

  27. karln says:

    Yay Shamus provides something new :)

    “If that's really what you want, and you won't accept the product as given, then you can skip it or pirate it.”

    Yeah I take the third option which is to take it, play it online and grumble about how I’d rather play it offline/on a local network ;) And then quit once all of my friends move on. I’d still fiddle with WoW a bit by myself if it were allowed, but nvm. My point was really that I don’t see much difference between “don’t play this 1p game without checking with us” and “don’t use this MMO client without our servers” (where you paid for the client), but evidently everybody else does, so I’ll leave it alone now.

    EDIT: Oh hey Belzi that’s neat (I missed Diablo, was away from computer/video games for a few years and recently came back). That sounds like the sort of thing I’m after really; now the trick will be to find something modern along those lines that I can persuade my gang to join me on…

  28. Who? says:

    Is it nornal that the link on “asks” is on ? ;)

  29. lplimac says:

    I will point out that some MMO’s (Like Lord of the Rings Online) offered at launch what they called a Founders Account (it’s also offered at various times during the year) which for a single fee of $199.00 up front you don’t have to pay monthly. If you know you’re going to stick with the game for over a year it’s a bargain. I’ve played LotRO for 17+ months so I’ve saved money over a monthly fee. To be truthful I like this option better than a monthly fee.

    Oh, there was a MMO that offered a single player off-line option: Hellgate: London has it. See how well that worked for them :D

  30. Oleyo says:

    I also think it’s great that LOTR is offering a lifetime membership option. I would like to try this game out but I want to play this very casually and can’t fathom paying monthly for two MMO’s (yeah, yeah, I play WoW, so sue me!)

    However, I wonder what this bodes for the success of the product. It seems like a bid for more users, which is great, but I imagine a monthly fee is preferable from the company’s point of view. Do they think their product will not last this long?

    I love WoW, but I dont want it to be the case that it is the only game in town, so to speak.

  31. @Duffy
    “You mentioned the FPS (Q3, Q2, etc..) servers and I thought we should clarify that the game developers only provide the lobby, all games are actually ran on either your machine or a private server.”

    Those private servers were where I played 99% of my games online, I don’t know about you. Hosting is more about LAN gaming in my experience.

    So the point still stands; private servers for multiplayer FPS games are FREE and always have been since the dawn of these games… whereas MMO severs are not. Go figure. The games industry figured out how to leverage the software as a service trend. Subscribers are ‘safe’ money. You can bet that the publishers would prefer every game to work off this model, even though, what youre paying for, is far less than you really believe.

  32. Shamus says:

    Oops. The “asks” link is now fixed. (I was going to mention the market rejection of DIVX but that was getting too far off topic. Looks like I cut & pasted the wrong link.)

  33. Singe says:

    Plus with the additional every 2-3 month release of an Epic Chapter (along with additional fixes and content like housing, etc), LOTRO is a tremendous bargain with a Lifetime Membership. In all honestly, even if it were still $15/mo subscription, I would still be in…

  34. Oleyo says:

    @The Recursion King

    It must be the case that FPS developers assume (probably correctly) that people will not pay monthly for the multiplay experience they offer, thus they settle at the one time purchase.

    This brings up an interesting point. Does anyone else think that companies will “package” access to several multiplayer experiences together, to bring up the value of that access as perceived by the customer to the point where they can charge as a service?

    I think the industry is moving there. Is this all bad? Do you think that there can be benefits?

  35. Karin, I’m with you.

    I mean, really–lets turn it around. Someone sells (distributes, whatever. You have the software, you own the software. Usage license agreements aren’t binding the way distribution agreements are, unless you sign to them before you have them) a sweet client; why -shouldn’t- I be able to make my own world and let them point to my world — with no creative work from the original creator except a protocol?
    Sure, it’s a lot of work from me to reverse-engineer said protocol, but after doing that work, why shouldn’t I get something out of it?

    So yes, I do think that while it’s a different level of badness (because it’s less adding soemthing I don’t want to software I do, and more not adding features (and dictating that I can’t do so) that I want to software I do want), I do think that publishers preventing you from connecting your WoW or Everquest or whatever client to an independant server is wrong.

  36. Seb says:


    To run a “private” MMO server you need some specific piece of software that is not packaged in the box you bought. It’s written on the box and it’s part of the deal from the start, you only get the client side software, not the server side one.

    To run a pirate server, you need to have this _stolen_ software. This is not only against the EULA, it’s also against the most basic laws.
    To play on a pirate server, you need someone to run it, which means you need someone to use this stolen code.

  37. Inscrutibob says:

    @karln: One point I don’t see being made here is that the server software for WoW is not for sale. That’s why you can’t have your own private server. Buying the client software doesn’t entitle you to the server software.

    I but a subscription to a newspaper, therefore I have a right to use their press and/or page layout software? I don’t think so.

    (Analogies are like rainbows; they suck.)

  38. K says:

    Blizzard does it. None of their games have strong protection (Warcraft III had a simple CD-check), but you need a valid serial to play online on If you pirate the game, you miss out on that, which is quite a huge chunk. Same goes for Diablo II and the older games. I hope it will hold true for D3 and SC2, but I’m optimistic.

    Also, since I stopped playing WoW, I spent a couple hundred bucks on Wii games (Brawl, MP:Corruption, SM:Galaxy, SMK:Wii, all great titles). WoW was cheaper. A Lot.

  39. T-Boy says:

    Yes. This.

    The fact is, owning an MMO is hard work. The overhead is there, and all that infrstructure is insanely expensive to maintain, and your customers are going to be there, constantly demanding more. And more you will have to provide, because we are paying you money over here on a regular basis, thanks.

    It’s like what you said; it’s a bit like cable television. I don’t expect CNN to give me a constant feed of news without having me giving them cash on a regular basis. Like MMOs, maintaining a cable TV channel is not easy, or cheap. Contrast this to, say, a book, a movie or an album. I don’t like the idea of ‘renting’ any of these, unless I explicitly intend to so.

    The anger I tend to feel over publishers of single-player games moving towards a “software as a service” model is that I’m getting bupkis for the money I’m supposed to be forking out after the initial purchase. Hell, I’m not even buying a product; I’m buying permission to use something that you no longer have to spend money on to maintain.

    And no, you do not have to spend money on maintaining or QuakeWorld or your matching services; even without those services your game still runs, at reduced functionality. MMOs? Server goes down, no game. You go bankrupt, no game.

    The statement that publishers of single-player “rent-only” games are making seems to be that we’re gullible money-dispensing machines that will fall for anything with pretty graphics, so it doesn’t matter if they’re screwing us over by making us pay for a one-off thing.

    My response to their statement is, as you might imagine, unprintable.

  40. karln says:

    A private server could be built from new code by reverse engineering the behaviour of the client. Of course reverse engineering would also have to be un-forbidden for this to be legal…

    Please understand though that I’m not actually suggesting that MMO makers ‘should’ do this; I introduced the idea purely for comparison with single-player DRM. It seemed weird that Shamus’s post talks about expecting to ‘own’ single-player software but treats MMO client software as nothing but part of the MMO ‘service’. I see two distinct entities there: the client software, and the server access.

  41. Seb says:


    That’s my point though. You own the client software, but cannot use it without server access. Server access can either be purchased for the monthly fee or “stolen” by using pirate servers.

  42. Hal says:

    I skipped reading the thread, so this might be a repeated point. What I’m expecting to become more prevalent (it’s already happening) is for games to adopt a “bits and pieces” approach, or microtransactions would be the more common term. That is, you buy the “core” game upfront, but there’s more content available for a small fee. New weapons? $5. A few extra levels? $5. New character skins? $5. Soon, before you know it, you’ve paid double the original cost of the game, only to purchase material that could (and should) have been in the install file to begin with.

    Oblivion did this to a degree, though it was mostly new content that was like this. My Life as King (Wii Ware) is completely like this, and it’s very annoying.

  43. krellen says:

    Karln: You don’t pay for the client. I don’t know of an MMO in the world where you pay for the client. The client is free, and you’re paying for the service. You can download the client for any MMO, often without even having an account. That is how most trials (which most MMOs have) start.

    I’ll also point out that while every MMO I know of has content that cannot be accessed solo, none of them have walls beyond which you cannot advance without a team.

  44. karln says:

    But what are you ‘stealing’ in that case? It’s not like you’re sneaking onto Blizzard’s (or whoever’s) servers without paying them for it. If we’re considering what you can do with ‘the CD you’re holding in your hand’, that discounts any post-release content updates too.

    But never mind. I accept that Shamus and many others do not consider MMOs to challenge their ownership of games, as they do not expect to own the game or the client or anything at all. Which is fine. It still niggles in my brain that I have this client software hanging around paid for that I’m forbidden to use, but that’s probably because of my Free Software background. My perception of software ‘ownership’ is a bit different than youse guys’s, which I didn’t realise would make so much of a difference when I first commented.

  45. I have to agree with that sentiment; the money you pay for the client is money spent on something that is completely useless without the service to go with it. I wonder what will happen in a few years, when MMO games have become ghost towns as players move onto the latest and greatest or just become bored with the experience, when players buy the old clients in bargain basement bins, load them up and can’t play anything at all? Will that be dead money I wonder?

    That really brings us round full circle to Shamus (excellent) points about DRM in single player games.

  46. Nick says:

    I think the biggest difference between a single player game and an MMO, is that a single player game is a product. You buy it, you should own it. You should be able to play it whenever you want, without asking anyone for permission. An MMO on the otherhand is a service. A product is tied to the service, just like a TV is tied to cable. To use Shamus’s analogy; cable tv is an MMO. Buying a DVD is a singleplayer game.

    DRM is horrible because it requires layers of authentication to provide “access” to a product I just paid for. MMOs don’t really have any DRM. You aren’t paying for “permission” to play so much as you are paying for the services the MMO is providing you.

    As far as playing an MMO by yourself, knock yourself out. But you are still playing in a world that doesn’t exist entirely on your hard drive, and certainly not entirely in the box you bought it in. It is much less of a product, and more of a frontend to a service you are paying for.

  47. Alexis Li says:

    I have spent… hmm. £9 / month over 4-5 years for over 210 days /played.

    I make that approx 8 to 11 pence an hour.

  48. Alexis Li says:

    *** took so long editing my comment the save failed >.>

    Just 9 hours a month makes it £1/hr, cheaper than pretty much anything. 9hr/mo is a little over 2hr every Sunday.

    Now, the plague zombie infestation has begun. I’m going to go and get me some of that diseased grain. BRAAAAAAINS!

  49. David B says:

    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.

    It will be interesting to see what Blizzard does with Diablo 3. Their site, which is the front-end server for the multi-player component is free, but with the new game comes the possibility that it won’t be in the future. You can be sure that they’re thinking about “how many people would we lose, if…” scenario.

    And, for people talking about Diablo 2, I’ll remind them that it had cd verification. You had to have the original disc in the drive – at least for a while. I haven’t reinstalled it on any of my recent computers, though – perhaps they got rid of that requirement when the game basically became an afterthought to folks.

  50. Adeon says:


    Well as I see it there are two ways a private WoW server could get software. First they could steal a copy of the server software or secondly they could write their own by reverse engineering Blizzard’s. Now stealing Blizzard’s software is clearly illegal since they have never offered it for sale.

    Reverse engineering it is possibly legal, it is a bit of a gray area with software although for the sake of an argument lets assume that it is legal. However running a server using reversed engineered server software would still violate copyright law since the names, art, writing, etc. in WoW are owned by Blizzard. So even if you wrote your own server software Blizzard could still sue you for copyright infringement unless you also renamed and redrew everything and if you do that it isn’t really WoW anymore is it?

  51. David B says:

    Oh, and as for the MMO vs Standalone server issue, I’ll offer my own bad analogy – games are like movies. When you play an MMO, you’re going to a movie theater, to see it with a bunch of people. The law is fairly clear that you’re not allowed to also bring your video camera with you, and record the movie for your own use. A standalone game, however, is like a DVD. You’re also not allowed to record it for your own use, but it *should* be portable enough that that’s not a real issue.

    I will note that DRM for DVDs and DRM for games share a similar level of controversy, which helps the analogy be not as bad as it could be. I will also say that, yes, there’s no such thing as a good analogy.

  52. Merle says:

    Honestly, if Spore had included a chat client and some form of multiplayer, I wouldn’t have minded at all if there was a (preferably small) monthly fee – as a matter of fact, that would take away some of my other criticisms of the game as well.

    The “player must do EVERYTHING in the galaxy, from thwarting pirates to balancing ecosystems” bit springs to mind.

  53. Burning says:


    If there were absolutely no upfront outlay of money, would you fell better about the MMO model?

    Because I certainly will concede, all the MMOs I have played, there is an initial purchase. Even if you opt for the free-trial, you have to “buy” the game to continue beyond the trial period. It is not enough to just start paying the subscription.

    So if there is an MMO (I don’t know, is there?) where you downloaded the client and a PDF manual for free, and all you needed to spend to start playing was the first month’s fee, would you feel that you were getting exactly what you were paying for?

    I realise that this does not address the issue of the ability or lack thereof to play on a private server. I just want to make sure I get where you’re coming from.

  54. Alkey says:


    As far as reverse engineering the client to make a server, it was tried before. Blizzard sued and succeeded in shutting them down. What it came down to was the encrypted challenge/response code in the client, it had to be bypassed or reverse engineered, and doing either violated the DMCA. So you can’t legally use the client on a 3rd party server. On one hand I understand blizzard wanting to protect it’s image and property, but on the other it’s limiting competition. Of course you can always make your own client and server if you really want to compete.

  55. Duffy says:

    I do agree with several people out there that MMO clients could probably be free, with just the subscription price tag. Will this be adopted? I hope so, I would be inclined to try more MMOs.

    You ignored the point, those private servers cost money to run, just not your money. They are also incredibly limited compared to an MMO server, most of them back in the day couldn’t handle 16 players, now we top out at what? 34 ish on TF2 servers? 64 on a good Battlefield server? For WoW calculate the cost to run enough servers for just over 2 million players, 24/7 that allow roughly two thousand players on at the same time. See a difference yet? Theres a reason a multi-million dollar company has to run server farms and not just throw it to private servers.

  56. Noah Lesgold says:

    Funny thing, Kingdom of Loathing is not too far from being a single player game with a chat room, although (a) it’s free, and (b) there is player interaction in the form of a shared mall economy and players’ ability to use buffs on others. Speaking of KoL, you should check it out sometime. It’s a free browser game with (occasionally surprisingly good) stick figure art and gameplay that mixes a combination of fantasy parody and pop culture goofiness.

  57. karln says:

    If it’s hard to tell what I’m advocating, it’s because I’m not really advocating anything in particular; I’m just pointing out what seems to me to be an odd logical disconnect as regards the acceptability of being ‘rented’ software instead of ‘sold’ it. There’s probably no practical value at all to my ramblings so feel free to skip this entire post and forget I ever commented on this thread. I won’t mind.

    “So if there is an MMO … where you downloaded the client and a PDF manual for free, and all you needed to spend to start playing was the first month's fee, would you feel that you were getting exactly what you were paying for?”

    Well, hmm, yeah, you’d be getting what you paid for in that case, but I wasn’t really complaining about what I get for my money; I raised the issue of private servers to illustrate how I see MMOs as not really different from single player games in terms of ‘ownership’ of the software. It seems people are generally happy to accept that they do not own MMO client software, but are merely granted the use thereof in order to access the service, but many of the same people balk at being told they do not own single player game software, and are merely granted a temporary right to use it to play a game. So…

    A restriction on playing a 1p game is not a technical limitation: you could use the single player software indefinitely if it didn’t insist on calling home first, or hack around that limitation after the company goes bust. But then, without license restrictions you could also use your WoW client to play on a private server when Blizzard finally stop providing service (with a little hacking to figure out what the server needs to do, and how to get the client to find it).

    And, with the MMO you’re not paying for software, you’re paying for a service. But if you accept that, can’t you also view the purchase of a 1p game as a temporary right to use the product of the programmers’ earlier ‘service’ of developing the thing? You’re just paying for their past work instead of their future work; they did some work, and you pay them for doing that work, and are allowed to use the result for a while, until the verification servers go down. Which leads to the observation that…

    The 1p developers don’t really need to keep you from playing after they go bust, except in a vain attempt to keep anyone from playing a pirated copy for free. But neither do the MMO publishers need to forbid private servers; private servers for WoW, for instance, are available anyway, although AFAIK very few people use them. WoW seems to be doing fine for subscribers. I guess people really do prefer the official servers enough to pay for them. (I assume that the level of know-how necessary to get on a private server is roughly equivalent to what’s required to torrent a pirated game; if anybody has evidence otherwise I’d be interested to hear it.) I’m certainly not convinced the official WoW servers would become ghost towns if they removed the ‘no private servers’ clause from the license.

    This last part I guess is the closest to a ‘point’ I’m going to get with this. Clauses that challenge the player’s ownership of the client software may as well not be there. Private servers exist anyway, and people don’t play on them much, and I even know someone who has used them to look at endgame content but still pays his subs for the official servers too. As I understand it Shamus (and others) don’t consider these restrictions as a challenge to ownership, because they wouldn’t have any use for ownership of the client anyway. Most people besides me wouldn’t care to play WoW offline or on a LAN, so they don’t care whether they own the software or not. I guess on a practical level that makes all the difference, but it still bugs me slightly on a logical level (the fact I’d be happy to play a friends-only server of WoW is just a bonus).

    Is that any clearer than before? I hope so, because I just added a hell of a lot more words to my case o.O

  58. Tesh says:

    What’s strange and unsettling to me is WoW charging for the expansions, which is effectively what Guild Wars does, but still charging a monthly fee. If the monthly fee is purely maintenance, I can understand that, but ostensibly, the fee is also for developing new content like patches and such. Charging for the expansions feels like double dipping to me.

    As for WoW offline, I’ve already written an article on that, but I’ll admit it’s at least somewhat predicated on WoW being nearer the end of its life rather than its heyday. As such, its gameplay is largely solo, with optional multiplayer raiding.

    IHasPC wrote an interesting riff on this as well, suggesting Blizzard-sponsored private servers. There are complaints about pirate private servers being buggy and populated by idiots, but there are those who have valid complaints against idiots on live servers. Being able to play with just your guild, for example, on a Blizzard-blessed rented private server, might be wonderful, and might even allow for different macroscopic “phasing” for these people who are happy to pay Blizzard. (Not pirates, in other words.)

    Ultimately, I don’t have philosophical disagreement with paying for a service. I don’t like paying for old content, I don’t like double dipping, and I don’t like the one-size-fits-all subscription model. I’m happy paying Blizzard for their product, or even for a service, but the existing WoW model (and pretty much any other subscription game, for that matter) just doesn’t fit for what I feel I would be able to get out of it for the money. Admittedly, I’m a very casual player with little time, but since game devs make noises about wanting to reach out to the casual player, they should back that up with actions to match.

    Puzzle Pirates’ dual currency microtransaction model is extremely friendly to my casual schedule, and it’s a bit surprising to me that other behemoth games haven’t gone that way, but would rather cater to the hardcore. It’s not terrible, just surprising.

  59. Chargone says:

    actually, it’s worth noting that most of the time when you buy an mmo client [that I’ve ever seen] included in what you’re buying IS your first month or so’s subscription. of course, you still pay a bit for the client too, if you buy it in a box from a shop, at least.

    of course, that’s fair enough. when you subscribe to an ISP, you often have to pay setup costs. when you get a new phone line or change companies, there’s often a set up cost. paying for the game client is a significantly reduced form of this.

    just my 2 cents. [NZ, which were still worth less than US last i looked. at least since sometime in the 50s or so…(err, i think it was the 50s? i can’t remember. that date may be wrong {nested Braces! i win! :P})]

  60. Kobyov says:

    Something that does worry me about MMOs is the way they make you pay for the box (excepting WOW and other ones that have been around for a while). Do you get game time included? I’m totally happy with the ‘buy up front’ model, or ‘pay to play’ model, but the idea that I should have to do both seems totally wrong to me. And yes, I know about how in theory the amount you pay upfront reduces the subscription cost via cross-subsidy, but to be honest I don’t trust publishers enough nowadays to believe that they aren’t just pulling a sneaky and pocketing it. So whats the deal, do you get game time, or are they just playing ‘heads I win, tails you lose’?

  61. krellen says:

    I’ve never seen an MMO that didn’t include at least one free month with the boxed game.

  62. lplimac says:

    Kobyov, every MMO I’ve played included the first 30 days in the purchase Price. Even SW:G did. LotRO is charging for Mines of Moria (29.95 for the digital download) but in the past they have included a lot of new, free content including new areas, quests and Raids. They come around about ever two months or so. Turbine as already announced that there will be additional free content added after MoM ships as well.

  63. Aaron Nowack says:

    Usually, the box comes with 30 days free playtime. (A $10-15 value.)

  64. Burning says:

    OK, I think I’ve got you. I’ll try to explain why I feel fine with MMOs as they are but, like Shamus and other commenters here, balk at a certain type of 1p DRM, and why I don’t find any logical inconsistency in the position.

    If I get a single player game that is DRM free, I have something that I can continue playing as long as (1) I own or have access to a computer capable of running it and (2) I can maintain the disks in good enough condition to install the game as necessary. The addition of phone-home DRM restricts my options. I now can keep playing the game only as long as the parent company tells me its OK. The only reason I need to connect to the company is to receive permission. It is an artificial restriction to my game play.

    It is also is a restriction that seems to have minimal benefit to the company. It certainly does not prevent piracy. I think the fact that a cracked version of Spore was available before the U.S. release date should be enough proof of that. It does prevent me from re-selling or re-gifting my software, but really this is a minor loss of sales compared to piracy if we believe the industry’s own numbers.

    If I get an MMO, for me to be able to keep playing there is a third condition: I need to be able to connect to a server running the server software. The existence of the server is not optional; it simply does too much. In principle, a company could create a single player game or a game that could be played by a single small group on a LAN or something that had the same content and was totally client run. However, attempting to design a game runable both client/server and client only would increase the development cost immensely.

    So the server is necessary, and I think no one disputes that the company should be allowed to charge for the use of the servers. Why, however, should the company be allowed to forbid or attempt to forbid servers run privately or by a third party? Because the monthly subscriptions aren’t just paying for running the servers plus the company’s profits. They are paying for the initial cost of development plus the development of the new content that most players expect.

    A subscription MMO has at release a lot more content than any single player game I have seen. While there are often expansions that have to be paid for separately, there is also a lot of free content added onto the base game. Yet the initial purchase price of the MMO is either on par or less than that of a single player game that quite possibly cost less to develop.

    (As far as I can tell, non-subscription MMOs get around this by (a) offloading as much as possible to the client and (b) having considerably less content. That’s pretty much what they would have to do to operate at a profit.)

    If the developer makes the server software available, they will lose subscribers to private servers or third party subscription servers that charge less (because they will be able to if they’re not footing the development cost). Then when they have to scale back development of new content, they are likely to lose more subscribers to boredom.

    I am a little bit uneasy about the scope of laws that forbid reverse engineering, but this is an area where I think they are justified. Suppose that the developer doesn’t want to release the software. Typically you can get a fully updated client from the developer without proving you have a current subscription. The free-trial which is any more crucial to successfully marketing a subscription MMO relies on this. I think it would be an unfair burden on them to allow reversed-engineered servers.

    So restricting MMOs to the servers run by the developer/publisher doesn’t seem analogous to phone home DRM for a lot of reasons. One, since I need to connect to a server anyway, it does not affect my ability to play the game. Two, the system as it is has a clear benefit to me in the form of evolving content. Three, unlike phone-home DRM I can see how it actually benefits the developer.

    Regarding the question of what happens to players when an MMO shuts down? Yeah, it would be great if they released the server software when they stopped taking subscription money. I haven’t played an MMO that’s had the lights go out yet, and I’d be sad if I had to stop playing one before I was ready. But it would still feel a lot different to me having to stop playing because there is no server running the server software than having to stop playing a single player game because I can’t get permission.

  65. Elder_Pilfer says:

    @ Karln

    I think I understand you and I have an example that might help others see your point.

    I bought City of Villains a little while ago from a Half Price books for $3. I thought that was a good deal because the only thing I wanted COV for was the costume creator. (A friend had shown it to me and, I though it would be excellent for creating individual pictures for villains in my Spycraft game.) Now the costume creator is on the disk that they gave me, it is currently installed on my computer. I own the disks with that information but, I can't access the costume creator until I sign in. This requires me to have an account and be paying the monthly fee. I was not willing to pay any amount a month just to be able to create incredible pictures to show my gaming group.

    This game therefore breaks Shamus' third rule of DRM the unbreakable rule, Ownership. Karln is simply pointing out what appears to be an acceptance of the unacceptable. And while I can see your point of view, I think in your last post you showed me where most people (myself included{blast you Shamus for getting me to play COV}) are willing to forgive this breach of the unbreakable rule.

    You said “can't you also view the purchase of a 1p game as a temporary right to use the product of the programmers' earlier 'service' of developing the thing? You're just paying for their past work instead of their future work”

    This is the sticking point, past work vs potential work. In a MMO you are paying for what you are using at this moment, if the game doesn't work we can complain and expect the game to get fixed or, we can stop paying. We expect that the “˜World' will change over time and we will pay for those changes. Now one of the drawbacks to that is we can't play the game any time we wish or however we wish. They control the game so they can improve the game, I would rather they own the game and I have to connect to them than I own the game and I have to give them access to my computer to make the new changes.

    However a single person game, you pay for a completed product. The developer has already done the work and (hopefully) the game now will run as it is suppose to run forever. So tell me how much their time and expertise is worth then get out of my way and let me play your masterpiece. I will fix any problems, I will make any additional content I need; and I will decide how where and what I will do with what I have bought. You're done get out. There should be no changes no fixes and no need for me to ever contact the game creator ever again. (And every one of these miraculous games is delivered on its own Golden Fleece) So if this game fulfills this criteria that is when we then we begin to question the need for DRM.

    So, now that I have hijacked Shamus blog I hope I have given both sides an insight into the thoughts of the other. And if I am wrong and I did nothing but prattle on for too long, at least I finally got over the hump of my first post. Shamus I return this to you.

  66. Steve says:

    Re: Packaging several MMO’s together on one fee.

    Sony Online Entertainment did this for a while. Though you could opt to pay for their games seperately, there was an option to pay for a bundle containing Everquest, EQII, and Star Wars: Galaxies during the period that all 3 were SoE offerings. There was a bit of a discount, if I recall, but it was only truly worth it if you were playing multiple games. I believe other games may have been included as well, but it’s been so long since I’ve paid attention to good ol’ SoE that I forget the details.

    suffice to say, yes, a multi-game package HAS been offered at least once, from a blanket corporation funding smaller development teams. If, for instance, Blizzard comes out with a WoW II: The Fifth War, or a Starcraft Online, or a Diablo: Build Your Town And Then Have A Demon Fall Into The Catacombs Under It Online, they may well bundle the prices together, since they realize people will pay more for their candy.

  67. KarmaDoor says:

    @ David B (#49)
    Blizzard only recently removed the CD check for Diablo II. (Mid-June of this year.) You’ll need patch 112 applied for this to take effect. Just make sure to copy all the MPQ files you can find in the main directories of both the original and expansion discs. The instructions provided with the patch weren’t exactly complete.

    Back to DRM…
    I got bitten lightly with Serious Sam’s second outing (wouldn’t recognize the DVD drive without a patch) and harshly by Morrowind (TES3 wouldn’t start up a second time without rebooting.) I really haven’t bought much in terms of PC games since, mostly out of not worry about compatibility that was needless for the actual gameplay.

    I still play PC games, but they are older, less bothersome titles, as well as freeware and flash titles. Independent titles have caught my interest more often, but none have really held it for very long.

    I have picked up a Wii and finally have a handful of titles, though they aren’t played as much as I had expected. My DS has logged in significantly more playtime with about as many titles. Tastes change and mine don’t seem to jive with what’s usually produced and marketed. Time seems like something I have more of, but in smaller chunks.

    This may be the way it is with younger players, too. Think of how more activities continue to be pushed into kids lives. Even if this increase in number of things they do doesn’t require more time (i.e. each is a shorter period, as I see in school classes) it still may mean their down time is more divided. I think the slumps in sales for all media can be partly attributed to this.

  68. KMJX says:

    @ 53:
    Yes, there are MMO’s for which you don’t have to buy the client and all it takes to get out of the free trial is to pay a subscription with no additional “first time” fee.

    Uhm… actually… right now i can only think of one that does this.

  69. Jeysie says:

    I have to admit that I don’t see why Karln is so fuzzy on the subject.

    When I play an MMO, I’m paying to play in a world that is being built, shaped, and shared by however many hundreds/thousands of players that I can interact with. The game changes depending on who’s online and when, and if there’s barely anyone playing or no one at all, you get a situation like Shamus’ Tabula Rasa reviews where there’s no point in playing. And I see no reason not to kick in money to fund the servers and the people who dream up new official content to add to the MMO and tweak the existing content for balance issues.

    But when I fire up my single-player games, the story and content is already there contained entirely in the game. It doesn’t change. Why should I have to keep paying the game creators or rely on them being extant in order to play my single-player games? They already sold me the entire content in the first go; there’s nothing left to pay them or rely on them for.

  70. neminem says:

    Back from a rather lengthy not-having-a-computer break from reading blogs, and yay! Yours was one of a small handful of them I had to read everything I’d missed the past few weeks, from.

    I couldn’t agree more with you. In fact, I’ve had to give rather similar explanations to people, myself, on why I hate DRM’d games, but continue to rent WoW.

    Incidentally, if you’re actually serious about reviewing a wide variety of MMOs… it’d be a huge kick if you poked Kingdom of Loathing for a bit. Perhaps a bit small for you, but so much awesomeness! (I bring it up because a. it is really just an MMO facade around a single-player game, but… b. its money comes entirely from microtransactions, and it’s set up in such a way that you can theoretically get all the same content the paying people get, without paying.)

  71. Greg says:

    this is pretty far down here so first off, congrats for reading this far :p

    Anyway, my main problem with MMO’s is that you’re required to purchase both the disk and the play time. If I’m paying for a disk I expect that I now have the right to play that game, I shouldn’t really have to purchase time on top of that.

    I could very well see myself playing something like World of Warcraft if I only had to pay for the time or only the disk (less reasonable but hey, I’d accept it). Perhaps if they just put it online, let you download it for free and then subscribe to it I’d be on board. As it is I feel like I’m just being hit twice.

  72. Zerotime says:

    Luke: What was the last (non-sandbox) singleplayer game that you purchased that actually had 40 hours of gameplay? Deus Ex? System Shock 2?

  73. Geiler Artikel. à„hnlich schà¶n, wie das Spielen selbst. So verrissen das Daddeln von Games auch
    dargestellt wird, so ist wissenschaftlich erwiesen, dass
    daddeln, ein dem Alter angemessenes Spiel vorausgesetzt,
    fà¶rderlich fà¼r den Geist des Spielenden ist. Beim Daddeln von Computerspielen lernt der Spielende ohne Stress schnell zu Entscheiden und seine Prioritäten neu zu setzen. Einige Videospiele vermitteln zusätzlich auch Basiswissen à¼ber Wirtschaftlichkeit
    und fà¶rdern logisches Denken. Selbst die verrissenen Multiplayer kà¶nnen doch nur zu oft den vorgeworfenen Effekt des Abdriftens in eine falsche Realität}
    invertieren. Der Spielende kann mitunter so manchen Freaks begegnen, jedoch findet der Spieler à¶fters
    just in seinem favorisierten Game Gleichgesinnte.

    Kurz gefasst: daddeln ist geil! Ungeachtet des Spiels und auch ob
    PC,Konsole,Handy,etc. .

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