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I am in the design phase of a MMO game based around flying age-of-sail airships. Players will be able to captain their own ship (owned by their in-game nation or faction or themselves if they become sufficiently wealthy), or play as a crewmember on their own or another ship in battle , or as ground defence personnel when their own ship becomes too boring.

The players might also design or redesign the flying sailing ships (and later, as technology progresses, flying steam or diesel ships), and test new ship design, or plan ground defences.

All of this would be based around a simulated economy, where resources are produced, shipped and either consumed or lost to make value-added foods, commodities, communities or vessels. In a war, commerce raiding should - eventually - have an impact as much as direct military action against enemy troops and vessels.

Players could be merchants, pirates, smugglers, privateers, naval captains, or just another member of a ship's crew. Players could also design airships and ground defences, and contribute to the governance of their province.

So, for all of this, how can I monetize this game? I need to consider startup capital, but more importantly, it needs to make a profit.

However... I don't want to fall into the ways of many games with micro-transactions. That means no pay-to-win - a paying player must have only their own skills and equipment to help them win against a free-to-play player... if I go with that method.

The economy is simulated, and I would like the method of monetization to have a minimal impact on that, but not necessarily no impact. Players must know exactly what they are spending their in-game currency upon, an must be able to sell for in-game or possibly even real currency any 'physical' game object - with a cut to the broker (i.e. the developer).

I have considered an up-front cost, but that alone does not guarantee an income stream as the player base becomes saturated. I have considered instant IAP of objects that would otherwise take time to produce - the player buys them from the developer's nation. I have considered allowing a certain amount of free screen time per month, extendable by a purchase.

What methods would guarantee continual income for a number of years at least, without unduly upsetting players who may be wary of traps such as loot chests or pay-to-win? Can a game such as this be funded prior to the commencement of development?

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How can I monetize this game?

Traditionally, there are four methods to monetize an MMO:

  • Buy the game, play forever. In this model you will get a lot of capital on release, but then you won't have a constant cash flow anymore. But if you want to keep the servers running and the community happy, then you will need some regular income. That means you will have to regularly release paid expansions for extra money. If you design these expansions in a way that they are optional, then you will end up fragmenting your playerbase. If you design the expansions in a way that they are quasi mandatory, it will feel to the players like a stealth subscription fee.
  • Subscription based. Take a monthly fee for playing your game. This used to be the standard model for MMOs in the 2000s. It seems very attractive, because it promises you a constant, reliable cash flow. But unfortunately gamers don't really seem to like this model anymore. Many gamers don't want to commit to a subscription and prefer the "free to play with optional microtransactions" model. Those who are willing to commit, prefer the "pay once" model.
  • Pay to win. Microtransactions can indeed be very unethical by doing stuff like selling raw power ("Double PvP damage potion"), intentionally adding features which make your game less fun and then take money to remove those features ("wait two hours or pay now to continue playing immediately") or exploiting gambling addiction ("loot boxes"). But players have learned to recognize these strategies and publicly shame games which use them, which drives away potential players. So this unethical monetization model doesn't work that well anymore.
  • Free to play done right. But there is also a different way to do microtransactions. Many MMO games are extremely successful lately with a far more ethical microtransaction model:

    • Make sure that anything which actually affects gameplay can also be obtained through regular gameplay.
    • Never sell power! Anything buyable with gameplay effect should be a tradeoff, not an upgrade. The buyable content should make the game more interesting by adding more variety, but not give a true advantage.
    • Don't base your monetization design on the premise that every player should eventually become a paying player or leave. The "freeloaders" are extra content to entertain the paying ones. Don't treat them as undesirables.
    • Charge what you want for purely cosmetics stuff. Everyone wants to look cool and unique in an MMO and they are willing to pay for it.

    For further watching I recommend the video series about monetization from the renowned game design YouTube channel Extra Credits.

Can a game such as this be funded prior to the commencement of development?

If you don't have any capital on your own, there are two ways to fund the development of a larger game:

  • Venture capital. Find someone rich who is willing to invest into your project in exchange for a cut of the future profits. This requires that you have a convincing plan and the necessary references to convince the investor that you have the skills and commitment to pull it off. It also might restrict your creative freedom, because investors can rarely be convinced to not meddle with your design decisions.
  • Crowd funding. Get people excited about your game and get them to pay upfront years before the game is finished. There was quite a crowd funding boom in the past years which resulted in some awesome games being made. However, this has recently become more difficult. That's because there were also several high-profile projects which ended up in disappointments, got cancelled or even outright stole the money and ran away (for some examples, check the "Kickscammers" series by Larry Bundy Jr. and Dan Ibbertson on YouTube). So possible backers have become a lot more careful lately. If you want to run a successful crowd funding campaign, then you need:

    • An interesting game concept which has the potential to excite a lot of people. This might either be something new and innovative or something which covers an underrepresented niche.
    • A prototype with production-ready assets so you can show people some footage of what you are up to.
    • A way to convince people that you have the skills and resources to complete the project. The best way to do that is by pointing out that you were involved in several successful game development projects in the past.
    • A very, very good PR strategy so people notice your campaign. Just getting listed on a crowdfunding platform won't get you any backers. You are responsible for promoting it.

If both of these models seem too far away for you, then consider what you can do with the resources you have available on your own. Think smaller. Create a simple game first which you can create in your spare time while working a regular job which pays your rent. Collect experience, build a core fan base and ideally a meager income which can then fund a more ambitious project.

I wish you the best of luck with your project and I am looking forward to playing it.

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