What's Up With Moviestorm Subscriptions?

The big news this month in the Machinima world has been Moviestorm’s introduction of a subscription plan, the most controversial aspect of which is its lockout feature for mods.

Obviously, Johnnie can’t really comment on this, what with being Product Manager for Moviestorm and all, so it’s just me.

The highlights:

  • A subscription costs $79 a year or $7.99 a month.

  • Without a subscription, Moviestorm will not allow you to use third-party mods - apparently including ones you’ve created in the past.

  • A subscription gives you access to the Mod Shop and 800 Moviestorm points a month.

  • Many long-term Moviestorm users are elegible for a free subscription (although MS do ask for your credit card number) for the next year.

There has been quite a bit of chatter on the subject, much of it negative. A large number of long-term Moviestorm users, including AngriBuddhist and award-winner Iain Friar were concerned about the new plan on the official forums, and there was a similarly heated debate on TMO Radio - both attracting official comments from Jeff Zie, the CEO of Moviestorm, and Matt Kelland, the Creative Director. by contrast, Phil “Overman” Rice reacted strongly against detractors on his blog, saying “Let’s save that kind of action and drama (and comedy) for our screenplays, where it’s actually fun to see”. And Kate Fosk provided a rather balanced commentary over at Pineapple Pictures, ending up with the decision that she won’t subscribe for now.

I don’t have a hard angle on this change yet. From a business perspective, subscriptions are obviously extremely attractive as they provide steady, predictable revenue stream, rather than one-off sales. On the other hand, consumers have traditionally been very reluctant to invest in software, particularly creation software, which is subscription-based - the threat of the software stopping working, either through business change or the user stopping paying, and denying the user access to their work is a serious one. My current feeling is that this is a make-or-break decision for MS on a business level - it’ll either give them a steady revenue stream or cut them off from their early adopters and evangelists, and only time will tell which.

As far as users go, there are a whole raft of issues here:

  • MS has always had a Digital Rights Management system in place, but before it has effectively been invisible. However, now it has the capability to lock a user out of his own created mods, the usual problems with DRM become more obvious. What happens if MS goes out of business? What happens if MS’s management changes? Do users have any assurance that they’ll be able to access their software at any price? Commercial usage, in particular, of MS for any long-term project must now take into account that it might, perhaps, some day stop working, and that’s a non-trivial risk. There is currently some discussion of a “lifetime” subscription for MS, which, depending on how it works, might eliminate a lot of these concerns, but as it stands, if the MS authentication servers go away, MS stops working. (That’s not very likely, however.)

  • It seems that MS have put their good reputation directly on the line as security for this change. Most of the defenders of this policy are currently defending it on the basis that Moviestorm have a great reputation for supporting Machinima and generally being cool, which is currently true - if that changes (as can happen, as most old-time Machinima creators will be aware), expect to see confidence in MS’s value sink rapidly. On the other hand, it may well be that the only way to make a subscription like this work is to maintain a reputation for trustworthiness - the only other successful example I can think of is Fog Creek, who run several subscription-based developer tools, and are also very well-known and trusted thanks to the efforts of their founder, Joel Spotsky.

  • I don’t have deep insight into Moviestorm’s current finances, but it seems pretty obvious to me that some kind of additional monetisation was going to be required if the company was to continue developing MS. From that point of view, a subscription ain’t the worst deal in the world, and fits with their “low-cost” principles. An iClone-like $300 or so sticker price would probably have attracted a worse reaction.

  • MS will also now have to deal with security on a notoriously tricky problem - that of controlling a program running on a computer under the control of someone else. I wonder how long it will be before someone publishes information on how to re-enable the mod shop for free, and what MS will do about that? (I’m not going to discuss the technical issues behind that further, but I know if I was contemplating a large-scale project with MS, I’d make damn sure that in worst case I could crack the control, Just In Case.)

  • The big issue here is clearly the control over third-party mods, including those that were created before their creators knew about this upcoming change. Many creators are feeling betrayed or insecure. It’s early days yet, and I’m unsure as to whether MS’s management team anticipated the outcry that has resulted. Hence, I’m watching this space to see if they can find a good way to resolve those concerns. Again, watch this space on the lifetime subscription issue.

  • There are two ways to look at the risk represented by MS’s subscription model. On the one hand, film projects always overrun. If we’d decided to use MS at the start of making BLoodSpell, would we really have thought that we’d still need it 5 years ahead? Would we have budgeted for that? On the other hand, whilst I always make sure I can still access and use old film production material, I haven’t touched the assets for any of my films in the last 12 years after production was complete. It’s important to remember that MS’s license controls the 3D assets, not the 2D footage, which at the end of the day is more important for film production.

Personally, I’m finding this entire episode fascinating. I’m not using Moviestorm at the moment, nor am I likely to be for a while (until there’s an easy import route for motion capture data, basically), so I’ve not got a dog in this race. As a businessman, it’s really interesting to watch as more experienced biz people (Matt and Jeff, amongst others) try new models to find one that works for their business. Almost makes me wish I was in the boardroom with them.

(Almost. I learned a long time ago that amongst the things I’m very good at, software development ain’t.)

And as a Machinima commentator, it’ll be fascinating to see how this all plays out. Will it turn out to be a damp squib? Will subscriptions prove themselves worth it? Will the mod tools for Moviestorm improve now that they’re driving revenue? Or will the discontent turn into an en masse rebellion? Will MS decide to make changes to their policies, or will they stick to their guns? In particular, will they find a way to solve the “but it might die on me some day” problem, or the “but I want control of my content” problem?

What do you think?

(Some full disclosures on this article: I’ve consulted on Moviestorm several times and used it professionally, and many of the people involved in its development are personal friends of mine. I have also consulted for their competitors, although that company is no longer in business. Finally, I’m involved with several organisations whom are heavily critical of restrictive software licensing and DRM in general.)