Oh dear, more subscription MMOs?

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August 21, 2013 by Devin

Recently, Carbine Studios announced that their upcoming Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, Wildstar, would have a subscription fee of about $15 per month. Probably spurred on by this announcement, the General Manager of Zenimax Online revealed that The Elder Scrolls Online would also have a subscription fee of about $15 per month.

There are times when I look at video game companies, see what they are doing, and think, “Wow, that is a bold step but I can completely see how that will be incredibly successful for them!”

This is not one of those times.

Some History

The earliest MMOs all had subscription fees. This was because of the cost on the servers and the developers. Unlike other games, MMOs take place in massive persistent worlds that need constant care-taking and polish by developers in addition to lots of servers that keep running. So the idea of an MMO subscription fee was simple: as long as players are playing, they are incurring costs to the developers, and therefore they should keep paying.

For the longest time, MMOs were still a niche market, and so the players who were paying understood that they had to keep paying and were more than willing to do so for what was such a unique experience.

Then a little MMO from a studio named Blizzard came along.

The amount of things that Blizzard did right would be an entire article to itself, but suffice to say, Blizzard was smart.

World of Warcraft was the first MMO to truly hit the mainstream gaming audience. Sure, Everquest was the first huge MMO, but just like Facebook eclipsed MySpace as the go-to social media site, World of Warcraft became the dominant MMO in people’s minds. And World of Warcraft also had a subscription fee, and people were more than happy to pay it.

The problems with this model only became apparent when the entire market was considered. Many people were willing to pay $15 per month for one game, sure. The amount of content that World of Warcraft had (and continues to have) meant that one could easily get his or her money’s worth of gametime.

However, what people were not willing to do was pay $30 per month or $45 per month, meaning that once they had their one MMO, they stuck to it. And chances are, their one MMO was World of Warcraft.

This fact meant that there were a huge amount of MMOs that failed even if they got good reviews. Age of Conan had a promising new combat system that got it early praise, and it did not do well. Warhammer Online had innovative new public quests and an exciting PVP system, and it could not keep subscription numbers up. Star Wars Galaxies had an open market and crafting system, something unlike almost any other game at the time, but when subscription numbers were low, the developers retooled the game to be more like World of Warcraft, which ultimately killed the game. For an MMO to survive, they not only had to be good, but they had to be better than World of Warcraft.

But then something happened. Dungeons & Dragons, an MMO based on the popular tabletop RPG, was not that successful. It had only mildly positive reviews and its subscription numbers were not fantastic. Instead of shutting it down, Turbine Entertainment made it free-to-play. Players could jump in, create a character, and go questing for no cost at all. Players could still subscribe, but if they just wanted to play around for a while and buy content when they got to it, they could do that as well.

Dungeons & Dragons Online is still around and still being profitable, despite never reaching World of Warcraft numbers. The free-to-play system allowed the developers a way around the World of Warcraft juggernaut. Most players might not be willing to pay $15 a month, but they might pay $5 here or there, or they might even want to pay $30 on additional content. This flexibility meant that gamers who never could afford to play other MMOs could play this one, opening up their audience dramatically.

Turbine Entertainment found that this model was successful and applied it to their other licensed MMO: Lord of the Rings Online. Profits tripled.

The free to play phenomenon took off, with other MMOs like Age of Conan and DC Universe Online also going free-to-play. Free-to-play became to be viewed like a second chance for MMOs. In fact, it became to be viewed as the only way MMOs could survive outside of being World of Warcraft (or EVE Online, but that is a completely different story). So when Star Wars: The Old Republic, a huge new subscription MMO from famed developers, was announced, people were already talking about how it was going to be free-to-play eventually.

But the developers denied it. They claimed that even though the free-to-play model had a lot of benefits, so did the subscription model. They knew they were going up against World of Warcraft and they had seen plenty of other MMOs go to free-to-play, but they stuck to their guns on the subscription fee issue.

Star Wars: The Old Republic went free-to-play on November 15th.

Now about those new MMOs…

I gave all that history to prove a point: a subscription service is a backwards business practice. It limits the audience, puts unnecessary stress on the player, and makes all its content about time rather than quality. Most modern MMO developers understand that. Many give the player as many options as possible, whether that be in the form of subscription fees, one-time purchases, extra perks, or the understanding that those that do not pay will have to invest more time than those that do pay.

This flexibility allows the MMOs to survive and prosper in a market that is incredibly competitive. World of Warcraft still exists and still has a huge amount of subscribers, even though that amount is decreasing. Guild Wars 2 recently revealed that it is the fastest selling MMO ever made. Everquest Next, which looks to be one of the most innovative and revolutionary MMOs ever created, has already announced that it is going to be free-to-play.

For the developers of Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online to ignore this trend is a huge mistake. And neither of these games looks interesting or novel enough to allow it to succeed with such a huge cripple (though they both look quite promising). History suggests that these games will eventually go the route of most other MMOs and go free-to-play, which will be a costly transition for the developers.

So in other words, I look forward to playing these games one day, though I am going to go out on a limb and say that I probably will not be paying for them.

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