Staff Editorials

Is There A RIFT Forming For Subscription Based MMOs?
Posted: 10.06.2013 11:21 by Marco Fiori Comments: 4
The age of the MMO is dead. No one wants to pay for anything anymore. These common quips are thrown around by analysts, journalists, commentators and the public every year. The subject might change periodically, but essentially it’s the same discourse.

Supposedly, according to whom you choose to listen to, the age of conventional subscriptions is over. Delivery models have moved to Free-To-Pay (F2P) micro-transactional economies and the rate of this shift is only going to increase. Pay-Per-Month games have had their day – they’ve become relics of the early broadband era.

Track back five years to the heyday of fantasy MMORPGS (World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Everquest II, Dungeons and Dragons Online) and you could say there’s truth in the above statement. A huge amount of money was ploughed into these behemoths and looking at the returns it’s not surprising to see why.

Subscriptions were (and still are for the time being) big money. For publishers it’s an easy argument - why only receive money from a game once when you can claw money from players regularly over a space of years? It’s simple business sense and you can see why so many gaming companies rushed to replicate the success of the big boys.

Show Me The Money

So why the change in the last few years? If we’re to understand the thinking behind the marketplace’s sudden dislike of restrictive subscriptions, we need to analyse what made players commit in the first place.

Player-investment is a new psychology that deserves greater study, especially in the realm of online gaming; a defunct term if there was any (the near majority of gaming experiences have online components so what is ‘online gaming’ anyway), As the gaming industry gets more acquainted with F2P games, understanding player thinking is one that holds a large amount of value.

Were players committed to games like World of Warcraft because of the connection they had with their in-game characters, the fact they’d spent ‘x’ amount of money and didn’t want to lose their investment, or was it simply a case of (then solo) Blizzard’s creativity pulling in the punters?

It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason and more likely it was a combination of the three. Was a lack of Blizzard sheen the reason so many self-proclaimed ‘World of Warcraft killers’ never materialised? Those that did make it through to release have already shed subscriptions in favour of the new payment method.

The most recent example on everyone’s lips is RIFT, but it isn’t the first to see success from a change of direction. Lord of the Rings Online is perhaps the most famous title that turned its fortune upwards with a shunning of subscriptions for in-game item purchases.

Many would argue it was an inevitable decision, especially with World of Warcraft holding so steady over the years. That said, who will have the last laugh? Will it be those who anticipated the change by positioning themselves to take advantage of its benfits or those who clung onto old delivery models to ride out a new fangled storm?

World of Whatcraft?

Despite all the speculation, is it really possible for Blizzard’s MMO stalwart, the long serving self proclaimed king of all things loot, raids and instances, to diminish in power and shrink into the shadows? (Astonishingly) the game turns ten years old in 2014 – a remarkable achievement when we look at its subscription base a decade after its release.

Yes, recent figures have shown a significant drop in its pulling power, but declines are natural occurrences for any game. If we address the severity of the drop compared to past declines, it is certainly a greater reduction, but in the grand scheme of the game’s numbers, it’s nothing to worry about. Yet.

More concerning is the effect the latest expansion pack (another gaming staple that’s having its future questioned), Mists of Pandaria, has had. Traditionally there have been a levelling-off or drop as a new World of Warcraft expansion approaches, only for its release to have the desired effect - bring back the loyal fans and get them hooked again.

This time it hasn’t happened so strongly. Are players suddenly bored? Has the fantasy MMORPG had its day like the World War II shooter, the adventure genre or hardcore simulation franchises? Are people eagerly waiting for (now) Activision-Blizzard to announce World of Warcraft 2? Is Activision’s Call of Duty the king of all things multiplayer?

There are a lot of unanswerable questions, but one thing is sure. Since World of Warcaft’s release hardware has vastly improved. Creating a modern sequel with impressive visuals and 2013 intuitiveness is surely on the cards.

The important question isn’t really whether a follow-up is on the way; it’s whether or not it’ll still be a subscription-based game. Will it have a real-world money Auction House like its hack-n-slash sister Diablo III? With a franchise that has the ability to attract millions of players, could Blizzard-Activision be the only publisher with the capability to ignore the F2P trend?

Combining The Best of Both Worlds

More than likely, and this is pure speculation at the moment, it’ll be a hybrid model. For the rest of the MMO landscape it is extremely difficult to gather enough committed fans to recoup the losses associated with development. Blizzard did the groundwork with its Real Time Strategy franchises, creating a rich backstory before getting in at the right moment with its MMO conversion.

It is extremely unlikely we’ll see another similar turn of good luck, fortune and hard work combine so spectacularly. Do we even need to?

F2P staggered content has proven to be an extremely profitable endeavour, even when executed less convincingly. However, for its long-term future, it has to be done correctly. This means not offering the first 5 levels for free before getting people to pay to continue. Such a strong content block tarnishes the experience and frustrates new players.

The last thing the industry wants is for players to become cold to the term F2P from abuse by cash-chasing sub-standard games. Time will tell as to which delivery model will come out the victor, but at the moment it’s pointing to the cashless option.
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By Chris_Spray (SI Member) on Jun 10, 2013
I would rather buy to play.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jun 10, 2013
It was Dungeons & Dragons Online that started all this. It was dead in the water, went F2P, and Turbine found they made far more money than they'd ever done. Lord of the Rings Online was fine under subscriptions and Turbine chose to go F2P with it because they knew they'd make more money (and possibly saw the future for subscription-based MMOs).
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Jun 10, 2013
I'd never have played Lotro if it wasn't f2p since I have absolutely no interest of ever paying for any kind of a subscription, it makes it feel like you HAVE to play the game since you already payed for the time -> it makes the game feel like work, while on the other hand f2p Lotro took 100€+ out of my wallet.
By Voqar (SI Core Veteran) on Jun 10, 2013
As a die hard MMO fan, I despise F2P. It's more profitable, which is why they do it. It sucks for players - at least for players that give a crap and love the genre.

If you value immersion and value quality of play, F2P sucks. Cash hooks strewn thru gameplay crush immersion and the fact that F2P *always* entails some kind of pay to win basically equates to company hosted cheating - scrubs get cool stuff thru their wallets instead of how stuff should be obtained - by doing things within the game.

F2P also lowers the bar and leads to far lower quality players. I would rather a game have 250k subscribers who give a crap than 1 million players who almost never play and/or act like tools when they do play because they don't care.

It doesn't matter to me how many people play a given MMO. It only matters the corporate bean counters wanting max profit out of everything in life. It doesn't matter to me if casual players who don't take the genre or gaming seriously don't play. Players that aren't serious are horrible for MMO communities and longevity. You can't keep a guild going when people don't show up regularly. You can't group or do raid progression when people don't show up regularly.

Most MMOs these days are glorified single player games with some optional grouping, next to no end game, and slapped on crappy PvP. It's not a design for serious MMO players. It's a design to make money.

The reason people don't play games the way they played WoW or earlier MMOs is because the way MMOs are designed is different. They aren't designed to keep people around for the long haul anymore, they're designed for morons with ADD who can't focus on one task for more than a few minutes at a time.

It's sad to me because I would classify myself as an MMO addict - starting back with EQLive. I'm capable of subbing and playing a good MMORPG for years (6.5 with WoW before they flushed it). No new MMO has been designed to hold players that way. They focus too much on single player and don't focus enough on grouping or endgame, such that most MMORPGs last you 3-6 months before there just isn't anything to do.

NO company can provide enough dumbed down single player content to keep players going indefinitely - and people who want to play single player should be freaking playing single player games anyways.

Of all the reasons I could've come up with to end my MMO addiction, I never would've suspected corporate greed would be it. But corporate greed pretty much seeps into everything now so I guess it's not so surprising.

Skyrim is one of the best, if not the best, cRPG ever. TESO isn't trying to be skyrim online but still, can you imagine a world like skyrim with F2P hooks in it? How crappy that would be? If TESO is F2P I can't see myself even bothering to try it. Same with EQNext.

I'm absolutely sick of F2P.

I miss the days of gamers who love gaming making good games for gamers. Everything is corporate whoredom now. The only purity in gaming anymore comes from the indie scene and MMOs are too big for any indie to tackle properly.

Obviously these games cost a lot to make and companies want to profit, but there's a big difference between designing from a place of love and making a few bucks, and designing to maximize profit for corporate slave drivers and corporate backers that don't give a crap about gaming and only want to pile up more money.