Should We Be Paying To Play MMOs?
It’s been a pretty interesting year for the MMO genre. Just 12 months ago, things were looking incredibly positive; Star Wars: The Old Republic was reporting booming subscriber numbers, The Secret World was raising eyebrows with its original setting and engaging environments and, despite many people’s hopes to the contrary, World of Warcraft continued to boast substantial – if slightly diminished – subscriber numbers.
Fast-forward 12 months and a very different landscape lies before us. Despite three fairly diverse MMOs launching in the past year (Tera being the third), not a single one has managed to reach its first birthday still in the subscription space. While some people would have suspected this of The Secret World and Tera, the latter of which only announced its free-to-play ambitions last week, SWTOR’s failure was more shocking. If the most expensive video game ever made, reportedly costing around $200 million, failed to justify a paid subscription despite being helmed by one of the most respected developers in the industry, then surely it’s time to ask: are subscription fees still viable for MMOs?
Though it was never considered a bastion of the genre, Tera’s defection to the ranks of sub-less MMOs is likely to have a pretty big impact for those titles still resolutely charging monthly fees. Blizzard’s behemoth World of Warcraft still looks relatively safe, especially given its revitalised subscriber numbers following the release of Mists of Pandaria, but for other games it’s looking like it can only be a matter of time before they start feeling the pinch.
Though it was never considered a bastion of the genre, Tera’s defection to the ranks of sub-less MMOs is likely to have a pretty big impact for those titles still resolutely charging monthly fees.
It’s hard to predict what will happen to EVE Online; CCP’s space age MMO has never reported huge subscriber figures (though it did break the 400,000 barrier back in March 2012), but it is the only MMO to have grown year-on-year in terms of subs numbers every year since its release a decade ago. The experience offered by the game is so unique that, especially when coupled with the infamous loyalty of the game’s community, it should do fine. The imminent release of the free-to-play PS3-exclusive FPS tie-in Dust 514 is also likely to raise the game’s profile and, providing it isn’t a horrifying addition that devalues the EVE experience (unlikely, from what we’ve seen), it will probably translate into some extra sub fees courtesy of console players keen to check out what they’re missing in the game that started it all.
At the other end of the spectrum is Rift. Credit where it’s due, the game is pretty much the only MMO to launch with a similar fantasy aesthetic to World of Warcraft and not be blown out of the water within months. As we approach the game’s two year anniversary though, it seems the game’s grace period may be drawing to a close. In December 2012 developer Trion Worlds laid off a third of the team working on Rift “in response to market conditions”. It’s an understandable move considering an expansion had just been released and the overall development workload had decreased but, even so, it’s an ominous sign for the future given how flooded the genre is with titles that don’t require monthly payments.
Ultimately, it all comes down to MMOs still being able to justify their subscription fees in the eyes of gamers. How they can achieve this remains murky, and it’s undeniable that World of Warcraft is casting a long shadow; with eight years of iteration and fresh content under its belt, asking anyone to pay the same for a new release seems ludicrous. But out of the remaining handful of MMOs that still charge subscription fees, one of them has managed to do so for even longer than World of Warcraft without being beaten into submission.
Final Fantasy XI has been running since 2001, with a new expansion pack due to be released imminently, and has managed to justify its subscription fee to many players for all that time. It seems that despite many gamers proclaiming how they’d be willing to pay subscription fees if an MMO tried something new, this isn’t strictly true; FFXI boasted fairly derivative gameplay when it was new, let alone now, meaning it’s the strength of the brand and the goodwill it enjoys in the eyes of consumers that has allowed the title to earn enough money from subscriber revenue to become the most profitable title in the Final Fantasy series.
It’s undeniable that World of Warcraft is casting a long shadow; with eight years of iteration and fresh content under its belt, asking anyone to pay the same for a new release seems ludicrous.
This is an important realisation and one that a number of companies need to embrace this year. 2013 will (supposedly) see at least two big MMOs based on established franchises go live, with both seemingly keen to charge subscription fees.
The first will almost definitely impact the future fortunes of Final Fantasy XI; if Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a success, it’ll likely supplant the former game as the go-to option for FF fans seeking a persistent online world. It’s been confirmed that the relaunched title will require a subsciption fee, but what’s more interesting are the reasons given for this decision. Producer Naoki Yoshida claimed in an interview with VG247 last year that monthly payments would be kept in a bid to “regain the trust of our players” following a disastrous launch, rather than due to any business decisions. This is fair enough; It’s undeniable that many gamers have an innate distrust of free-to-play games.
To my mind, it seems the future standing of the genre rests squarely on the shoulders The Elder Scrolls Online. Bethesda has opted to remain tight-lipped so far on whether it’ll be free-to-play or not, but considering development on the game started some time ago, it’s safe to assume it was designed with a subscription fee in mind. This means the company faces quite the quandary; it could probably get away with keeping the sub fee both as a mark of quality and thanks to the franchise’s pedigree, but this would place a lot of pressure on the game to launch ready to compete with the likes of Warcraft rather than allow for the teething period that most MMOs go through.
The alternative isn’t much better. Take Star Wars: The Old Republic as an example: from development until a significant time after launch, EA and Bioware were both swift to rebuff the notion that the game would embrace F2P as it had been designed with a sub fee in mind. When the eventual decision was made to make the switch, it was dogged by a number of mistakes and misjudgements along the way. What this shows is that it’s by no means easy to seamlessly integrate freemium revenue streams into a game not designed for them. SWTOR’s entire infrastructure was designed to be supported by a calculated number of subs; taking them away meant the company was forced to try and crowbar a sufficient number of changes in to maintain the same level of service.
Case in point: despite being put on a pedestal as the MMO Messiah for months before release and enjoying a well-received launch, my copy of Guild Wars 2 hasn’t been touched for months.
While it can be done, especially if the game didn’t cost such an obscene amount to make, it’s far more likely that the end result appears unjust and exploitative in a bid to coax money out of players, as was the case with SWTOR’s action bar fiasco. Similarly, aside from reassuring players that the game is a constant focus for the developer, sub fees also foster the compulsion that gamers should be playing the title. It may be a pretty depressing admission, but if I pay for a game every month then as well as feeling that the developer had a responsibility towards me, I feel for my part that I should be playing the game specifically because I’m paying for it, and it’s wasted money if I’m not. On the plus side, this obligation dynamic makes the servers busier, and the world feel more vibrant and enjoyable.
Case in point: despite being put on a pedestal as the MMO Messiah for months before release and enjoying a well-received launch, my copy of Guild Wars 2 has been gathering dust since October, primarily because I’m not losing anything by not playing it. It’ll still be there in six months, though the expansive player-base required to make it an optimum experience may not. Making players feel obligated to play due to continual sub fees may be a bit of a dirty trick, but it’s an irrefutable component of Warcraft’s success.
One thing seems certain. If The Elder Scrolls Online opts to forgo the sub route, any future MMOs are going to have to think long and hard about what they can offer that an Elder Scrolls game can’t to justify extra costs beyond that of the box.
While this may all sound a bit bleak, it’s important to distinguish that the demise of the subscription model that was the norm for so long doesn’t equate with the death of the MMO genre. Though far from easy, ditching your subscription fee can be a lucrative move for companies. When The Lord of the Rings Online became one of the first to do this back in 2010, Turbine announced that the game’s revenue tripled and it became the third most-played MMO of 2010. More recently at the tail-end of last year, Funcom saw a 30% rise in sales of The Secret World and 400% increase in player activity once it ditched the compulsory monthly fee for the Lovecraftian MMO.
We don’t know what the future holds for the MMO genre, but it’s a mistake to think that this marks a fundamental shift in player mentality, and that they won’t pay subscription fees under any circumstances. What’s important is that companies don’t become too hung up on innovation around the business model whilst delivering the same old tropes and gameplay features. If the genre is to keep moving forward rather than stagnating it’ll be what we get to do rather than how we pay to do it that’ll dictate what the next 12 months hold.
Luke Karmali is IGN’s UK Editorial Assistant and has played more MMOs than you can ruin a social life with. You too can revel in mediocrity by following him on IGN and on Twitter.
By Luke Karmali