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
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.
Is There A RIFT Forming For Subscription Based MMOs?
10 June 2013 | By Marco Fiori