Subscription MMOs are almost a thing of the past, with just two major mainstays these days: Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft and CCP Games' EVE Online. Most of the other players in this high-stakes, higher-cost game have gone free-to-play in an effort to bring in new audiences. The question now remains: when will either of these two holdouts break? World of Warcraft has seen its subscriber numbers drop from the game's all-time high of 12 million in 2010, to 7.7 million recently. That number is nothing to scoff at for most online operators, but for Blizzard it represents a real decline.
While World of Warcraft won't be going free-to-play anytime soon, Blizzard lead designer Tom Chilton recently told Polygon that the company is no longer opposed to the idea of a free WoW.
"For Blizzard it makes sense [to go free-to-play] at some point. But a lot of the risk is in making that transition. You hear stories about developers going free-to-play and getting double the number of players, but you don't always know it works out that way and how long it stays that way. We really don't know what the rate is before people drop off and lose interest."
The market leader in subscription MMOs has looked at the other business models, pondered, and said, "Maybe." That's pretty big.
This week, Zenimax Online revealed that Elder Scrolls Online is launching with an old-school $15 subscription fee. I certainly have no problems with subscriptions; I've paid them before and I will probably continue to pay them in the future. My compatriot Pete defended subscription fee MMOs in separate editorial and repeated a quote by Zenimax Online's Matt Firor. As such I've looked at the quote a few times and it irks me every time I read it.
"Players will appreciate not having to worry about being 'monetized' in the middle of playing the game, which is definitely a problem that is cropping up more and more in online gaming these days. The fact that the word 'monetized' exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don't want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for -- with our system, they get it all."
Firor may believe what he's saying, but that doesn't change two things: he's still monetizing you with a sub fee, and there are a host of companies doing free-to-play without raking you over the coals.
Folks, the subscription fee isn't an altruistic act aimed at giving you everything your online heart desires. The reason everyone decided to jump into MMOs in the first place is because making $15 a month from millions of players, regardless of their usage, is awesome for business. Elder Scrolls Online, like a ton of MMOs, probably had money poured into it expecting a steady monthly return. Moving away from that steady return is what Blizzard is afraid of. Zenimax is ready to make a return on its investment, and $15 a month from a couple hundred thousand players is a damn good start.
I don't think there's a right or wrong for having a monthly subscription model or free-to-play model.Final Fantasy XIV producer Naoki Yoshida
And that's fine! Again, I'm totally cool with a subscription fee. Developers need to eat, they have rent and mortgages to pay, and families to feed. Just don't sell it to me like you're helping me.
If we were the primary focus, then some serious thought should be put into that $14.99 monthly price tag. Why that particular sum? Has it been chosen because that's the price that has been used in the past, and it's indicative of what the market can bear? Or has that price been arrived at using a model that combines costs of running the game, the expected number of users, and some percentage of profit on top of that? I'm sure we'll never fully know, but why not $9.99 or $4.99?
Final Fantasy XIV's head honcho laid it all out in an interview with The Penny Arcade Report. He talked about the fact that while free-to-play is lucrative, sub fees are steady. And if there's one thing business enjoys, it's steady income.
“I don't think there's a right or wrong for having a monthly subscription model or free-to-play model. Games like The Old Republic and The Secret World, I don't say those games would've been more successful if they had been free-to-play, for example. The subscription model was unrelated to the success of the game," Yoshida said.
Then there's this idea that free-to-play - the mere existence of microtransactions - will break immersion and prevent your developers from telling a story.
That idea is an insult to developers who are doing that right this minute, like ArenaNet, Trion Worlds, Sony Online Entertainment, and Funcom. Here's a video of a dungeon in Guild Wars 2.
If you sat through the entire thing, you were treated to a great story - at least one to the same level as I've seen from Elder Scrolls Online so far - and there's nothing standing in your way. Free-to-play has not affected the quality of the story ArenaNet is trying to tell. The Secret World still tells a great story and if you don't pay them, the only thing you have to buy is expansions. Funcom also offers a $15 a month Membership that gives you a few perks, like three or four day early access to each expansion. It has not kicked the game's immersion to the curb, any more than the cash shop in World of Warcraft does. (In The Secret World's case, the updates have actually gotten better.)
Oh yeah, and Elder Scrolls Online will feature a cash shop, like World of Warcraft. Again, I have no ire for this decision. Selling cosmetic items to players is a-okay. I've even looked at some of WoW's mounts and pets before the crazy prices scared me away.
I haven't played Star Wars: The Old Republic after its shift to free-to-play - I don't have the time and that's game's implementation of free-to-play wasn't my cup of tea - but there's a reason the game switched over.
"The message from players exiting the game is clear: 40 percent say they were turned off by the monthly subscription, and many indicate they would come back if we offer a free-to-play model," Electronic Arts' former CEO John Riccitiello said in an investors call back in August 2013.
Players would totally play, but either couldn't afford it, or weren't feeling they spent enough time in the game to justify the expense. Free-to-play (or buy-to-play as some call it) opens the game up to those players. And the lifeblood of any MMO is players. Some point to the sub fee as a way to keep annoying kids out of MMOs, but my subscription MMO doesn't seem any more free of online assholes than any other game I've played.
I understand Pete's fear of bad implementations of free-to-play, but it ignores the reigning problem with subscription fees. Some people are still getting raked over the coals if ongoing content isn't tailored directly to them or if they simply don't have more than a few hours a week to offer a game. The "freedom to play as much as you want" means those players who play little are the subscription fee "whales". They justify the whole endeavor for businesses. They're $180 a year for a small amount of server resources.
But that's the business. I have no rage for it because that's the way it works. It's no different than paying $60 for Call of Duty and playing half of the single player campaign; in Activision's calculations, they're probably ahead. That's life.
I'm looking forward to Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and Wildstar (which allows players to use in-game currency on their subscription like EVE). I love MMOs. But a subscription fee isn't a magic gift they've given to consumers that ensures a premium experience. It hasn't been that way in years. Those premium experiences are already available on free-to-play titles. A subscription fee is just one business decision. Nothing less, nothing more.