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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Topic Du Jour - MMO Subscription Models

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Well it's been a few days now since the announcement that Star Wars: The Old Republic is embracing the free-to-play model, and the dust has started to settle. There has been a lot of guff written across the web about whether this means the death of subscription MMOs (it doesn't) and which game will be next to go free-to-play.


My thoughts about The Old Republic moving to a free-to-play model are mixed. It's a far better game than it's generally given credit for. Sure, it's not perfect, but it does what it tries to do very well and certainly doesn't deserve the vitriol that much of the gaming community seems to spit at it. I think in a way the game was doomed to this turn of events from even before it launched, such was the negative word of mouth.

Anyway, from one point of view it's a good thing. All the player character class stories up to level 50  are included in the free-to-play pack, so that means I'll be able to play through the class stories I missed out on first time round.

My concern is that every MMO I have played that has made the move from a subscription based model to free-to-play has suffered. I don't mean financially (indeed the move has saved several games), but rather in terms of mechanics or community. The move to a free-to-play model brings with it the inevitable cash shop, almost always containing pay-to-win items, clunky new mechanics that lock you out of things, and a degradation in the quality of the server community. I hope the same won't happen in The Old Republic, but I'm almost certain it will.

There has been a lot of talk about the death of subscription MMOs for a while. It's baloney. World of Warcraft may have lost a million players in the last quarter, but it still has over 9 million people handing over their $13 every month (that's $117 million per month!). They are not going to throw away that kind of income.

Games with a niche element to them have also proven successful with a subscription model. EVE Online is the primary example, though Rift has also made a good fist of it. I expect The Secret World will also remain a subscription game for quite some time as well (Funcom's annual earnings call showed a good profit even if the game only performs like Age of Conan did) as it offers something different to most other mainstream MMOs.

newZoo predict subscription MMOs will be around for years to come

Part of the doom saying for subscriptions is almost certainly down to the imminent release of the buy-to-play GuildWars 2. Make no mistake, the game will be huge. The lack of a subscription model may mean they find it hard to compete with the regular quality of updates games like EVE, Rift and The Secret World, and it will be interesting to see how interest in the game waxes or wanes in the coming months.

I think we will continue to see quality subscription MMOs for some time to come, though they may be building in plans for the move to free-to-play models at later dates, even before they launch. Subscriptions pay for ongoing development without the need for pay-to-win cash shops, whilst maintaining that special community feel the best games have. They also act as a stick to ensure developers keep the quality up, introduce new systems and content and act in a reasonable manner!

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