Saturday, June 16, 2012


Whenever a new subscription-based MMO comes out there's this invisible countdown that begins in the collective unconsciousness of the game community: time till "Free-to-Play". Sometimes the countdown isn't so invisible, sometimes it's the topic on everyone's lips whether it's being whispered or shouted. As a perfect example, in the first few weeks after Star Wars: The Old Republic's release, web comic giants Penny Arcade released a strip about SWTOR, the punchline having to do with when they thought the game would go Free-to-Play.

We seem to have this image in the MMO community that if a game is developed as Free-to-Play, then it's because the developer is small, doesn't have enough money, or doesn't have confidence in their product to compete in the subscription world. When an existing subscription game goes Free-to-Play many of the same things are assumed. In either case any deviance from the classic subscription model towards Free-to-Play is viewed as failure. I can understand the reasoning, the subscription model has been king since the days of Ultima Online and the general thinking is that if people liked your game enough then they'd be willing to pay for it month after month. When a plurality of MMO's are being developed for or quickly turn to a Free-to-Play model and when even successful subscription games like WoW and SWTOR introduce Free-to-Play at least up to a certain level, one has to ask: is it Free-to-Play that is a sign of failure or is the subscription model itself what's failing?

The late 90's PC gaming landscape that brought us the first modern MMO's in the form of Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call was much different than that of today. The subscription model made a lot of sense in a world where half as many households had computers and nearly one quarter as many had internet access as do today. It was a world that had yet to turn to digital downloads as a primary source of content and where the a-la-carte mentality that pervades the acquisition of entertainment media today had yet to take hold. MMO's games were being made for less money for a smaller, more hardcore audience, one that wouldn't think twice about paying a subscription fee for their gaming. Even at this early stage however the question was asked: "will gamers be willing to pay for more than one subscription game at a time?"

Take a moment and think back to the internet of the late 90's. Frames and midi were all the rage on web sites, AOL was still a pay-by-the-hour service, and dial-up was the connection method of choice for most households. In those days internet monetization was still just a vague blur in the distance. Nowadays MMO subscriptions (and games in general) are but one of many services and products we purchase over the internet nearly every day. While we've certainly gotten used to paying for things online, subscriptions aren't generally the monetization model of choice outside of the MMO space. People have become much more accustomed to paying only for what they want and what they use. Culturally we've shifted to a mode of thinking where micro-transactions and a-la-carte are viewed as a better deal. Subscriptions on the other hand fly in the face of this cultural shift and though people will settle for subscriptions where they're required (and where they still see the value in premium services such as Hulu and Netflix), in general they seem to like the idea of paying only for what they use instead.

When you take all this into account it's hard not to see subscriptions as the dinosaurs they are. When you go back to the dawn of the early MMO's when it was a three horse race people were unconvinced that many gamers would ever subscribe to more than one service at a time. Nearly 15 years later there are even more choices and it's not just the MMO's asking for money any longer. We know that there is a limit to the number of game subscriptions people are willing to pay for at any one time and we know that the majority of them are already paying for World of Warcraft. Why then are we all competing against each other for that one top slot? Imagine if the same were true for first person shooters back in the late 90's, if you had to subscribe to them like you do MMO's. If everyone had a subscription to Quake, how many fewer people would ever have picked up Unreal and Half-Life? Would we ever have seen the types of advances in technology, game play, and story-telling in FPS that we've enjoyed over the last decade or would there have been nothing but a bunch of Quake clones desperately trying to win away that market share?

Subscriptions are simply an unsustainable business model for a genre as a whole. Instead of creating a competitive environment where market share can be more easily spread out, subscriptions create a king of the hill competition with every new game trying to get that coveted top spot. It's bad for consumers, it's bad for developers, and it's bad for MMO's a whole. Historically speaking, limiting choice rarely succeeds as a means of controlling a market. The music industry was essentially attempting to do this by fighting peer-to-peer downloads while failing to adopt their own a-la-carte digital distribution systems. As a result, a lot of music was stolen and the big record labels missed the opportunity to control the digital space and drive their business, instead they now find themselves following in the wake of more savvy entrepreneurs.

I've been saying for a couple years now that we've come to the end of the line for subscriptions in the MMO world. Recent releases have shown that the amount of money and the amount of risk involved in trying to get that top spot and be the game that the majority of players subscribe to without question ends up as a losing proposition. MMO developers need to let go of the macho pride they have that surrounds the idea of the subscription model. Anyone developing an MMO right now seriously needs to be looking at alternative payment methods. We need to be looking at free-to-play, micro-transactions, pay-as-you-go, and whatever else we can come up with. Monetization of digital media is changing every day and we've done a piss poor job of keeping up.

When we finally stop trying to take on WoW (or whatever the next king of the hill ends up being) we're going to find ourselves in a much better position and while the fans may be against us at first, they're going to end up with better and more diverse products as a result. If we can turn MMO's into a true competitive landscape where it's no longer about being #1 across all MMO's, but about being number #1 in the myriad sub-genre MMO's that will inevitably crop up then we all win. Back when it was 3 games competing for the top spot it made sense, but now that there's 10 times as many of us and an internet full of digital media for sale, we can no longer afford to look at the subscription model as the only avenue of success. We owe it to ourselves, to the fans, and the genre as a whole to change. We were the pioneers of this digital landscape and there's no reason we shouldn't continue to be well into the foreseeable future.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

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