Subscription Gaming, Still ok to Pay?
When I was in school there were two kinds of gamers. Those that paid for subscription gaming, and those that didn’t. Your everyday gamer won’t usually pay for a game subscription (With the exception of console services such as Xbox Live). As a youngster, the thought of buying a game then having to pay to keep using it seemed a bit daft, and to some level I still don’t like it. Obviously I’m not as naïve anymore and I understand that subscription games (Many of which are MMO based.) have teams of developers managing the upkeep, patching in new content, etc. I can see where the money goes and I get the point. The gamer gets to play for 10x longer than they would a regular game, and so they chip in a monthly sum to keep the game running. Unfortunately it seems games within the subscription market are dying quicker than ever. With next-gen around the corner and two new MMOs soon to hit the market, is there really a place for the traditional subscription model in such a competitive market, or should developers be seeking alternatives to keep their games alive?
If you tuned in during July you might have read about Blizzard’s insane subscriber drop from a reported 12 million in 2011 to a more recent 7.7 million, all within a period of 2 years. The reality is that World of Warcraft’s numbers haven’t been at this level for a good 6 years. Have Blizzard milked the Warcraft universe for too long, and is this the beginning of the end for the MMO? I think WoW still has some life in it yet, but only if Blizzard take their finger out. The gaming community have taken care of Blizzard for a long time, so maybe its time for Blizzard to return the favour. In creating such a powerhouse of an MMO, games like DC Universe Online just couldn’t compete with something like WoW, and have had to adjust their business models to deal with quickly declining populations. Its insane to think that those repercutions are now being reflected back onto WoW. With Blizzard funneling resources over to their other projects, WoW just isn’t getting the attention it needs to continue to stay comercially viable, and this is being reflected in its subscriber population. Not too long ago, CEO of Blizzard Mike Morhaime stated that Blizzard’s next big project Titan would be, “Unlikely to be subscription based” (Joystiq). If Blizzard keep steering resources away from the MMO community, could this create a power vaccum that bolsters the numbers of other titles, or will it affect them further, and how will WoW fair by the time Titan is released.
Within subscription based gaming, there seem to be a few warning signs that mark the beginning of the end. The most well known and prominent is switching from subscription to a “Free to play” model, a business shift which was first implemented by Turbine. Free to play is often the route struggling a subscription game will fall back onto if things get to rough, and to be fair its a perfectly viable measure to take. F2P fits into my own predisposition against subscription gaming, while still letting me interact with the rest of the community, and hey if you wanna spend some extra dosh then they’ll often allow you to do that as well. Everybody wins. Going F2P doesn’t necessarily mean an IP is dying, but it CAN mean that it is. IUnfortunately the EA/Bioware beast The Old Republic, which ended up “costing roughly 200 million” (LA Times) was partially a victim of it’s own success, and lost it’s initial subscriber base beause it couldn’t support them well enough. Fortunately, since going F2P The Old Republic is still alive and kicking, doubling it’s revenue since going F2P and still receiving new content and support.
Guild Wars 2 is the game getting my true tick of approval right now. Purchase the game, and you never have to pay again. This business model seems to be the way to go right now. It doesn’t cost gamers a fortune in the long run and it’s still produced a genuinely great MMO. Perhaps the reason subscription games are dying so quickly is because they’re a little too ambitious with their initial profit margins. I think If you invest in the community, the community will return the favour. Give the community something free or something cheap and they’ll play it to death. Planetsides 2 makes for a good example. The game has done quite well for itself, in competition with brands that on a gameplay and visual level, are far superior. I personally decided to bite the bullet and recently upgraded my trial account on EVE Online, whose PLEX system allows ambitious gamers to trade in the fruits of their labour for game time. Even though this means little to most of the game’s population, the fact that they’ve included an alternative to the traditional subscription payment plan acts as an incentive to keep playing, which seems to work pretty well for a game that’s a decade old, especially one which has slowly but surely increased subscriptions since it’s conception (DailyNexus).
It won’t be long before two new MMOs are upon us. The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar have both captured my interest and i’ll be trying both of them out for sure, but I was a little annoyed to see them both listed as subscription based. Wildstar I can certainly understand now, as I think it’ll appeal to some of the gamers that are leaving WoW in it’s design as such it’s payment requirments probably won’t rock the boat too much, especially since Wildstar’s own reports indicate it will be supplementing the subscription system with it’s own “C.R.E.D.D” system (Wildstar-online) similar to EVE’s PLEX. It was ESOnline that stopped me however. The Elder Scrolls games have always opperated as offline single player, and I had hoped that this new title would follow Guild Wars 2 in its business model, sitting in the gap between a retail sale and a subscription. The Elder Scrolls fans are going to be stepping out onto a new playing field and a new kind of gaming, which may or may not work. With this in mind, maybe a traditional subscription service is not the best way for them to invest in this new title. As dramatic as it might seem, this release has a lot riding on it. It’s success or failure could very well affect the future of the series, and that makes me a little worried.
I think the decline in the subscription market is the result of no single problem, and in turn has no single solution. For example, I doubt WoW will go F2P anytime soon, not while they still outnumber the rest of the subscription market, a move like that could damage the game as much as it has the potential to revitalise it. In saying that however, if games such as Planetside 2 can pull in it’s fair share of gamers as well, then perhaps the F2P model isn’t as much of a worry as some of the more hardcore gamers believe it to be. Perhaps the solution lies in the middle ground, as Guild Wars 2 have found. I’ll certainly be paying attention to the subscription market over the next year to view the success of the newest additions to the subscription community, as well as the state of current brands.