Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Worst Case Scenario - The End of Subscription Gaming

I'd try to make myself look awesome for the fact that I wrote a post about SWTOR going free to play before it was announced, but everyone and their mother knew it was gonna happen so I'd just look like a moron. So, let's take care of some business before we begin: I apologize for my long absence, as real life caught up with me and I found myself sucked into World of Warcraft again. After some thinking, and a lot of post ideas coming up about WoW, I decided not to bombard this blog with those posts. I want to talk about the game, but don't feel like those discussions are up to the style of this blog. Because of this I've created The Westfall Field, a side blog meant for my WoW experiences. Pardon the look of it, I'm still fiddling with the layout settings. I'll be keeping my analytical and general MMORPG posts here, and will still mention WoW, but if I feel it is a topic that is solely for fans of that game it will be moved there.

Because if I don't update one blog enough, clearly the answer is that I need two.

So. For the finale of "Worst Case Scenario" we have a topic that I briefly touched upon in the SWTOR F2P article, and that is the death of subscription games. Many MMO fans are cheering this happening, partially because it means change in the genre and partially because I think they are cheap. I forgive them, because I am cheap too. However, that does not mean I agree with the idea that subscriptions should die.

These days, the rise of F2P games has been accomplished at the cost of subscription games. I can't count very many games lately that have launched free to play, but conversions from sub games are a dime a dozen. It's a proven business model, so why not? However, the saturation of F2P titles in the market can prove even more dangerous for the genre than subs. You see, one of the main hurdles of creating an MMO is the high price point. Many indie developers cannot hope to compete in the market because creating an offline game is much easier, and any subscription revenue would barely cover the costs to create new content due to how few players would be paying. Consider how worse that would be if F2P releases became the norm.

Indie developers would be shut out of the market entirely. Should the consumer base accept F2P launches as the norm, launching with a box and a sub to try to recoup development costs would be suicide for the game. Why would anyone buy when there are so many titles that they can get for free? Less small studios means less risks taken. SWTOR has proven that big companies are only willing to pay into models that are proven, and when the only models they think work are BC and WOTLK-era World of Warcraft, we have ourselves a near standstill in the evolution of games. I can't ignore the contributions of titles like The Secret World, but those are exceptions in a stagnant genre. Make F2P the standard, and the indie developers will put their resources into fields that they can compete in. I'm a WoW fan, but we don't need another title like SWTOR on the market.

You then may note that the trend in the industry is starting to turn to releasing a subscription game, and then switching free to play. Funcom has been quite open about this, but SWTOR was about as subtle as a tank driving through a residential neighborhood. They denied it all the way while driving directly towards it. It was borderline ridiculous the press releases they sent out. "You know, free to play is a good market to be in. Not that we're going to do that. We're just browsing." That kind of behavior may garner a few laughs now, but that will wear off fast. And what you are left with is a lack of trust.

Why would a gamer buy a subscription game now when they can wait a few months to get the game F2P, and with all the launch bugs ironed out? The answer is only impatience and hype. Those can only last for so long until mistrust of companies hyping up their games sets in. Deceptive marketing techniques won't sell a bad game, and especially one that is blatantly trying to use whatever system makes them the most money at the given time. We gamers know that this is a business, and businesses need to thrive, but changing payment models really makes us consider the money we put into a game and where it is going.

Even with all that, my least favorite part is what I mentioned above: F2P titles arrive on the death of subscription games. If there is any stigma that this type of model needs to distance itself from, it is that the company just did it because the game was failing. And though the word "Free" brings in customers, how many are driven away because they think it is only free because it sucked? I want to see this model succeed on its own merits, and not based on the death of the subscription service. And let the subscription service evolve to compete with F2P titles. If this genre needs anything, its a little more innovation.


  1. I completely agree with it needing to distance itself from being Free because it sucked.

    But on something you said earlier, I don't see Indies making MMOs unless they are a big indie company. MMOs especially any coming out today have so many systems required to function that even writing them all out would be a bother.

    I think many of these games are failing because they don't have enough. Larisa, the Pink Pig-Tailed innkeeper from not so long ago, said it best, when she said that what WoW has is the ability to let her fish.

    Where is that in SWTOR, Champions Online, Star Trek?

  2. Don't make me miss Pink Pigtailed Inn more than I already do. That was an awesome blog.

    You make a good point about indie devs. MMO's are generally out of their grasp, but certain entrepreneurs have made it happen. Face of Mankind, Wurm Online, Runsscape and EVE Online all started out with small teams. I think the mistake is associating MMORPG's with big budgets. Servers cost money, sure, but MapleStory gets by with sprites and a 2D world. And I bet they have more people spending money than SWTOR right now. I wouldn't consider gamers so picky as to push away a game that had dated graphics. I am looking forward to City of Steam immensely, to toss out another example.

  3. As for features, I agree entirely. SWTOR came out with bare bones endgame and so few things to do and expected it to compete with established titles like WoW, Rift and the like. If you get bored in SWTOR, your only option is another alt, and that gets old fast.

  4. Subscriptions aren't going anywhere. Just like F2P was always around. When everyone is F2P, the pendulum will swing back to subs being the 'next big thing' for assorted reasons.
    Subs are everywhere in the entertainment industry. Magazines mailed to your doorstep, Netflix, Xbox live... the list goes on. At the end of the day, people pay for services they deem have value. The marketing on the other side of the table will spin various methods at extracting cash from the pockets of customers, but it's only possible because person A deems object B to be of value.
    The business model is the road between the A and B. There are many possible paths, but the industry will never shut one path down. That's less travelers that will reach the destination. Greed will see to it that the road stays open.

  5. I think its true that it won't die off completely, but to play Devil's Advocate, I don't see many people paying for subscription games as the F2P "revolution" reaches its peak. Very few games right now are capable of maintaining a subscription-only model. To better define this, I consider games that are F2P yet offer a sub service to be F2P.

    The problem with comparing it to magazines, Netflix and Xbox Live is that those services offer something that is impossible (or difficult) to get otherwise, or in the case of magazines, appealing to collectors. You can't play on an Xbox live service without obtaining another system, and Netflix offers the convenience of not having to deal with the employees at Blockbuster who are fully aware their company is dying. Or going to a RedBox.

    If I don't like WoW? I can play LOTRO, City of Heroes, SWTOR (come this Fall), Age of Conan, or any other theme park MMO that is free and tickles my fancy. It may not be WoW, but it's close enough in gameplay that it can be good enough. And good enough for free? That can do some serious damage.