Is the subscription coming back?

The sub is dead

This is what we keep hearing for quite some time by now. MMORPGs released with a subscription but went free-to-play faster with every year- when we look at the games that made the transition, we have

  • City of heroes (88 months as a sub game, 13 months as free-to-play)
    • Release: April 2004
    • F2P: September 2011
    • Closure: November 2012
  • Everquest 2 (68/84 months as a sub game)
    • Release: November 2004
    • F2P: July 2010 (EQ2X), November 2011 (free-to-play)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online (42 months as a sub game)
    • Release: February 2006
    • F2P: September 2009
  • Vanguard (67 months as a sub game)
    • Release: January 2007
    • F2P: August 2012
  • Lord of the Rings Online (40 months as a sub game)
    • Release: April 2007
    • F2P: September 2010
  • Age of Conan (37 months as a sub game)
    • Release: May 2008
    • F2P: June 2011
  • Champions Online (15 months as a sub game)
    • Release: September 2009
    • F2P: January 2011
  • Aion (16/18 months as a sub game)
    • Release: September 2009
    • F2P: February 2011 (Europe), April 2011 (North America)
  • Star Trek Online (23 months as a sub game)
    • Release: February 2010
    • F2P: January 2012
  • Rift (27 months as a sub game)
    • Release: March 2011
    • F2P: June 2013
  • Star Wars: the old republic (11 months as a sub game)
    • Release: December 2011
    • F2P: November 2012
  • The Secret World (5 months as a sub game)
    • Release: July 2012
    • B2P: December 2012

The trend is obvious. But we should not forget that this is incomplete data- these are only the games that transitioned from pay-to-play to free-to-play or buy-to-play. There’s no EVE, Final Fantasy XI, FF XIV 1.0, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online etc. And furthermore, these are only the games i consider- one could add games like APB, Hellgate and Fallen Earth, as well.

Still, it looks like subscription games transition to free- or buy-to-play quickly these days. When you consider ArcheAge – released in January 2013, free-to-play in July 2013 in Korea, there’s another game that didn’t even make 6 months as a subscription game.

Players being cautious of buying subscription games in my opinion is about as much a result of this as it is the unwillingness to pay a sub. If you bought TSW on release and subscribed those 5 months until it went buy-to-play, you spent 125€ (167$) up to that point- and then it went buy-to-play for 30€ (40$). When you did the same in SWTOR, you’d have paid about 190€ (250$) until it went free-to-play, although with SWTOR, the free-to-play option is so bad that a subscription is basically still the best way to play if you do so regularly.

So when you hear “i’ll wait for f2p”, that’s really just a result of past experience, because players don’t question if a game goes free-to-play anymore, they ask themselves when it’s going to happen. And whether it’s more viable just to wait for it to happen. I think it’s unfair to judge these players- maybe they feel betrayed with one of the last transitions.

Now, while i don’t feel betrayed- i made a choice, fully aware about the risk, my own gaming habits and so on- but i spent 250€ (335$ or was it 300€/402$?) on The Secret World- i bought the game and a Grand Master Pack. I do think Funcom made it still worth somehow, but the main reason for me buying the Grand Master Pack was so that i’ll have access to a sub-based game when i wanted to have access- instead of asking myself whether it’s worth to spend 15$ when i’d like to play TSW one evening/weekend. But the access is not restricted anymore, so….yeah.

Long live the sub

I’d really like to see the sub return- for one, i think it’s very good if players really have a choice- devs and “media” alike spin the free-to-play-phase of online gaming as being full of options, but in reality, when i don’t want to see an ingame store in my themepark MMO i’m out of options- except for Warhammer Online. Soon we’ll be able to add FF14 ARR to that list, and considering that the main market for this game is in Japan and free-to-play is not really big there, we can assume FF14 is going to stay sub based.

Then there’ll come Wildstar and TESO (probably), maybe ArcheAge. And it could work- it could even work well, if the devs and publishers finally stopped chasing World of Warcraft. When the devs stop pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of one game and stop expecting and/or trying to get millions of subscribers. When they know there’ll be a dip in player population and aren’t afraid to go and build up from there. And when they stick to their business model. Nobody’s waiting for EVE to go free-to-play, and that’s because it’s not likely to happen.

The rise and fall of free-to-play

It’s been predicted elsewhere, the impending doom for this payment model- and i tend to agree somehow. Going free-to-play used to be some kind of second chance and the numbers reported from the games that underwent the transition early after going f2p are always quite high- they double the subscriptions, quadruple the logins, triple revenue. But after some time, there’s always silence. I don’t think this is because the games are losing money 6 months after the transition, i think it might be because the numbers are getting more complicated- maybe the player counts are the same as before the transition, but the average of money spent in game has gone up. Or maybe it’s because player numbers and revenue went down compared to when the game in question was a sub game.

It’s odd, i can remember Daglar (from Rift) being in a podcast shortly after Rift went f2p. He said the numbers are way higher than they expected but he didn’t want to share those because the marketing departement was preparing an announcement regarding numbers and he didn’t want to spoil it. Funny enough, we still didn’t hear those numbers, the news of yesterday coming closest- and this is literally one sentence, without numbers.

I think we’ll see that free-to-play is not the saviour of MMORPGs in this or the coming year, when closures will begin to happen. Free-to-play used to be an USP, but now that everyone is f2p, it’s not anymore. One could argue that p2p is becoming a new USP, but those who use it that way should be aware that this is a pro-argument only for a minority nowadays.

Time to play

Funny enough, i think players like me are the problem here- and that’s one reason why i’d like to change my behaviour- when you look at the daily grind from massively where they asked how much time people spend daily on MMORPGs, i was surprised to see that many answered along the lines of “not as much as i used to” and “about 1-3 hours a day”. In the announcement article of Wildstars business model (many comments there), some commentors expressed their dislike for the sub model by saying that they played too many games to justify a sub for one game.

Combine these two statements- less total time spent in more games- and there’s the answer for MMORPG design these days. It’s not the devs, it’s us. Now, if we are happy with that, there’s no need to change anything. If we’d like to see the design philosophy of MMORPGs shift again, and many of us are looking for that one game that grabs their attention for years, we need to make a conscious decision that we want that kind of game- and stop worrying for the others.

We shouldn’t complain if MMORPGs are getting shallower with time, are experienced quicker, stop adding “meaningful” content (whatever this is to you) when we hop around in games like bunnies- when we make schedules regarding what game to play on what weekday. Of course developers will adapt to our behaviour, and some will even put it to good use, just like Arenanet does with Guild Wars 2. With their biweekly-living-story update, their game is in the news all the timePlayers like me read those news and begin thinking that they’ll miss something when they don’t log in and get the impression that there’s something going on all the time. GW2 has a good chance to get those casuals to log in at least on a biweekly basis. And the game’s perfect for that, there’s no sub fee, there’s only one toolbar and almost no text in the game. There’s no need to “catch up” to what you were doing last time, you can just go ahead.

I think, this shift in design might have opened up a niche: the game for players that only want to play one game- if the game in question can be that, the players won’t have any problem paying for a subscription again. And sub games have one advantage: nowadays it’s really refreshing to enter a game where you can unlock bank space without seeing any sign of being able to do so with a real money investment.

Conclusion

The subscription could be coming back- when the game in question is designed in a way to encourage a dedicated, longterm stay and the developer is aware that many will buy their game, some will try and “defeat” the game in 30 days, some will sub for one or three months after the initial 30 days of game time, many subs will be lost after 6 months and they are willing to build up from there instead of the number of sales and if they target their market well and stick to their design philosophy, there’s a good chance the subscription system can work.

And, i think it would help a sub game greatly if they remove the upfront cost of buying the game. EVE is 20€ when you start playing- that’s 5€ for the client/account and 15€ for a one-month sub. I think this is a good way to go- charge a sub, but give the client out for (almost) nothing.

If Wildstar or TESO will mark the return of the sub into MMORP gaming remains to be seen, though.

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