This past weekend during PAX East 2013, it would have been next to impossible to miss the massive presence of WildStar in and around the expo hall. While the hall does continue to take on more of that gamer-Vegas feel you get from Prime or even E3, very little of that tends to spill out to the rest of the convention space, including its exterior. However, the bits that did couldnt help but grab your attention, many of which were squarely aimed at getting gamers pumped for the June 3rd release of WildStar.
During the annual Future of Online Gaming panel put together by our friends over at MMORPG.com, the panelists involved brought with them an interesting snapshot of how the MMO industry is beginning a slow transition into an era of true diversity. For the first time since the 2004 EverQuest II versus World of Warcraft showdown were seeing developers begin to take risks again, and shift aggressively away from the original EverQuest template thats largely been rubberstamped countless times over the past 15 years.
The last time we witnessed this type of diversity was just prior to the earthquake launch and aftershocks of World of Warcraft. Games like Auto Assault, City of Heroes, and EVE Online might never have existed had they been developed during that aftershock phase.
Getting back to the present and the MMORPG panelists, the list of games they represented consisted of a very interesting mix that harkens back to that era of creativity rather than basic iteration. The list consisted of:
- Pathfinder Online
- The Repopulation
- Warhammer 40,000
The majority presence represents a major shift towards sandbox games, and an equal shifting away from the subscription-based business model. In this regard, WildStar once again couldnt help but stand out from the crowd, much like it did for the rest of PAX East.
During the course of the panel, the inevitable questions regarding business model arose, and it was mentioned quite boldly that WildStar might be the last subscription-based triple-A MMOG we see. My gut reaction to that statement is that it clearly wont be, even if we currently lack enough information to prove that to be the case.
If you count WildStar in the mix, three of the biggest MMO launches within a year have all shifted back to the more traditional subscription model, two of them even boldly doing so on the next gen consoles. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, The Elder Scrolls Online, and WildStar may just prove that subscriptions arent nearly as dead and buried as many people might like to believe.
Were seeing software shift towards a subscription model in major ways, so in many ways its absurd to think that subs wont remain a staple in the MMOG industry. Online music, movie, and television services have all taken on a subscription model, not to mention such major services as Microsoft Office and Adobes Creative Cloud. Not only do these subscription services help course correct the decade plus of rampant theft of these products, but theyre actually easier on the consumers wallet since its far easier to account for a predictable amount of spend rather than larger intermittent purchases.
A major reason why subscriptions began to fall out of favor with MMO gamers in particular was due to the fact that the quality of services provided began to wane over time. It also creates a partial barrier for entry if you have to pay up front to decide if you want to invest your time in a given title. Even with the recently released TESO, you get 30 days of game time in the box but you still cant play until you set up a recurring subscription or register additional game time codes.
Another factor to consider is that the original generation of MMO gamers will not be the last, yet that is the audience most free-to-play titles attempt to capitalize on. If you started playing the original EverQuest when it launched while you were in high school or as a poor college student, all you could probably afford at the time was the recurring subscription. 15 years later that generation of gamers have grown up and began their professional careers, and in general have more disposable income to put into their favorite hobby.
A younger gamer just discovering the joys of MMO gaming today is able to play a far broader spectrum of titles than ever before, but theyre also far less likely to be one of the paying customers who are able to help fund further development of those games. And they certainly arent in a financial bracket that allows them to participate in the high priced alphas bundled into Kickstarter backer packages.
WildStar is really one of the first MMOGs since World of Warcraft that will appeal to a much broader age range. It has an insane amount of depth that will appeal to older or more mature gamers, but is wrapped in plenty of fun and graphical candy that it makes for the perfect game for families to enjoy together. In that sense, the subscription model is a perfect fit. If I were to make any suggestions to Carbine in relation to subscriptions it would be to offer a few tiers of family pricing to make it even more appealing to gaming households.
Only time will tell if WildStar is the last triple-A MMO to launch as a subscription service, but I dont believe that will be the case. Mind you, the announcement earlier this week that development has ceased on the World of Darkness MMO has muddied the waters of my crystal ball a bit, but Ill be shocked if the subscription era comes to such an abrupt halt in 2014.
Instead, what were more likely to see is major publishers realizing that jumping on the MOBA bandwagon isnt as lucrative as they expected, much the same way they threw their hat into the WoW ring a decade ago. The Kickstarter model also isnt very likely to be sustainable since it only provides an early injection of cash rather than the funding necessary to develop, launch, and maintain a triple-A title with hundreds of thousands of players.
Another thing mentioned during the same panel at PAX East is more likely going to be the next phase of business model: the hybrid subscription and micro-transaction model seen in games like EVE Online or EverQuest II. In fact, thats much closer to the model WildStar represents given that players will be able to earn CREDD to pay their subscription fees.