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The Death of the Monthly Subscription

Updated Wed, Sep 12, 2012 by Shayalyn

There was a time in the evolution of the MMO, around the beginning of 2009, when free-to-play games were shunned by Western gamers as low-quality, cartoony, badly translated Asian imports offering only two paths to leveling success--make pay-to-win microtransaction purchases or engage in an endless, mindless grind. Despite early successes like RuneScape and Maple Story, many old school MMO players believed that free-to-play meant you got what you paid for--a whole lot of nothing. It seemed that the Western market wasn’t ready for what Asia had embraced; we liked our games with subscriptions and none of that nickel-and-dime crap, thank you very much.

Then along came Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited. Turbine saw the promise in the free-to-play payment model and used it as a means to rejuvenate DDO. By going free-to-play, DDO Unlimited was inviting former players to return and new players to explore the possibilities, while rewarding the faithful--those who still had active subscriptions--with a thriving, invigorated player base. DDO Unlimited’s model allowed gamers to download and play the game for free, and then purchase adventure packs, items and services ala carte. Players who wanted to experience all the game had to offer could opt to become VIP members and pay a monthly subscription to gain premium access to all features.

DDO Unlimited screenshot

"I'm telling ya, man--free is the way to be!"

Turbine’s bold step worked, and we saw many games quickly follow suit, including The Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest II, Age of Conan, Champions Online, and DC Universe Online. Payment models varied from game to game, but all offered some variation on a theme--the client download was free, and other options were available via microtransaction or premium subscription.

Evolution ... or a Hallmark of Failure?

Soon, the MMO marketplace was awash in free-to-play converts--games that launched with a subscription, and eventually converted to a free-to-play format. Few mainstream MMOs, however, were created from the ground up with free-to-play in mind. Despite the success of games like SOE’s family-based Free Realms, not to mention an explosion in microtransaction-based social games like Zynga’s Farmville, big budget triple-A titles still commanded monthly fees. Until their subscription numbers waned, that is.

When Turbine launched DDO Unlimited in September, 2009, we applauded their ingenuity and celebrated their success in rejuvenating a game that had largely fallen off our collective radars. When The Lord of the Rings Online went free-to-play a year later, we acknowledged that it only made sense for Turbine’s other game, also based on a huge IP, to follow in DDO Unlimited’s footsteps. SOE’s EverQuest II was the next convert, and it seemed to work--suddenly there were more players in the game than ever. By this time, the gaming community had spotted a trend, and most deemed the conversion to free-to-play as a positive means to bring an aging game back to life.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when it happened exactly, but as more formerly pay-to-play triple-A titles converted to free-to-play a paradigm shift occurred. Instead of viewing the conversion of pay-to-play titles to a free-to-play model as a positive evolutionary step, we began equating it with failure. By the time BioWare announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic would convert to free-to-play this fall the tides had turned.

SWTOR screenshot

Is it getting lonely out there in a galaxy far far away?

With an estimated (though undisclosed) budget of $200-500 million, and a pre-launch fanbase dedicated to both Star Wars and BioWare, the announcement of a free-to-play conversion just over 7 months after launch looked like a hail Mary pass designed to keep SWTOR in the game despite what many perceived as a rapidly shrinking player base. The fact that this information came on the heels of May and July 2012 layoffs at BioWare, not to mention the departure of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Executive Producer, Rich Vogel, contributed to the overall appearance that BioWare wasn’t taking an evolutionary step, in the way that DDO Unlimited had, so much as admitting defeat.

Built to Be Converted?

Where Western gamers had once been content with their subscription-based games, equating a monthly fee with quality and regular upkeep (despite grumbling that MMO studios were releasing games that lacked one or the other, or often both), more recently we’ve heard a different song. On our own forums, and through social media, we’ve seen the same phrase time and again when talking about a new or upcoming release: “I’ll wait for it to go free-to-play.”

And about bloody time too. I like the idea of being able to download a client, play without the risk of squandering a box purchase, and then pumping in as much money as I feel the dev's deserve. That gives me the power back, putting in a much money as I feel is warranted, rather than being demanded to pay $15 a month, puts me in the drivers seat, rather than the cow whose udders a suckled form by the developers.

Its Sad i remember the day when people would pay to try something . You dont walk into a restraunt and say let me have my meal free and if i like it then i will eat here tomorrow... That way companies began to grow and become profitable. In todays world people expect things free or cheap and that leaves the game designers with what a mere handful of dollars ?

alright enough of that heres what the real truth is about mmos going FTP .... it will last about a few years then die out as more people join them suck the life outta the free and move on . They will not pay a red cent to the developer other than spam forums about how the game has changed over the years leaving the developer no choice but to close its doors. In the few years of FTP mmos there will be about 3% of the population actually using the cash shops which will amount to nothing in terms of comparing it to PTP.

Real Gamers will pay and support there favorite developers, the only thing FTP will create is more piss poor quaility MMOs and crap shoots as to which will survive the loss of cash. its hard to devote your time into a game and it shut down in a year . Look at the secret world for a example that game only sold 200k subs since then GW2 has severed the amount to a small handful . they release a PR blog called state of game and saying things are great and blah blah but ultimately they are trying to fiqure out a way to loophole the Lifetimes from sueing when they go free to play or what i believe will happen is a bankruptcy and a closure of there studio and this was brought on by who? yeap you got it the FTP broke gamers who want free.

if games go FTP it will cause the studios to lose what face they have as respectful designers, dont believe me go download runes of magic play it for a few hours then you realize how good wow is . then go try aion ,lineage2 or any other asian mmo then try Wow again and see how smooth the game differs then realize its because people pay for that quaility and with free well simply you get what you pay for.

A lot of games suffer because of the fickle gamers. A new game comes out. Hordes of gamers jump on the bandwagon. Including the sort who will power level through the game in a week and skip half the interesting content, and then whine about how there's not enough endgame content and quit a month later. Then they leap on to the next game and do the same.
I know people who have played 3 or 4 different MMO games in the past year. I played and enjoyed World of Warcraft for 4 years before deciding I didn't like the direction the game was headed in and moving on. Now after 9 months of SWTOR I'm still nowhere near getting tired of it.
I'm not convinced that the move to F2P is a good one. Of course I don't want a game I'm enjoying to die out and the developers have to make a profit. But from a player's point of view, I'd rather just see the existing player base condensed in to a smaller number of servers rather than trying to hard to cater to cheapskate gamers, who will be less committed to the game anyway.

Before any discussion should be clear what ACTUALLY mean "free-to-play". Or better, what grammaticaly SHOULD.

Usually games with cash shops are actually very expensive. Without using cash shops game experience is terribly crippled. First come in my mind experience with Rappelz years ago, for terribly crappy game with disgusting performanse at the end of first month have spent aprox 50$ per month before realising soon how stupid I was not to sub at that time to wow for *incredible* experience for silly ammount of aprox 13$).

At least by law games with cash shops SHOULD be forced to clearly say they have cash shops. I do not care if they advertise as "only cosmetics".

And we should also discuss difference between games that both claim to be "free" but some are also P2P, some allow to download client also for free.

Is 13$ a lot per month? Depend. If you smoke or drink probably you spend at least 5 to 10 times more.

But out there there are so many people that love anything free, even if crappy, causing cramps, stinking, .... just to be free. But worst tragedy at the end is, there is no such thing as being free. ALWAYS there is price to pay. Sooner or later. If later usually is more expensive.

I do not swim in money, but still will always prefer paying 13$ and up, let's say, 40$ per month, to have game that I can enjoy, meal I can enjoy. And that does not have any cash shops or alike.

So far my best are Swtor, Wow and Rift. Currently however enjoying pretty a lot GW2. Is free to play? Yep, I guess at least. Have cash shops but with difference compared to other game, have not found in cash shop so far anything that I would really need (ok, have spent 20€ additionally for 2 more slots, guess will spend 10 more). BUT GW2 it is also PAY to PLAY. Can this bee considered as free? There are many games, that are free to play and you can download also client for free.

No sub -> no real money investment in constant improving, quality, ... Soon if trends continue this way we will soon kiss for good bye quality mmo gaming. As Cyberquat said "If subscription dies, then so does the MMORPG genre".

Your article is full of colourfull information. I appreciate it very much. BTW, I think maybe I can share mines with you.in.
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