Updated Wed, Sep 12, 2012 by Shayalyn
And with that it’s become clear--MMO players expect new games to become free-to-play. Time and again they’ve seen subscription-based games launched only to witness a predictable timeline play itself out:
So far, Funcom’s subscription-based title, The Secret World, which launched in July, 2012, has played out steps 1-3, announcing layoffs in August. Lead Designer, Martin Bruusgaard, revealed his own separation from Funcom just yesterday, stating that 50% of the Funcom staff was laid off, with the company’s Oslo, Norway offices getting hit the hardest.
This information, coupled with the fact that The Secret World already has a cash shop, leads to some obvious speculation--will The Secret World hop on the free-to-play bandwagon as soon as its lifetime subscriptions have paid out? And, even more to the point, was The Secret World designed with that inevitability in mind?
We can only guess. Certainly, The Secret World has a perfect setup for a free-to-play conversion. Clothing in the game doesn’t possess stats, so it’s all just for looks in a game where looking cool matters. Players can, and do, already pay real-world cash for premium clothing and other vanity items on top of their monthly subscription fees. Funcom could also easily gate TSW’s instanced dungeons and other content as premium in the future. And should all this come to pass, it begs the question: why the initial monthly subscription fee? Why not launch free-to-play with a cash shop and premium features? One possible answer seems insidious, but it’s already cropping up in comments like this one from The Escapist forums:
“I'd say it's ... likely that the sub fee is there to milk the day one MMO tourists who flock to new titles for a month or two, then wander back to wherever they came from.”
If players suspect that this is the case, and the sentiment becomes more widespread, they’ll also conclude that using the player base to recoup development costs before converting to a free-to-play model is an unscrupulous business practice. Instead of free-to-play conversions appearing as a positive evolutionary step for an aging game, the fact that a game ever had a subscription at all could be viewed as a money-grab.
In the realm of subscription-based MMOs, one titan still stands strong, but even World of Warcraft gave a nod and a wink to the free-to-play gods when Blizzard announced that it would offer a free starter edition, allowing players to experience WoW up to level 20 with some restrictions. Despite this, it remains one of the last successful holdouts still collecting monthly fees by the millions, and its success in that department has never been replicated. Its only real contender is CCP’s EVE Online, but even EVE has an innovative system that allows dedicated players to purchase their monthly sub with in-game coin.
At the moment, there are no upcoming big budget MMOs that have announced a subscription-based payment model. Neverwinter will launch free-to-play, as will PlanetSide 2. Only The Elder Scrolls Online, which anticipates a 2013 launch, and WildStar have kept mum about their payment models so far.
In April of 2005, Guild Wars, an instanced multiplayer game (not quite an MMO) launched with a then unheard of payment model--players would buy the game client, and any subsequent campaigns, but the online gameplay itself would never require a subscription fee. That, coupled with the game’s playability, story, high production values and competition-style PvP, earned it a loyal fan base. Although it was overshadowed by the stratospheric success of World of Warcraft, Guild Wars remains a gaming success story.
Then, five years ago, ArenaNet announced the development of a successor to the Guild Wars throne--Guild Wars 2. Unlike its predecessor, Guild Wars 2 would be a fully fledged MMO, a massive theme park with a sprawling world and innovative gameplay mechanics including dynamic content, engaging combat, World vs. World, structured PvP, and multiple paths to earning experience that would reward players for nearly everything they did from exploration to crafting. And, like Guild Wars before it, we learned that Guild Wars 2 would require a box purchase but have no subscription fee. The game would include some microtransactions designed to provide vanity and convenience items, but their use would be entirely optional.
Guild Wars 2 launched on August 28, 2012, to critical acclaim. What’s more, we heard gamers everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that there would be no monthly fee to worry about at the end of a 30 day trial. ArenaNet, and Guild Wars 2 publisher NCSoft, announced at the official launch that the game had sold over one million copies prior to its 3-day preorder headstart, and experienced a peak concurrency of more than 400,000 players online at once.
With its launch, Guild Wars 2 set a new standard for what’s possible in a subscriptionless game. Gaming forums and social media alike are abuzz with players stating, in one way or another, that future big budget titles are going to have to work very hard to justify subscription fees. Will we see another successful pay-to-play title like World of Warcraft? The question remains unanswered, but all signs point to no--subscription-based gaming is dead and subscription-free, microtransaction-based games have begun their reign.