The Death of the Monthly Subscription

Once, free-to-play games were known as low quality Asian grind fests, but the tides have recently changed. Is the free-to-play coming to reign as subscription-based MMOs as we know them fade into obscurity?

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 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:

  • The game launches with much excitement to its energized fan base. The hordes of players at launch look promising, but...
  • As the 30-day trial period winds down, and before the monthly subscription fee kicks in, there seems to be a predictable drop-off in players, and this drop-off continues until...
  • The studio announces layoffs, stating that you just don’t need as many people to maintain an MMO as you do to make one in the first place, and then...
  • After any lifetime subscription benefits have paid out their dividends over the course of X months of gameplay, the studio will announce that the game is going free-to-play and present its new revenue model.
  • 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?

    TSW screenshot

    The Secret World's store already mimics free-to-play cash shops.

    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.

    A Dying Payment Model

    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.

    Play WoW for free! With some limitations.

    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.

    The Guild Wars 2 Effect

    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 screenshot

    It's a great big gorgeous world, and it's all subscription-free.

    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.

About the Author

Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.
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