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The Death of the Monthly Subscription - Page 2

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:

  • 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.


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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