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SOE’s John Smedley: Subscription Model Dead

Oh $30 Internet Tank I love you so very much

Given that DC Online (day-job-pimping alert: and City of Heroes!) just went free to play, somewhat relevant!

There’s another large juggernaut coming out soon in Star Wars: The Old Republic from EA/Bioware. That’s a game that I think has a legitimate shot at a 2 million subscription user base and I believe they will stick with the subscription method. In my opinion this is going to be the last large scale MMO to use the traditional subscription business model. Why do I think that? Simply put, the world is moving on from this model and over time people aren’t going to accept this method. I’m sure I’m going to hear a lot about this statement. But I am positive I’m right.

I agree: SWOTR will be the last subscription MMO of consequence. Not having a free-to-play option limits your market too much. As an example: me! I occasionally play LOTRO, and feel no pressure not to come and go as whim strikes – but usually kick in a few bucks when I do. (Usually on a horse, because, hey, horses.) I doubt I would have ever actually bought World of Tanks (because really, it’s got one of the dumbest names in MMOs since the late much-lamented Yogurting) but this morning I just bought the best damn tank the People’s Republic of China has to offer.

Free-to-play works; for players and for developers. Now if we can just figure out how to get you people to stop talking about your genitalia on disposable accounts it’ll be golden.

  • I seem to recall Smedley’s been considering going F2P quite some time now. 

    I can certainly say I’ve refused to subscribe to MMORPGs for quite some time now.  Simple reason why: I don’t need the commitment.  Subscriptions made sense when you knew you were going to be committed to one MMORPG for lack of alternatives, but there’s hundreds of alternatives today. I know I’ll spend too little time spent playing each one to justify a flat x number of dollars per month. The micro-transaction model is nice because it pretty much assures I’ll only pay as much as I’m genuinely interested in playing. Zero desire to commit required (outside of friends who want you to play it with them) just like any other game.

    On the developer’s end, the F2P + Microtransaction model is nice because they’ll typically get 10x the players paying 15% as much on average (your results may vary) and everybody’s happy. Although there’s definitely an art to doing F2P micro-transactions right. For example, make micro-payments feel like unlocking DLC (which we’re already pretty much accustomed to seeing everywhere) or wholly cosmetic items. Wholly temporary boosts can work too, but not when they’re being used to give somebody an edge over you in PvP. Better to employ temporary boosts in something like experience, loot gains, or travel time reduction – things where players having different amounts of time to play has already demolished any balance there to begin with. If you do micropayments wrong, the customers will feel like they’re being gouged unfairly and this sours the fun of the game which is the whole reason they’re there to begin with.

    I would say that The Old Republic bombing will seal the subscription-model’s demise but, fundamental fact of the matter is, there will be a few developers who go for a monthly subscription model for quite some time. A reliable monthly income seems like the more secure option to them but it’s actually pretty dicey business, as a subscription model severely limits the aperture of players who will even try to play your game. In any entertainment industry, getting people to give your work a try is even more important to success than having the best product out there.

    • Jediblues

      I don’t get why people keep thinking the Old Republic is going to bomb. IMHO, it is a great game. Granted it may not be everyone’s cup of tea so to speak, but I wish people had enough self awareness to realize not liking a game does not mean it is a shitty game, it just means you don’t like it.

      I tend to think MMO’s of the future will fall into one of the two categories. You will have a small handful of big budget types that use subscription and everyone else will be freemium. The sad thing is right now freemium tends to equal not being able to retain subscribers after the first month. CoH being the exception of course.

      • It’s because their EA taskmasters have pretty much said that The Old Republic won’t be a success unless it has millions of subscribers, and very few western-made MMORPGs have ever had millions of subscribers.

        In fact, only two: World of Warcraft and (possibly, though I’ve yet to confirm this) Rift.  All the other millions-of-subscribers games you’ve heard of either got their millions when they stopped being subscription-based or are Eastern games in which a large bulk of their subscribers are actually cybercafes.  EverQuest was about 550k, tops.

        So the EA taskmasters have pretty much decided The Old Republic will fail before it’s even released.  Unless they manage to do something that only one or two western-MMORPGs have ever done in the history of all MMORPGs.

        (This, and everything I’ve heard from Old Republic beta tester leaks has been negative, but that’s highly subjective.)

        • Jediblues

          I’m in beta, and I love SWTOR. There was a poll recently asking how many people in beta planned to buy the game. It was a user poll not a Dev poll. 90 percent saidvyes they will. Unfortunately it is that other 10 percent that are willing to break the NDA and trash the game. The rest of us that actually abide by the NDA are unable to reply with actual facts like we want to. The game will hopefully be out in the next several months, and the veil will be lifted. For now all I can say is I can easily see a few million subscribers in the first 2-3 months as sordid mouth spreads.

        • Rift has never had millions of subcribers.  By the time they even hit a million box sales their subscriber base was already declining.

          From what I’m told, they’ve bottomed out and are now growing again, which is at least a good sign, but I’d be frankly shocked if they ever hit a million subscribers.

          SWTOR on the other hand should do it easily.

    • dartwick

       Great we really need another t59 whore zipping around.

  • mcl

    If I am patient and have the longevity I see the day where the MMO industry will be working on street corners for tips.

    Et un tractor:

    http://niimc.net/myPictures/david%20lairds%20fiat%20tractor.jpg

  • It’s a bit too early yet to be singing “the witch is dead”, but I welcome the decline, and if I could stake subs in the heart I would.

    As for SWTOR, I’d buy it if they sold it like Guild Wars.  As it is, they get nothing from me.

  • Michael Thies

    I really hate the free to play model and hope to god we start seeing some smaller companies sprout up making more niche market MMO’s, not trying to grab the WoW numbers like all the big companies are these days. 

    I have yet to find a free to play game that’s worth the time and effort to play.  The MMO’s that have gone free to play I get annoyed with because I really don’t want to be nickle and dimed to death buying bits and pieces.  I’d rather just pay the sub and be done with it.

    Its my hope that in another couple years we’ll start seeing REAL old school MMO’s begin to make a return under indie developers.  We haven’t had a good solid MMO released in years.  

    Ever since WoW came out, every MMO has been trying to grab the WoW numbers and it has destroyed what used to be a great gaming platform.  

    – I believe that not all players should be equal.  

    – I believe that MMO’s should not be soloable.  

    – I believe that MMO’s can not translate well onto consoles or mobile devices.

    – I want to see a persistant online gaming world that promotes and in spots requires teaming in order to advance.

    – I want to see pre-order items that are only ever available to those people who pre-ordered and not available later for purchase by those who want to pay for them.

    – I want to see players who spend all their time playing that one game and none other have a serious advantage in crafting or combat (or both) compared to the casual player.

    – I want to see a game where 1 or 2 players could be known as the greatest crafters on a server for specific items.

    All these things have been destroyed in the Hollywoodization of the MMO industry.  Every MMO has to be a blockbuster any more and its destroyed the core of what MMO’s used to be.  

    None of the games released in the last 4 years have been worth paying a subscription for, that’s why Free to Play is succeeding.  Players don’t have good new alternatives to put their sub money towards.

    • JuJutsu

      Oddly enough, I don’t want to see any of the things you want to see.

    • “I want to see pre-order items that are only ever available to those
      people who pre-ordered and not available later for purchase by those who
      want to pay for them.

      – I want to see players who spend all
      their time playing that one game and none other have a serious advantage
      in crafting or combat (or both) compared to the casual player.”

      Wow.

      Hello massive elitism.

      Talk about terrible game design AND terrible business design.

      I hope we never see another game with either of the above idiotic attitudes.

  • Fortunately, I believe we’re still a long way from ditching subs altogether in favor of F2P nickel-and-diming. There are plenty of MMG players (who aren’t college students) that like to pay their no-fuss $15 a month, even if they don’t play all that much. No one in their right mind is going to leave that reliable income stream on the table.

  • I disagree with most of your post, Michael, and it appears to be internally contradictory in parts. To seize on one of the interesting bits, however, I think you’re right that the market would be a lot more healthy if there were more niche MMO developers out there making games that were comparatively more expensive, but catered to more specific tastes. That said, for pragmatic reasons, I’m still not certain if subscription would be the way to go in those instances. A niche MMO developer could probably get a lot more bang for their meager marketing buck by making a game free-to-play: fewer people bouncing off the website/tutorial because the game has a very early pay wall equates to a much more active and healthy game.

    I think you’d have to resign yourself to those niche games being somewhat less epic in scope, however. It’s important that we learn from Vanguard’s mistakes. 🙂

    One of these days, I’d like someone (maybe even me!) to construct a timeline of the rise of the free-to-play business model in the West. I’m sure it didn’t have “noble beginnings” that were eventually warped by corporate interests or anything like that, but I’d still be very interested to see exactly when/where the aspects of the model that are very positive for players popped up, and when the abusive “nickel-and-diming” starting to take place (always?). Free-to-play isn’t inherently bad, it’s just that most companies don’t seem to understand or care about the parts of free-to-play that are actually good for the consumer, and thus they end up using it as a blunt instrument to extract additional cash from their customers.

    • dataferret

      @ddf6473042833900edc6cfbaa241c931:disqus An early pay wall is not a requirement of sub games.  You can very well do trial accounts and even unlimited time trial accounts without treading into F2P territory.  Of course, you can get into semantics and count a trial account in those instances as F2P, but if the only purchasable item is a sub, I’d call it a sub game.

      For indies, if you only have a single game which is your primary revenue generator, a F2P is an extremely dangerous game to play.  F2P relies too heavily on whales, which if your numbers are insufficient, any small amount of turnover can remove your cash flow.  From a business sustainability standpoint, market reach is extremely low on the priority list.

      Because you’re already dealing with a niche IP, retention and reacquisition is far more important.  This flies in the face of F2P where those two are the most expensive tasks and not worthwhile.

  • gx1080

    Honestly, with the success of the LOTRO change to F2P, was just a matter of time until everybody followed suit.

    And the “timeline” started with LOTRO, before it, F2P used to mean “Korean grindfest”.

    I predict that EVE Online will do the change on 2 years or less, WoW in the next expansion.

    Myself? Playing LOTRO, uninstalled Champions for being a bug-ladden mess, not having nearly enough free Archetypes and feeling small on the pants against free-form players (aka the only real reason to buy a suscription to that game) and have City of Heroes loaded and ready for the F2P launch.

    EDIT: The timeline started with DDO, but DDO was so instanced that the suscription just wasn’t worth it. LOTRO was the real risk.

  • Naladini

    F2P games can and likely will still have various types of recurring costs for players.  I think the point is that you shouldn’t need to front a subscription cost to access the gameworld. When you cross that barrier, you open yourself up to a much wider audience.

    The goal is to try to have cake and eat some of it too:  If 10,000 people pay you $10 and 100,000 people pay you $1 all in a given month, its twice as much as the “either / or” scenario that opponents of F2P try to paint the game into.

  • Rburger

    You’re a sellout, Scott. You sold out on Sandbox when you got a job with Mythic. Yes, many of us remember how you made the exciting post about “friends” taking you through some “End Game” and it opened your eyes, a few weeks before you announced your new job with Mythic. Not that I blame you, it’s just that we need to see the facts involved in all of this if you’re going to do this hack thing.

    Now, you’re selling out on the subscription model too. Now, lets look at that model and the effects of it. First, we have a recent industry report saying that cash shops are overtaking the subscriptions overall. And there’s balloons and party poppers to go with it. But look at the numbers of FtP games over the numbers of subscription games. As just about every new game, and many old ones, go FtP the dominance of that model is staggering.
    And yet, they only now are showing more revenues? What’s that leave them on a per game basis? Is this a healthy model?

    And what does that lead to as far as quality of the products? When FtP games are more interested in quantity of cash shop sales as opposed to quality of game?

    On a side note on that report, I suspect that WoW’s pony sales had a lot to do with it too. Not to mention everyone else’s cash shops, FtP or not.

    Looking back, we saw a couple of games switch from subscriptions to FtP, selling cash shop goodies, and offering subscriptions also. They both made a big deal right after their respective switches, how great they were doing, based on statistics that really didn’t tell anything about profits. And since then, nothing. No boasting about growth, profits, or even the revenues they used at first. Their message boards don’t inspire confidence by their activity, either.

    There’s certainly a place for FtP, or a combination along with a subscription offer. That place is primarily with failing games and cheaper products. Because it really doesn’t work as well as this industry wants to promote.

    This industry, trying to save face as it is, won’t change anything. The Themepark model is just as boring now as it was before your assimilation, just as you used to say back in the day. WoW created a great product for the time, and it’s maintained most of it’s subs because there really wasn’t much competition. But even that is showing it’s cracks. You may be right about SWTOR being the last. But that’s only because this industry seems incapable of doing anything else.

    • gx1080

      Hey, douchebag, what do you want? Trying to get a suscription from most people, specially a second one (after their omniprescent WoW suscription) has been proven over and over and over to be a fool’s errand, SPECIALLY on a recession.

      This isn’t fault of the developers or the companies. Yes, WoW was buggy at launch, but this isn’t 2004 anymore. People won’t stand for the “growing pains” of a product when they can play the older, established, more polished MMOs. With a F2P model, at least they have an incentive to stay. The companies are just adapting to that fact. And even older products, facing an ever-dwindling playerbase, are getting on the ride too.

      • Jeff Rawlings

        Actually MMO’s are a fairly cheap form entertainment in a recession. $15 bucks buys a month of gaming. Compare that to a night at the movies.  If you happen to find a game you truly enjoy playing, it is quite a bargain indeed. 

    • Hyu

      “You’re a sellout, Scott.”
      lololololol

  • Lenin

    I think the real problem at this point — FB be damned — is that people are losing interest in computer games, PERIOD.  The fact they’re going increasingly casual and FtP is the salting of the earth that will only help them fall off the precipice of the collective ADD attention span.  Yes, finally, after 20 years of trying, the games industry broke through to that mass market it was always wondering about and thinking must be out there.  But look what it’s sacrificed to get there: everything interesting and unique to the medium.  Now, it’s either chasing Vegas or Hollywood, and providing rudimentary but convenient seemingly “interactive” but actually totally supercilious tidbits of both or either.

    Games are dead as a medium; they never got very far before money drove ’em to the ground, and now, the corpse is just being elaborately embalmed on Facebook.

  • Adythiel

    I don’t think we are really getting away from subscription models at all. If you look at all these games that have made the F2P jump of late, you get _some_ content for free. If you want to actually play the game as it is intended you still have to fork over the $15 a month. If you choose not to sub, you get nickled and dimed to death to get the cool content being offered. The F2P model is nothing more than an unlimited duration trial for the game.

  • hortinone

    There will always be demand for a $15 (in adjusted dollars, anyway) per month, all-you-can-enjoy gameplay, but I’m starting to doubt whether there will be a supply.

    The reason I say that there will always be a demand for non F2P is that F2P games suck. There’s no gentler way to put it. In a theoretical exercise where money is no object, almost any game that is F2P can be made better by having all its gameplay elements available to all players through some progression or choice. And those are the better games. The ones that are inextricably built to sell items are what we would have, a few years ago, called by the less nuanced descriptor “terrible.”

    You may think this is a subjective opinion without merit, but it’s an opinion with a significant amount of money behind it. The problem for the future of the sub model is that the investment required to make an sub game and the investment required to make a F2P game is more or less identical. Therefore, if F2P games always make more (except in the case of home-run market leaders early in their lifespan) whether or not there will be *any* sub games will be more or less hinge on one or two decisions by those aspiring market leaders.

  • UnknownSubject

    Here’s the major problem with subs: the vast, vast majority of players only have 1 sub-based title on the go at once. If you choose to go sub-based, unless you are the single sub game on a player’s PC, then you aren’t even in the running to earn money from them. On top of which to start playing most games still require a box sale, making most sub-based games buy-to-play-the-sub-to-play which isn’t as cost effective up front as F2P.

    So, is the MMO you are developing the best (maybe second best will do) sub-based MMO on the market, or the only one that caters to a large-yet-particular group of players? No? Then prepare to fire all your staff and shut your offices down, because you aren’t going to keep a large enough player base to keep your game viable.

    hortinone: Why $15 a month? Why not $10? $20? Just because $15 is the standard price now (and has been for about 10 years iirc) doesn’t mean it will always be at that amount.

    Saying there will “always” be a demand for sub-based gaming might be true, but it’s like saying there will “always” be demand for flight simulators or wargames – the demand might exist, but it isn’t enough to be worth funding a major title to try and meet that demand.

  • Boanerges

    I see F2P as the new online economy. Consider Zynga and their games. They’re all free but with premiums to make them easier. And that seems to be the way to go. Lure them in with free and let those who want extras (like Lum’s horse, where he can now gallop to victory instead of taking a taxi) pay for them. F2P seems to be taking hold in numerous multiplayer arenas with one major rule stipulation: paid things can’t change the game so drastically that the people who don’t pay can’t ever get there. Team Fortress 2 (Multiplayer FPS) went F2P last month. Consider League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. Same genre but HoN required a $30 up front purchase. LoL is F2P with unlockables and skins. HoN went F2P a couple of months ago. They can’t keep up with LoL. Sound familiar?

    Nobody can touch WoW and if you charge a sub and flub your opening you can kiss any playerbase goodbye. But consider that a F2P game might merely be seen as immature and players might come back later. And with the barriers lowered to free, there’s a good chance that new blood will come around here and there to keep things interesting. I think Smed is right and F2P is the future of online multiplayer (for all but the top tier). Maybe charge for the client but that’s it.

  • Anthony

    Not every cable channel can be HBO.

  • smakendahed

    I’m curious to see whether Blizzard’s next MMO will go sub or F2P…

  • Talorc

    Given your profession, can you claim the virtual tank as a business expense on your taxes?  (research and all that)

    Because that would be awesome – claiming the purchase of a virtual version of the best damn tanks the Chinese commies made on your capitalist tax return.

  • I think it is a little premature to call subscription-based gaming dead.
    There is also The Secret World to consider, a game that is creating a
    lot of hype and may have the potential to upset the balance a little.

    I completely agree that F2P is here to stay and will continue to be a
    growing force, but I sincerely doubt subscription model is “dead”. Ask
    yourself, if Blizzard were to release their new MMO, codenamed “Titan”
    for now, within the next three years, would you not gladly pay
    subscription to see what they have in store?

  • Ahahahahahha!! I got you to play WOT 🙂

    But I’d say I spend much more on WOT than any other game.  With my busy schedule, WOT is the only suitable game for me, short, no commitment and fun.

  • Carson Wilson

    I dunno – I think because some games couldn’t sustain enough players to justify a subscription model doesn’t mean that model is dead… I think it’s more indicative of players not “putting up” with games that are simply less engaging.

    For example, CoH, DCUO, LOTRO and many others didn’t start as F2P. However, they could not maintain enough audience interest to stay profitable at the subscription model. This tells me that people are essentially voting with their dollars and saying – hey you’re game isn’t worth X$/month so goodbye.

    So these gaming companies in an effort to, you know, not go bankrupt, said  – why not try our game for free? And if you like it enough you can, at your option, take a few QoL improvements or enjoy this or that content for a tiny one time fee. We know you don’t like our game enough to make any kind of commitment to it, but maybe you’ll toss us a bone if you like this little bit.

    I think games that ARE engaging enough, have a high enough quality and so forth will get the regular monthly dollars. Let’s face it, $15 a month isn’t a whole lot as someone above was saying. In Canada, at least, it’s 11$ to go to a movie and forget about popcorn or anything else. That’s maybe two hours of entertainment.

    If I spend $15 and get more than two hours entertainment over the entire month then I figure I’m ahead. I’d rather pay a flat fee and know what I’m getting than getting nickle and dimed to death.

    Bottom line, to me, if you make a game good enough / appealing enough / compelling enough to enough people then congrats on maintaining your subscriptions. If you don’t, then hey go F2P, ask for hand outs and claim the pricing model is dead because clearly it couldn’t be the product you’re selling.

  • Triforcer

    True to form, Warhammer will be the last on the bandwagon.  Its a shame, because that’s the game I’d be most likely to play if it was F2P- LOTR never grabbed me. 

    • They have the unlimited free trial thingy, but literally every 5 minutes or so a window pops up encouraging you to buy the game.  After about an hour of that shabby experience I figured they didn’t really want me trying out the game for free and uninstalled it. 

  • Calelari

    I figured Lum would be all about buying virtual pants, not horses.

  • Sok

    I dislike the a la carte payment model as it’s *typically* implemented, mostly because I don’t know if a particular pain point is simply a flaw in the game or a deliberate attempt to wheedle money from me. Running with the horse example (presuming it has a movement rate effect rather than a “something I can pretty up with barding” effect):

    Let’s say playtesters of Fantasy MMORPG note that, after level 20, it’s slow and dull moving from your home base (quest hub, main market, etc.) to your average adventure location. Possible solutions:

    1) Increase base movement rate after level 20,
    2) Move everything closer together,
    3) Charge $5 per month for a mount so that you can move around faster.

    In other words, the developers deliberately make their game irritating in this-or-that spot in order to entice me to pay money to overcome that spot. I’d just rather pay a flat box fee + subscription rate and realize that “hey, this part of the game sucks” rather than wonder, “am I just not paying enough for the leveling curve/movement speed/DPS to be fun?”

    I think there are a la carte models that can work just fine — pay-per-zone, pay for cosmetic fluff, etc. I don’t particularly *like* them, having a fondness for the Magic Circle that I do, but I can accept them.

    I’m not saying that, economically speaking, developers shouldn’t go this route, much like I can’t say Zynga’s route to success was objectively ‘bad’. It’s just a route I don’t particularly like.

  • Whatev

    I’m of the opinion that the “doubloon model” is the way to go.  Most of the problems with the normal cash shop model can be overcome in this system because there’s no need to create “traps” to get people to spend money–you can just tax every significant action a small amount instead.  If you were to do this with a straight cash shop, the free playerbase would revolt right away, since they’d be unable to play, but with an open market for RMT those real money costs just get converted to a game currency price according to player bids.

  • Vetarnias

    I know that you’re sort of expecting me to lecture you on “the sanctity of the game world”.  That’s being thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper now (if anyone still read newspapers, that is).

    I’ll take a stab at explaining the advance schadenfreude regarding The Old Republic.  You take everything that is wrong in film and blend it with everything that is wrong in computer games, and what you get is Old Republic.  It might turn out to be a decent game, and I can’t judge specific design points because I didn’t really pay attention to its recent developments (as I’m not planning to play it), but consider its ballooning budget, all the hype (even negative) surrounding it, and Geldon’s mention that it will need to break sales records just to make a profit.  Also consider that you don’t get TOR without a cost — I don’t mean money, I mean a cost to the history of MMORPG’s; I mean the mandatory plug-pulling on Galaxies because LucasArts’ contract with SOE was running out in 2012.  I’m not expecting those MMORPG’s to last forever, but what you get here is planned obsolescence.

    Those who expect TOR to fail might be wrong.  It might be a success as far as the gameplay is concerned. It might even be a succès d’estime among gamers and the press.  But what it won’t be is a runaway financial success, and it won’t save a flagging industry.

    The industry’s mistake was to attempt to follow Moore’s law as closely as possible, building on a logic seemingly borrowed from game consoles: more planned obsolescence in the name of better profits.  Still holds true for consoles: they’re already at work on the next generation because — because that’s how you keep stockholders happy.  But let’s not address consoles; is it also true for games played on computers?

    You buy a console, you demonstrate that you have some disposable income that you’re willing to spend on video games.  You have a computer, you demonstrate that you have some income, but it otherwise offers no indication as to whether it’s for playing video games, downloading movies with the full written consent of the copyright owner, or spending hours of fun in Excel.  But game studios not only came up with the spurious equation “computer = gamer”, they’re expecting you to have no qualms about getting a new computer just so you can play their latest games. That might have been a reasonable assumption five years ago, but not in the middle of a recession.

    It still doesn’t answer the question: Who is pushing that sacrosanct quest for better graphics?  Gamers? Sure, if you offer them more bells and whistles, they’ll take them; and now that they have been expecting more bells and whistles, they’re disappointed when you don’t deliver them.  I’m tempted to lay the blame at the feet of game studios themselves; it’s as though they sought to legitimize their industry by enlarging it to the point where developing a state-of-the-art game requires hundreds of people and costs dozens of millions.  TOR is the typical product likely to result from such a system: an ultra-safe game based on an existing franchise with a following. It’s like the movies all over again.

    At least games differ from film in one key respect: it’s still possible for one guy to create an entire game that may enter the mainstream.  It’s closer to vanity publishing: the odds are against him, but that’s still possible  (Minecraft, for instance).  In comparison, the money you’d spend on the most extravagant promotional campaign for your print-on-demand bodice-ripping masterpiece would not even be enough to produce a made-for-television film.  That’s assuming you found a distributor. So independent game producers are not exactly in the same tight spot as independent filmmakers, which also means we’re spared all that elitist hipster crap about endorsing stuff so obscure that it’s not playing in a 200-mile radius from where you live.

    What seems to be happening in video games, however, is a cleavage between expensive mainstream “hardcore” games, which everyone from Yahtzee to the fine video game experts at Cracked.com argue are losing their complexity in favour of railroading the player, and inexpensive mainstream casual games à la Zynga that don’t even bother with depth.  Mainstream versus mainstream, wonderful dilemma.  And to think that some want to call it Art.

    Then there is the corruption of the independent by the mainstream.  For instance, it is painful to look at recent Minecraft developments: what I’m seeing is a game slowly getting “mainstreamized” now that a release date has been set.  That’s in two months, but there are so many loose ends in the game that tying those that currently exist would alone take six months.  Instead, Notch & Co. are still adding new features — they’re planning NPC’s now, something entirely new, something that should be essential to the game, but it’s been two years of development without NPC’s and now there are just two months ahead.  What will ship, if they stick by that date, will perhaps not be broken, but we’ll probably be looking at dozens of features that might have been but were never fully realized. I’m expecting a major disappointment. I already utterly refuse to play this game in single player, as it is aimless; in multiplayer, at least, you can collectively interact with your game world and create your own adventures.  

    It’s rather bleak now.  All I can find that is decent and free of mainstreamitis is stuff like Dwarf Fortress, which unfortunately does exhibit some of the tech-elitist tendency that is the closest counterpart to hipster appreciation (and appropriation) of independent films, and some of the free games on Kongregate.  But do we really want that to be the future of original game creation: student projects done in retro 8-bit and a donation jar? Might as well return to making silent short films of trains approaching and expecting the audience to pay for the privilege of reminding itself that people used to duck watching films like those.

    To go back to the subject at hand: yeah, I agree with Smedley that the subscription model is probably dead.  Various reasons for that:

    1) As others pointed out, you’re likely to just subscribe to one MMO at a time, and WoW won this.  Not because it’s better than the competition; because the mindless drones get excited at the word “Blizzard”.  

    2) Too many snake oil salesmen ruined it.  Back in the day, you might have been willing to subscribe to a game sight unseen, but there have been too many cases of games that have been delivered buggy, unfinished, and unable to stick to their own system requirements for any self-respecting player to indulge in such a leap of faith now.  And you can’t return the game.  The last time I fell for it was for Warhammer Online, and I have two words: never again.  Give me a demo, perhaps, not only to get a feel of the interface, etc, but just to see if the damn game can run at all on my system. Hell, you might even be better off by making the game available free of charge but limiting it to a few levels before charging for a subscription.

    3) The same snake oil salesmen figured out that if you liked the game enough to retain your subscription, you’d like it enough to pay for additional perks, doing away with the sanctity of the game world that was the sole major advantage of subscription.  Out went principles, in came the celestial horsies and monocles.  Who’d want to subscribe knowing that they would be expected to shell out even more money to get access to all the game’s content?  When Bronte says: “Ask
    yourself, if Blizzard were to release their new MMO, codenamed “Titan” for now, within the next three years, would you not gladly pay subscription to see what they have in store?”, I’m tempted to cynically retort: you mean the cash shop they’ll have on top of the subscription?

    4) Some games just aren’t worth paying $15/month.  They can be fun, addictive, etc., but you ask yourself: “is it worth paying that much?”, and you just can’t answer it in the affirmative.  I’ve heard it often about Pirates of the Burning Sea, but the example that comes to mind is DDO.  There is a good game underneath all the instancing, but it was not worth paying a subscription for it. Evidently, lots of people agree.

    Still, something is being lost.  When Michael Thies writes “I believe that not all players should be equal”, I have no problem with that, provided that the inequality isn’t rooted in the fact that Player A could buy himself the Armor of the Most Plusses on sale for 29,999 credits while Player B could not (or would not).  Skill, not budget, ought to make the difference. So my ideal model would be a game which offers both subscription and free-to-play servers. If you play on the free servers and like it, you could be encouraged to switch to a subscription server. But I don’t think that choice is likely to be offered by those who want to bilk players at all costs; the advantages of subscription are likely to be too apparent.

    For my part, I think I’m done with “free-to-play” MMOs, and I can’t really afford a subscription, so that settles it.

    • Jediblues

      Again, I have actually played the game for a length of time. I’ve been in a fair amount of betas, but I’ve never had so much fun playing an mom. They already have close to 500k preorders. I’ve looks forward to several mmorpgs over the years, never have I preordered one. I think over the first several months after launch people will come. I can easily see it getting a couple million subscribers. Of course this is just my opinion. You and Geldon have yours. All we can do now is sit back and watch, timecwill reveal who was right and who was wrong.

      • Jediblues

        Damn my iPad’s auto correcting ways lol…mom= mmo.

  • I like the subscription model.  I don’t like John Smedley.

  • Sinij

    John Smedley wishing for more lucrative payment model to become mainstream does not make it so. Pay-per-play is a wet dream for these guys because it does not have upper bound on how much they can charge. Sure, facebook games have to go this route because nobody going to pay monthly fee for what they offer. For things that can justify monthly fee, people prefer monthly fee.
     

    • For a game that people KNOW they’ll be playing actively, that might be true, but that’s missing the point entirely.

      F2P isn’t about pleasing the core customer that only wants to play your game, because in a crowded MMO marketplace, it’s becoming more difficult to find those people.  WoW may be the last MMO that ever captures the majority of the market.

      As the market fragments, it becomes more lucrative to lure in a large number of non dedicated players who will blow twenty or thirty dollars in enhancements and upgrades, then move on after a few months, hopefully to return a few months later for another taste.

      I don’t think that SWTOR is definitively the last subscription MMO, but I think that subcription MMOs will henceforth be limited either to those with a true AAA budget and following, or those games that are so niche that they can’t rely on “grazing” from the MMO mainstream to thrive.

  • John Smith

    I wouldn’t sing that song or dance just yet. People forget that the reason f2p makes so much money is because it is essentially an illegal gambling racket. The F2p model is going to be dead when the korean government decides they are sick and tired of being jerked around by having gaming companies bypassing gambling laws through loopholes like virtual currencies.

    http://www.thisisgame.com/go/2011/09/21/whats-speculative-and-whats-not/

  • gx1080

    Ah, I just remembered it:

    Lum, would you tell to the CoH guys that having to pay money for Controllers and Masterminds if you are F2P is stupid? Thanks.

  • Vetarnias

    @John Smith

    About gambling: The last bona fide MMO I played was Uncharted Waters Online, Japanese-made but published in the West by a Korean company called Netmarble (which has now brought gPotato on board as well). The cash shop started out okay, just boosts to ship speeds and so on. Then they started bringing in “investment bonds” that allowed you to buy bonds to invest in cities and turn them over to your country — so yeah, that was pay to win, even though flipping cities was more a matter of national prestige than something which gave your nation any real advantage.  Then they really brought matters to a head when they started adding prizes of -one billion ducats- in bonds for their lottery tickets, thereby ruining the investment aspect of the game (to put this in perspective, a multiboxer claimed he was making maybe 150 million a day running spices).  That’s when I left.

    But the most pernicious aspect of the lottery scheme was those items which weren’t offered for independent purchase. Bonds were, but some of the special ships were only available through the lottery.  You had, if I remember, a 2% chance of getting the ship, and every ticket cost the equivalent of $2 — so, an average of $100 was required to get the ship. There was an anecdote of a guy buying 80 dollars’ worth of tickets and never getting the ship.  What he got instead was a couple of billion ducats in bonds; he wrecked the investment competition in the town of Bremen.  Finally, the company backtracked on bonds as lottery rewards because of mounting player complaints, but as for exclusive lottery rewards, they did it again with special shipbuilding permits.  I had quit the game by then, but the players also started complaining when it was revealed that getting the 28 permits to completely modify your ship required at least $150 in lottery tickets. Oh, and the permits are not tradeable.

    A lottery system like that is gambling, and I think it’s about time governments paid attention to this; even if the scheme is legal in the home country, they’re offering the service abroad, and should respect those laws as well.

    In the case of UWO, some players have asked for a subscription server, but this has fallen on deaf ears so far. Instead, gPotato preferred to run a contest where participants has to post a “review” at MMORPG.com (ostensibly without the consent of that site, since the reviews were removed); I’d be gratified if that had been to act as a counterweight to my own older review posted there, which is, er, not quite laudatory. I think it will have been my last MMO for a while, unless I can find something unpretentious and fun.

    @Tim Sims

    “I don’t think that SWTOR is definitively the last subscription MMO, but I think that subcription MMOs will henceforth be limited either to those with a true AAA budget and following, or those games that are so niche that they can’t rely on “grazing” from the MMO mainstream to thrive.”

    But what does that mean for MMO budgets? You can’t justify increased budgets for a game that you now know won’t be the “WoW killer” messiah that you used to look forward to.  Niche games won’t be AAA and might as well be lumped in with Zynga, so they don’t count.  What will be the consequences for those AAA games? Will they risk releasing with sub-par graphics to reflect their hopefully more modest budget?  Or will the obsession with graphics continue?  If so, where will they cut instead? Salaries? Staff?  Secondary features?

    I don’t know what’s the latest budget estimate for TOR now; I remember reading figures ranging from 80 (Pachter’s estimate, so I doubt it) to 300 million (EA Louse).  Will it be the MMO equivalent of “Avatar” or “Cleopatra”, I don’t know, but if it’s the former, I doubt anyone will treat it as anything other than a non-recurring phenomenon, and if it’s the latter, it will have killed off expensive AAA MMO’s for a while, maybe a decade.

    Not that it matters; mainstream MMO’s have ceased to be original for a few years now. It’s always franchises, nothing new, like the rest of video gaming where it’s all about “FPS with numerals”.  So “Random Science Fiction Setting with Lasers not Owned by George Lucas” would never have had a budget in the eight or nine figures; perhaps not even seven.

  • Oz

    I’m only surprised it took this long.  And as I said to
    some old old gaming friends last month, I cannot believe EQ1 still is not
    F2P. 

     

    Back in 2009 when Free Realms launched, I posted a somewhat
    harsh review of the beta on our site.  Smed sent me an email and we had a
    very polite exchange of ideas.  While he was never able to convince me,
    even then he was very firm in his idea that F2P (microtransaction model, as we
    called it then) was the way to go for the future.  2 years later, almost
    every MMORPG is running that model, some with better financial success than
    when they were subscription based (DDO, and to a lesser extent, LoTRO, being
    the prime examples).

     

    While not a fan of F2P, to me it seems the microtransaction
    model is screamingly popular because it allows the perception of choice. 
    Instead of paying $10/month for everything, and then perhaps complaining about
    things you got you didn’t need, you now can pick and choose.  This works
    well because many people (my immediate family are perfect examples of this)
    fail to count all those little purchases and look at how much they actually
    paid. When you look back and see you made 20 $0.99 purchases you might feel
    silly, but how many times are you going to do that when you spread those
    purchases out over a month or two?   And then of course there are the
    massive amount of microtransaction items that are strictly cosmetic or
    performance enhancing.  The latter was a shady underground before; gaming
    companies have just internalized what was previously handled in a more
    secretive way. 

  • I do not see the difference in effect on my gameplay between “pay as you go” play and just not banning gold sellers.  I’m not talking about the hacking of accounts… just the shared world gameplay itself.  It seems either way you end up with an economy where your own play and effort is marginalized.  You either buy the sparklies to keep up with the people who are doing so or you accept a lower tiered wall you cannot cross.

    While it’s possible to have a free to play model where players aren’t in effect paying for a faster leveling pace or better stats/gear… I am not sure anyone is actually using that model (model being nothing but cosmetics or options).  

    For a short term game f2p is great, but for something more social where you plan to stick around longer… I hate being the guy who has to tell Rich he can’t raid with us unless he spends $100 on gear upgrades and/or dungeon content.

    I see how the model works, but I think their will always be an available niche for the subscription model as long as their are people who prefer it to the typical f2p model.  Just because someone makes a ton on Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t mean you aren’t making money developing Borderlands 2 and the same will likely prove true for MMOs.  You don’t have to sell millions to make a regular profit if you can control your scope, budget, and expectations.

  • Brask Mumei

    I hate being the guy who is told he can’t raid because he hasn’t spent 100 hours on grinding for gear.

    The problem is the gate, not the method used to pass the gate.

  • Sinij

    Subscription design ideology is to keep most players entertained for longest possible time before they quit in boredom by designing captivating experience
    and through it encouraging feeling of investment/achievement. If
    players poorly tolerate some aspect of your design, you are expected to
    reduce to tolerable level or remove it.

    MT design ideology is to keep most players annoyed for longest possible time before they quit in frustration by designing barely-tolerable experience
    to encourage MT use to get around cock blocks . Initial “honeymoon”
    stage of the game to get player invested is similar to subscription
    design ideology. If players poorly tolerate some aspect of your design
    you are expected to make it completely unavoidable and put workaround
    into cash-shop as on-going expense.