In a recent interview with ign.com the game director of Guild Wars 2, Colin Johanson, said the following.
“It takes some serious balls to jump into the MMO industry and go after it. You’re basically betting your company any time you decide that the thing you’re going to make is an MMO. They take so long to make, and they take so much money that either you’re successful and you’re going to do really well, or you’re not and your company’s toast. If you have a really big backer, maybe you can survive that but it’s a huge risk.”
Johansson is of course right. However lately there has been a trend within many gaming communities to promote and argue the idea that the era of the subscription mmo is over.
The two arguments
There seems to be two main arguments for the death of the subscription mmo era.
The first is that since there are several free to play mmos out there today, players have come to expect to play mmos for free. Competition has driven down the possibility for taking a monthly subscription fee and the market simply won’t support this model anymore.
The second argument seems to be the examples of the recently launched mmos, originally planned to be following the subscription model, but since then was forced to go free to play. And there are some good examples here.
As Kate Cox over at Kotaku notes,
“All of Sony Online Entertainment’s titles, including EverQuest and its successor, EverQuest II, are now without a subscription fee. City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online haven’t required a monthly charge in several years. DC Universe Online saw a 700% jump in revenue when it became free.”
Guild Wars 2 is of course another example of a successful free to play mmo game.
While some clearly makes a compelling case for this opinion, there is another side.
The first of these arguments has a serious problem. It’s very hard predicting what the public and the mmo players will and will not pay for. It’s easy to claim that people simply won’t pay a monthly subscription fee anymore, but it’s harder to back that up. Sure the market has shown these tendencies the past couple of years, but this can easily change.
The history of gaming is full of success stories that turned things upside down, and this goes way beyond World of Warcraft. When the original Starcraft game was released the market was crowded with competition. Great rts games like Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Settlers, Total Annihilation, games from the Star Wars series and a little later Cossacks and Empire Earth. Little did anyone know what a massive hit the original Starcraft games would be. But no one furthermore knew that this small game would, in many ways almost singlehandedly, create the progaming and esport scene and set its tone for decades to come. Just as World of Warcraft, Starcraft changed the entire gaming industry.
In the light of this, who are we to say what gamers want, in these kinds of macro terms?
The market side of this first argument is equally flawed. Yes there is more competition in the mmo scene today but with examples like World of Warcraft and EveOnline, with almost 10 million unique subscribers every month combined, is it really logical to presume that there is no more space on the gaming market for additional subscription mmos? Is it impossible to imagine a new great subscription based mmo, attracting customers both from todays subscription scene and free to play scene? It doesn’t seem to be any real reason to make such a claim.
What about the second argument from the free to play enthusiasts. Recently we have seen several mmos fail. Some failed big. Huge even. Is this a proof there’s no room for success? Does these recent failures (let’s not forget that most of these happened the last couple of years) show the hope is forever lost on the subscription mmos?
A comparison would be one of Apples worst product failures in history, The Macintosh Portable. Does the failure of the Macintosh Portable, and several other laptops of that era, prove the laptop market to be an impossible one to make a real impact on? Does the difficult laptop market at the time prove that laptops forevermore must be free and that the consumers arbitrarily will reject all other laptops? The answer is of course no.
I would say on the contrary. It is the failures of today that builds the expectations of things to come tomorrow.
If you are to make one general claim for all gamers, except of course that most of us love gaming, it seems to be the following; Gamers will pay a reasonable and often even a slightly higher price then expected, for a great gaming experience. Take a look at the hardware we buy, our equipment, the LAN’s we visit, the new gaming consoles we buy and all the games we already bought.
We will pay. That’s it.
If the game is good enough the communities of gamers will support the games until another, even greater experience comes along.
The real problem
The real problem for the subscription based mmos, and the only reasonable argument I see as to why these huge games fail – one by one, is that they’re not providing that experience. The recently released subscription mmos simply wasn’t good enough. They didn’t make the cut.
One by one, whether it was Swtor, Age of Conan or Lord of the Rings Online, they all had several flaws, or at least one flaw big enough to make too many players reject the notion of paying a subscription fee for these games. It’s not a coincidence that these games had a big hype around them before their release, Swtor for instance was called the WoW-Slayer, before its release. They didn’t deliver enough and players made the reasonable choice of not paying.
World of Warcraft was the first major mmo to capture a really big, international, reliable audience over many years. If you want to “kill WoW” then you have to provide something great, truly new and iconoclastic. No one really did that yet.
Why the subscription MMOs has to make it
There are reasons why the community of players should support the notion of subscription mmos. These reasons are important. Very important.
First of all it’s very hard to imagine how a free to play type mmo in the long run could keep up with a subscription game when it comes to updates, new releases and expansions. Both quantity and quality wise. The game developing company of a successful subscription mmo will simply have more resources to pour back into the game, at their disposal. Ask yourself what would bring more income; three million people buying a game or three million people buying a game and then on a continuing basis paying a 10$ a month subscription fee for that game?
It’s true that some free to play games has better content updates from time to time, then say for instance EVEOnline but generally they don’t. It’s very hard to take an isolated free to play game, like Age of Conan, and argue that it will have the same opportunity to release as great content as EVEOnline, given it where only up to those two games to be self-sustaining, without having the respective game publishing company taking money from other projects in order to create better content for the mmo.
The second reason to support the notion of subscription mmos is related to the first one. To put it simply; there is no better way for the communities to support game developers than to support the notion of subscribing to a game. If we gamers won’t take on a “will never subscribe attitude”, then we will support maximal growth of companies releasing great games. Companies that will release great games will grow more, and be able to release better games in the future, if we subscribe rather then expect to pay a one time fee.
The third reason is simply to keep micro transactions out of our games. Whether it’d be faster mounts, better items or weapons, these things should not be sold ingame for real currency. This is very important because it creates an economic class system within the mmo games. Some gamers can afford to pay, others can’t. Having to buy anything else then cosmetic upgrades (which you could argue against aswell) is the most efficient way of separating gamers by their real life income, and thus relating the gaming experience to your buying power as a consumer.
It’s also considered a boring element by many gamers and will keep a lot of folks away from these games. Subscriptions, combined with the gamers demanding the limiting of these kinds of ingame micro transactions, is the best way to keep this ghastly idea out of our games.
The fourth reason why the subscription MMO has to make it is because several payment models creates a more dynamic and versatile game market. And that’s a good thing. If there are more than just one basic expectation in regard to the payment model for a game, the game developers has a more dynamic sheet to work with when creating a game. The possibility for diversity will effect the market, the games and therefore the different projects. Diversity is often a good thing. This is the case here as well.
As Colin Johanson, said.
“It takes some serious balls to jump into the MMO industry and go after it.”
Johanson is right. It takes balls.
Therefore we gamers should be open-minded and support the game developing companies, by supporting both payment models.
Not condemning one to benefit the other.
Both free to play and subscription based mmos can coexist.