Feature: Is the subscription-based MMO on its last legs? Why does free-to-play seem to be taking over? We explore the business behind the genre, and take a look at how a genre once defined by its monthly payments is making the transition away from them…
In 1999, a game was released that created a brand new videogame genre. The concept was brilliant yet simple: games are fun, and the more people you play with, the more fun they can be. The game was called Everquest, and it was the beginning of the MMORPG.
Everquest asked players for $10 a month to play the game, or $40 for a special premium service, banking on the idea that fans would get hooked. And they did, for 13 years. Last month, Sony Online Entertainment announced that Everquest would be free to play from March.
Everquest isn’t the only MMO that’s made the transition from a pay-to-play model to a free-to-play one. Everquest 2 already made the transition a few months ago. Turbine switched Dungeons and Dragons Online to a free-to-play model, and a year later did the same for Lord of the Rings Online. NCSoft’s Aion will be going free-to-play this month. Everyone’s at it.
Meanwhile, some MMOs have made a partial switch, letting players sample the game as free-to-play until a certain level. Among these are World of Warcraft and Rift.
Why are so many MMOs suddenly scrambling to nix the monthly subscription? Part of the reason is the altering market. On one hand, players have hundreds of different free MMOs to choose from now, many of which are of a high quality. On the other, many people are no longer willing to pay a monthly fee for a game.
Cheap and free releases are dominating the market right now, with the iOS and indie scenes thriving. Cheaper games are available used or through applications like Steam. So many MMOs are choosing the free-to-play model that Sony exec John Smedley has said that BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic will be the last pay-to-play MMO.
Changing from pay-to-play to free-to-play has been an effective way to raise the player base. When Everquest 2 went free-to-play, it saw a 300 percent increase in players. But the free game didn’t just get more players: item sales and subscriptions also increased significantly.
Turbine’s DDO and LOTRO were also successful in the change. In an interview with Massively, Turbine went as far as to call free-to-play “the future of online entertainment.”
But this doesn’t mean it should be the only option. Adam Mersky of Warner Bros., which now owns Turbine, has brought up the idea that whether we play for games or not should be our choice. “It’s probably not right to say the subscription MMO is dying,” he told Eurogamer. “It’s probably more right to say the idea of forcing a player to only have one option for having to consume your content – that’s probably dying.”
Marsky’s observation may be very close to the truth. Many of the MMOs that switched from pay-to-play did not adopt the free-to-play model entirely. Instead, what we are seeing more and more often are a curious hybrid of the two models.
This mix emerges when a pay-to-play MMO switches over to free, as a way to appease fans. Just imagine playing a game for years, paying every single month, only to have the game suddenly become free. MMO companies need to find a way to appease the supporters who have been paying for the game while it was still subscription-based.
And so emerges the third version of the MMO: the pay-to-play-if-you-want. Turbine’s two MMOs, for instance, may be free to play but they do offer a subscription service. Subscribing to a VIP service unlocks new areas, allows you to pick from a wider selection of classes, and rewards you with some cash-shop money.
At this point in the MMO timeline maybe this is the business model that will make the most sense. And yet we are still seeing games begin as strictly free-to-play or pay-to-play, gauge the fan reaction, the decide which model would actually be the most fruitful.
Scott Hartsman, chief creative officer for the MMO Rift, feels that this is a faulty way to begin. “I honestly think you need to know your model when you’re designing the game and if you don’t you’ll end up with a failure regardless,” he told RPS.
The almost-free-to-play MMO is an attractive option for companies and fans because it’s ‘so flexible’, but Hartsman points out that starting as a pay-to-play then switching can hurt the MMO since it takes a long time and some large investments. Development teams can spend “anywhere between six and 12 months and actually converting and modifying the game to work on that model.”
If pay-to-play is such a poor choice for a business model, why is it still being used? That seems to be our fault. Many people associate paying for something with quality. We assume that if we have to pay to use something, it will be better than something we get for nothing. Games like WoW and EVE Online have developed extremely loyal fan bases because paying monthly is an investment that makes you feel almost like a part of an exclusive club. Subscription MMOs that have gone free-to-play, on the other hand, are often viewed as failures – regardless of business success.
This connotation may not be around for much longer. The MMO world is growing, expanding, and shifting. What does the future have in store for MMOs? Sony Online Entertainment executive producer Dave Georgeson perhaps said it best in an interview with MMORPG: “If we’re not entertaining you, then it’s our fault that we’re not making any money. This is the new way of gaming. The days of ‘Pay and Hope’ where you pay up-front and hope the game is worth a darn, are going the way of the dodo. And good riddance.”