Two notable MMORPGs launched in 2014 with subscription models: Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) and WildStar. Four months ago, Bethesda Softworks announced that ESO was going B2P (buy-to-play). Today, Carbine announced that WildStar is going F2P (free-to-play).
For whatever reason, game developers have been painfully slow on the uptake that gamers do not like subscription MMORPGs. The only sub-based MMORPG that has been able to maintain a meaningful playerbase is World of Warcraft (WoW).
WoW is in the unique position of having a huge amount of polished content and a huge community, which are barriers to exit for existing players. That is, players have invested so much into WoW and their characters / guilds / community that they stick around, even though that requires a subscription. As I’ve said previously, even Blizzard would struggle to replicate the success of WoW in a new subscription-based MMO, and Blizzard has pursued non-subscription models for their recent new releases.
Customer expectations have shifted. Gone are the days where subscriptions were the norm, and the question for gamers wasn’t whether they had to pay, but rather which MMOs they wanted to play and therefore had to pay for via a subscription. In today’s environment, a subscription fee is a monthly reminder to a paying customer to question where the product is providing sufficient value. Moreover, the perception that F2P games are inferior quality has diminished over time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t poor F2P implementations out there – there most certainly are – but over time developers are figuring out F2P systems that work for non-paying and paying customers.
The online gaming community has the reputation of being fickle, and gamers will not continue to pay a subscription if they perceive any or multiple of the following to be true:
The game is not meeting their (pre-launch) expectations
The game is buggy / not polished
There isn’t a critical mass of their friends or other players in the game – the world feels lonely. This was the reason I unsubbed from WildStar
There’s a shiny new game coming out soon
They’ve already experienced the content and are bored
About that last point, subscription-based MMORPGs have an inherent flaw in the business model: the cost and time it takes to produce new content are always going to be meaningfully higher than the amount of time it takes for players to consume this content, and gamers have the expectation that they’ll receive a steady stream of new content with their subscription. Developers have contributed to setting this expectation, e.g. here is what WildStar’s Executive Produer Jeremy Gaffney said (bold emphasis mine):
“There’s two major options to play,” he said. “One is super simple: buy a box, and pay a subscription. There’s a class of player that likes that, because they know how much they’re paying, they know the playing field is level, and they can expect big updates. That’s the joy of the subscription model.”
On top of this, Gaffney set the expectation that the cadence of patches would be monthly. Later, Carbine shifted to a quarterly schedule.
Simply put, pushing out polished new content on a regular cadence is very challenging. Therefore for years I’ve stated that developers need to develop highly-engaging replayable content – players don’t necessarily need a big world, but they need a world that’s fun to play in, even if it’s small. Think about MOBAs – players play in the same maps / scenarios over and over, and the content is simply the champions or heroes that they can choose to play. Or think about Minecraft, where the developer created the context but the players shape and define the world. Another good example of replayable content is WvW in GW2. Many gamers would love to have a huge, dynamic world to play in – I would too! – but the economic reality is that isn’t sustainable for developers.
The other flaw with subscription-based games, which Mike Donatelli acknowledged to PC Gamer, is that it creates a significant barrier to entry. I do believe that B2P (buy-to-play) games are a nice balance for the developer and the gamer to help the developer recoup their pre-launch investment, but B2P games are only viable for well-established IPs such as Guild Wars or Elder Scrolls. So for any new IP (e.g. WildStar), there really isn’t any model to consider aside from F2P. The question then becomes how to implement a F2P system that creates a sticky, non-onerous experience for non-paying customers but incents players to spend real money. Wargaming has done a tremendous job with their F2P system in World of Tanks (WoT), and WoT has one of the highest ARPU for F2P games.
Hopefully 2015 is the last year that we’ll hear of new MMOs with subscription models, which is still 4 years too late.
EDIT #1 (2015/05/28): some folks are pointing out that FFXIV is subscription-based. Yes, that is true, but remember, Final Fantasy is an IP that is almost 3 decades old. You can charge a sub when you have a very established IP because you have an existing large fan base. IMO a new game without a well-established IP will flop if it launches with a subscription model.
EDIT #2 (2015/05/29): so y’all understand, I am 100% fine with paying a subscription. Happy to do so. The problem is, a lot of people aren’t, and when those people leave in sufficient numbers, the game world feels empty, and that inevitably impacts me.
The thing I really care about is that games succeed, because that will drive further investment into new games, which means more choices for us as consumers/gamers. The reality is that subscriptions don’t work in today’s market for the majority of cases. I’m not anti-sub, but I am most definitely anti-game-fail, and my fear starting back in 2010 is that investment will shift from richly-complex PC games to superficial tablet and mobile games the more that PC-based MMOs flop. Over 3 years ago I wrote that business models for MMORPGs must evolve. The industry has been slow to realize this.