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Monday, August 20, 2012

Can Subscription-Based MMO’s Survive In Today’s Market?

When they read that Bioware’s Triple-A MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic was converting to a free-to-play model this Fall, I doubt many gamers were surprised. The Old Republic is just one of many MMO’s that have made the switch from a sub-based business model to a F2P one over the past few years, other notable examples being Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online and SOE’s Everquest II. The question is, was the plan to make it a sub-based MMO doomed from the start?

F2P seems to be all the rage these days which makes sense given the current state of our economy and the sheer number of different MMO’s out there. So where do the sub-based MMO’s fit in? Do games like Funcom’s The Secret World and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, games that still rely on monthly subscriptions, have enough appeal and staying power to stick it out alongside so many other F2P options?

 While The Secret World and World of Warcraft may be two of the more prominent examples of sub-based MMO’s, comparing them might be a little unfair considering The Secret World just released barely a month ago while World of Warcraft has been around since 2005. Still, neither Funcom nor Blizzard are unfamiliar with the F2P trend; two of Funcom’s other well-known MMO’s Anarchy Online and Age of Conan have been doing rather well since their switch to F2P and Blizzard recently introduced an unlimited free trial for World of Warcraft aimed specifically at bringing in new players.

So why cling to the seemingly archaic subscription-based business model? Funcom’s Ragnar Tornquist says it’s a matter of content and delivering a “growing, living world” to players. He believes that when it comes down to either paying smaller prices for bits and pieces of content or paying a monthly sub for a whole world of content that grows annually, he’s much happier with the latter.

Many hailed The Old Republic’s switch to F2P as the “death of the subscription-based MMO” but neither Tornquist nor the folks over at Blizzard are so sure that’s true. Tornquist believes that F2P is fine once a game has established itself (as Star Wars: The Old Republic did during its opening months) but if you want to have an MMO expand and grow at a steady pace, a subscription-based model is much more viable than a F2P one.

Nothing could be a greater example of this credo than Blizzard’s World of Warcraft which, even after nearly eight years, has managed to keep a healthy number of subscription-paying players. During its long reign World of Warcraft has already had three major expansions with a fourth one due out late next month. The quick and timely releases of these expansions has no-doubt been largely because of the many subscriptions World of Warcraft brings in each month as well as the popularity of Blizzard’s other major franchises such as Diablo and Starcraft.

While it may be easy for a company as large and reputable as Blizzard to keep a subscription-based MMO going for so long, Funcom might have a tougher road ahead of them. If they can make good on their promise to deliver a constantly growing world to their players, perhaps they’ll be able to do what Bioware couldn’t: give Blizzard’s dominance of the sub-based MMO market a run for its money. One thing’s for certain however: F2P is on the rise and it would seem World of Warcraft stands as the one last bastion of hope for subscription-based MMO’s amidst the sea of F2P titles.

Whether or not The Secret World manages to rise up as well is a question for a later time; as is whether or not World of Warcraft will be able to retain its perch as we enter a new age of MMO’s.    

Follow me on Twitter at @NateHohl and check out my other work at vgutopia.com, hookedgamers.com, tevice.com, and explosion.com

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