23 Nov 2011

A Limit on Subscription MMOs?

With Star Wars: The Old Republic being less than a month away, the game seems to be treading the well-worn path of other top-flight MMOs in charging a subscription. For $14.99 or £8.99 a month you’ll be able to clash lightsabers as much as you like. But is a subscription the right model to be using?

At face value a subscription seems to be ideal. Play as much as you like with all the content you want for a single monthly fee. You have the same character slots and the same bank space as everyone else. The only difference is in the box you buy and the extra goodies that come with it.

On the flip side though, subscriptions are also incredibly limiting if you want to play more than one game. It makes sense to pay monthly when you’re only playing one game, but if there’s another that you might only play occasionally you start to question the value of the subscription. It’s something that I’ve struggled with when trying to divide my time between Warcraft and Rift.

What makes it more difficult is that we simply don’t know that much about the habits of the average MMO gamer in terms of how many games they subscribe to, how many free-to-play accounts they maintain and how long they play an MMO for before unsubscribing. As individuals we have our own observations but there’s no heavy stats on the subject.

Like all prudent people, gamers tend not to spend money on things that they don’t value. If an MMO isn’t engaging a player any more then they’ll happily unsubscribe. Although some of us are lazy and keep forgetting to cancel our accounts, a fair number of us still manage to punch that “cancel account” button.

All this leads me to a postulation that there’s only room for somewhere between three and five mainstream triple-A MMOs that use the subscription based model. This isn’t because there’s only a small number of MMOs that are worth playing, but because of two overriding factors:

  • Players want to play with their friends, either ones made in-game or from real life.
  • Players will only maintain a subscription to a game where it’s worthwhile them doing so.

As a result, any new top-class MMO that’s hoping to use a subscription model needs to be sure that it’ll be able to secure a spot in that shortlist. If a game misses this then it needs a backup plan before the subscription base dwindles and the game costs more to support and develop than it brings in.

What do backup plans look like? In the case of Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online and more recently DU Universe Online it was a move to free-to-play. This isn’t without it’s own problems – some of us see a transition to free-to-play as an indication that an MMO is moving into retirement. Others have a dislike for the model, usually from occasions where it’s been poorly implemented.

I don’t think that SWTOR will have any problems with pulling in subscriptions. With over 800 thousand preorders in the US and an estimated 3 million worldwide the game’s already been more successful that RIFT. And it’s got every right to be – my own experience in the beta has been largely positive.

What I do think is that we’ll see other MMOs move away from the subscription model in order to give their game more chance at success. Whether that’ll be in the free-to-play approach or through the Guild Wars model of buying the box but getting free access remains to be seen.

It’ll be interesting to see what approach the upcoming MMOs use. With Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, TERA and Wildstar all in the pipeline there’s a lot of choice being presented to fans of the genre. How we respond to that choice is something publishers and analysts will be watching keenly.

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