15 May 2012

“I’ll Wait Till It’s Free”

When I started playing MMOs, it seemed that the genre was split into two camps. Subscription based games were seen as champions of quality, coupled with legendary customer service. By contrast, free to play games were looked down upon with distain, being games for those who preferred to buy their way to victory instead of earn it the hard way. They also had a tinge of underhandedness, as if developers were looking for increasingly ingenious ways to crack open customer wallets.

Over the last five years, I’d argue that our perceptions have changed. Guild Wars 1 and 2 introduced the “buy the box” model, delivering a high quality game while still using the subscription free microtransaction model. We’ve also seen several MMOs transition from being subscription based to free-to-play and becoming successful as a result. Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online and EverQuest 2 are all positive examples of this change in model.

This year, a new trend emerged. After reading a number of blogs I’ve seen the same phrase repeated again and again. “It’s a great MMO, but I’ll wait until it goes free to play before I play it.” We now expect subscription based games to fail and eventually switch to a free-to-play-model.

Have our previous experiences conditioned us as consumers to expect games to switch to free to play? Are we becoming congested with too many games we want to try and not enough time to play them, so we’re cutting back on the ones we subscribe to? Or is it just a polite way of saying that we have no intention of playing a game, either at launch or for the foreseeable future?

My own suspicion is that there’s elements of all three. With pre-launch betas becoming larger in size and scope, many of us get the chance to try an MMO before we put our hand in our pocket. Instead of buying the box, subscribing for a few months then ditching the game for something else, we elect to bide our time, drifting from beta to beta while we wait for a bargain. A game might grab our interest, but we have a ready-made, plausible excuse for why we shouldn’t buy into it.

But is this healthy for the industry? With subscription-based MMOs still being developed, are we discarding them out of hand? It’s possible we’ll see a reduction in subscription games, forced by changes in customer behaviour. What’s much less certain is if we’ll see future games take the same route as Guild Wars 2 and avoid subscriptions, or launch as completely free to play. It’s also possible that we’ll see MMOs switch to a single player RPG (such as Warhammer 40K: Dark Millenium), or cancelled completely.

There’s also the economic impact – is it a sign of these austere times that we’re more reluctant to pay a monthly subscription for a game? I think this is partially true – I’m cutting down the number of games I subscribe to and playing the remainder more. I’ve also dropped secondary accounts I had for some games. But I’m still happy to drop a three month sub on a new game to see how it fares post-launch.

Are we likely to return to MMOs if they switch to free-to-play? I’m still undecided on this. Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online have failed to pull me back in. Everquest 2 hasn’t managed to grip me for an extended period. But that’s largely a lack of time. What I play changes from month to month, and while I have a few core games I still play, I rarely get the chance to return to older titles.

What next for MMOs? Stick with subscriptions or forge ahead with freemium? Ultimately, I think that it’ll be the player rather than the developer that decides.

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