TORn: the death of subs-based MMOs and F2P’s new hope

Wednesday, 1 August 2012 08:25 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Star Wars: The Old Republic is to go free-to-play this autumn, signalling the true death of the subs-based MMO for anything other than World of Warcraft. Free-to-play is the only way forward for online gaming, says Brenna Hillier.

The reality is that subscription-based MMOs are essentially over, and the glory days of WoW are now a galaxy far, far away. Welcome to free-to-play’s new hope. There’ll be no going back after this, and it’s likely the genre will be more nimble, more creative and less conservative for it.

Well, that’s that – the last great hope for subscription MMO’s has thrown in the towel. With the chops of one of world’s most respected RPG developers, a solid gold license, and the backing of a major publisher, Star Wars: The Old Republic seemed like an incredibly safe bet to do what no other MMORPG can really claim to have done – established itself firmly as a rival to World of Warcraft in terms of sustained subscription levels.

That’s not to say the game has failed. EA has been adamant that it has lived up to expectations, and, as we’ve pointed out before, going free-to-play is in no way an admission of disaster. It makes sense, during the hype of a new game’s launch, to utilise the lucrative subscription model, and then shift gears once you’ve found a steady user base – a move which can, and repeatedly has, resulted in significantly higher revenue.

It now seems guaranteed than any triple-A MMORPG will take the subs-to-freemium path. The next candidate is The Secret World, already throwing free-to-play weekends just over one month on from launch, as the month’s subscription bundled with the client runs out, despite Funcom’s protestations. Guild Wars 2, the next major MMORPG launch, hasn’t even bothered; like its precursor, it’s free-to-play once you pony up for the client.

There’s nothing wrong with what The Old Republic is doing. But it does raise the question – why is World of Warcraft the only MMORPG that seems immune to this trend? Blizzard has made some concessions to the changing face of online gaming in introducing a free-to-play option, up till level 20, but even as subscriber numbers drop, shows no sign of shifting to a micro-transaction business mode.

I suspect the reason there is room for just one major subscription MMORPG is that the genre hasn’t evolved far enough to expand its user base. I have argued elsewhere that MMORPG’s aren’t friendly enough to new players; developers are so focused at taking a slice of World of Warcraft’s pie, by making “WoW with better story” or “WoW with better character progression,” that they fail to acknowledge that even World of Warcraft doesn’t have the universal appeal needed to sustain a subscription model.

What’s sustaining World of Warcraft is its hardcore player base who return again and again for the end-game content – high level PvE and PvP – and established social networks. When a rival offers the same package as World of Warcraft but without all the external support of your guild and your raiding buddies, what reason do you have to make the jump for longer than it takes you to zip through the initial content – something veteran MMORPG players do in a matter of days?

There are only so many consumers out there with the amount of time and energy required to spend on an MMORPG which would justify shelling out a monthly fee. Most of them are so invested in World of Warcraft that despite the refinements newer players bring to the table, they’re probably never going to jump ship while Blizzard is still producing content – and if they do, it’ll probably be to go cold turkey on MMOs.

If a subscription MMO is to ever be successful again in a market saturated with free offerings of such quality – just look at World of Tanks, or League of Legends, or Lord of the Rings Online – then it needs to bring something significantly new to the genre, to attract the kind of user who isn’t already au fait with the ins and outs of Blizzard’s giant. In truth, though, EA’s announcement last night signalled the fact that free-to-play is the only way forward for MMOs. It’s the only model most gamers respond to any more.

The reality is that subscription-based MMOs are essentially over, and the glory days of WoW are now a galaxy far, far away. Welcome to free-to-play’s new hope. There’ll be no going back after this, and maybe the genre will be more nimble, more creative and less conservative for it.

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