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

Wednesday, 1st 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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28 Comments

  1. noherczeg

    Loosing people due to the fact that the game can’t offer enough isn’t a thing I’d call glorious transition to F2P.

    I agree that subscription based plans are bad, but I’m also sensitive to bullshitting.

    EVE is still sub-based and it’s well on it’s own so guess what: If you can make make a great game with lotsa content people will still pay..

    #1 2 years ago
  2. FabioPal

    Even Rift is an example of a well made game with a subscription.

    The problem with TOR is that they’ve tried VERY hard to imitate WoW, failing badly.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Patrick Garratt

    EVE’s an exception. It’s completely free-form, and it’s been going for nearly 10 years. There’s no future for story-based, subs-based MMOs. It’s over. The Secret World will be one of the last, if not the last. It’ll be F2P within months, and I doubt anyone will try it again.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Patrick Garratt

    Rift went F2P within 10 months.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    I think the only future for subs-based MMOs are “worlds” that people will pay to live in. EVE’s a classic example of it, and it’s the only reason people pay to stay in WoW now. There’s a real distinction between EVE, say, and The Secret World or TOR. You exist within EVE, and you complete TSW then sit there going, “I need more content”. In EVE, the players are the content, so it never gets old. I saw the CCP guys do a demo on this in Iceland a few years back, and they described it as the difference between a theme park and a sandbox. WoW’s a theme park (it’s instance-based) but there’s so much of it now that it feels like a sandbox in that you can go anywhere and do whatever you like. EVE’s a total sandbox, and it’s unique. That’s why people keeping paying for it.

    TSW, for example, will never be WoW or EVE. F2P is the right way for that game.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. noherczeg

    I know that EVE is a sandbox, but as long as it is labeled as a sub based mmo, I’d stick to the fact that it lives and doesn’t seem to go away in the near future, not like many other competitors.

    I’d like to point out that I’ve played it for ~one year and half of it was “paid” with in game PLEX, BUT: we know how this goes so, devs got their money, and that is the only thing that matters.

    Also: I’m not an idiot, I want everything for free, by all means don’t misunderstand me, F2P is most likely the best way to me, but the way it was described here felt a bit off in this post :)

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Erthazus

    Pat, too soon for sub-base death. Too soon.

    Sub-base model works and you can see that with WoW, Eve Online or Runescape.
    SWTOR copied World Of Warcraft formula pretty hard and that is the only reason why it is going F2P.

    Next MMO from the creators of Eve Online will be sub-based too. I’m talking about “World Of Darkness”. World Of Darkness is a huge brand.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Puggy

    I doubt people play WoW because it is good or because they like it. In fact it seems to me more like a paid chatroom, or a fee you pay to your sports club to… well do the sport.

    You have “your” people there. You talk to your friends, have drama, competition, love and all the things people are striving for in one way or the other. Sure another game can try to do the same, but… why should people change to it, if they already have what they want in WoW?

    It is like Facebook and google+. Sure it is the same, but still facebook is more popular, because you already have everyone there you know how it works, you trust it (most likely too much).

    So yeah, I would not say it is the end of Subscription based games. Honestly if SWTOR would have been out in the first year of WoW they would have beaten it most likely.
    But exactly there is the problem that a lot of developers make in my eyes. They say “WoW did not have that when it came out, so our game won’t need it either.” Yeah, well it might be true, but nobody plays WoW from X years back. They play current WoW (and maybe some older version on private servers). So you better go toe to toe with what WoW has to offer now, and not what was state of the art years back.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Patrick Garratt

    If Star Wars isn’t big enough to sell a sub, World of Darkness has no chance. If it isn’t free at launch it will be within a year.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Patrick Garratt

    Don’t get me wrong. I can’t wait for that game. But it’s clear to me it’s F2P or bust for story-based MMOs from here on in. I’m always prepared to be wrong, obviously, but I just can’t see a future for it any more.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. GrimRita

    @9 – Being Star Wars didnt stop the game from shifting just over 2million copies. So being Star Wars and Bioware wasnt the problem. The problem is that people purchased the game, played it and thought ‘god what utter shit’.

    Fast forward 5 months and no content updates(but 1!) and people cant justify paying for lack of content.

    And if you look closer, all the WoW clones have struggled. Why? we already have WoW we dont need any more. I think had Sandbox MMOs started to arrive now – not 2003, things would be a lot better

    #11 2 years ago
  12. GwynbleiddiuM

    @Puggy, you’re absolutely wrong on that. WoW has always been a solid experience, and always had the best customer service known to man. It has flaws and limited content, yet it always been solid and had regular content updates. I for one never was there for the sake of social interactions but I have had many interactions with different people. WoW is Solid, and often it’s more than enough to keep you motivated to come back.


    @Patrick Rift isn’t F2P yet. And it’s too soon to think sub-based MMOs are dead, while we have working models. The thing is, people aren’t interested in sub-base MMOs because the ones that are currently out there are too similar in comparison that you wouldn’t mind dropping SWTOR or Rift to continue playing WoW. The genre needs a shake up, just because WoW worked for more than 7 years it doesn’t mean TOR and Rift and etc should work as well. There’s a need for variation in terms of what distincts one MMO from the next, outside the setting and lore.

    So IMO, CCP’s World of Darkness and Blizzard’s Titan project can still be sub-base and succeed because I only know those companies as successful MMO devs. They kept their ship afloat for a decade now, while others tried and tried with more than enough titles and failed.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. FabioPal

    @4 It is as much as Wow is:

    https://rift.trionworlds.com/account/reg/account-registration-short-flow.action?experience=lite&request_locale=en

    up to level 20.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. Mineral4r7s

    Game failed because the game is crap, not because of pay to play …

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Kalain

    I think the way forward for MMO’s is the model which Turbine has created. A F2P MMO with a subscription model, a Premium model as well as your standard F2P model. Look at the success they’ve had with it for DDO and LOTRO. Those games have seen, and don’t quote me on this, a 300-400% increase in their player bases. The model works since Lotro has had 2 expansions, plus 3rd one arriving and DDO has got it’s 1st expansion coming soon.

    Its a model that works. The microtransactions system works. You don’t need to pay for turbine points or a sub since you can buy all the zones you need just by playing the game. Admittedly you do have to grind a lot to get it, but you can do it.

    Blizzards next MMO will sell hot cakes, but thats only because you have the Blizzard brand stamped all over it and people will fawn over it. Titan will be subs based, you can probably guarantee that from the word go.

    I’m glad SWTOR has gone F2P, since it will now introduce people to a story-based MMO. It may not be the greatest MMO in the world, but the storylines for your characters were good and the quests did actually make you want to do them. Combat was a bit pants with imperials characters getting the better deal at first, but a few patches later and thats been evened out. I also think the Rift should go F2P as well, it being an absolute blatant copy of WoW but without any of the charm, character or even decent storylines. Only thing decent about Rift was the character skills/talents, even then it lends itself to even more cookie cutter classes.

    I do think that people should follow Turbine’s lead with their model. They would probably find that they will attract more people to their game since they have little risk or layout.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. Deacon

    Good article, though I agree that it’s a little soon to be calling the death of sub-based MMO’s.

    I personally have nothing against the model as it is, and would rather pay a set fee for a game knowing that I have full access to every element therein, opposed to getting in for free but having numerous ‘tiers’ based on any transactions I decide to make (or not).

    #16 2 years ago
  17. viralshag

    I don’t think sub based gaming is dead I just think there is a much lower demand for MMOs altogether. We haven’t heard anything about the current level of subs WoW has but that was dropping at some rate not so long ago.

    I would be very surprised to see any MMO sell more than your normal popular game (let’s say a million sales plus) and then continue to keep a million plus regular players. I think the golden age MMOs hit the market at the perfect time.

    Nowadays I don’t see why anyone would commit so much time to one game when there is so much out there to play – F2P MMOs and standard SP and MP games alike.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. DSB

    It stands to reason that people aren’t going to be paying a subscription unless they feel they’re getting something out of the ordinary.

    Would I want to pay a subscription for a game that’s common as dirt? Fuck no. I wouldn’t even want to play one in the first place.

    And that’s really the problem with MMOs right now. The mindless cloning going on has just run it into the ground, or at least ensured a wide swath of games that fail spectacularly, and how could it go any other way?

    I think there’s a big difference between a free MMO nickle-and-diming you every step of the way, and a complete package that has you pay-in every month. I have little interest in the former, but I would pay for the latter if it provided me with something unique.

    But they just don’t these days. It’s always a copy of a copy of a copy. That’s something you may be able to charge for once, but as soon as people see your game for what it really is, they’re going to go back to where they came from. How could it be any other way?

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Hybridpsycho

    First of all, sub-based MMO’s aren’t “dead”.

    The only period of time where sub-based MMO’s were more alive was a few years back when WoW had even more active subscribers. Before that there weren’t nearly as many sub-based MMO’s (especially not with the amount of active players that the MMO’s of today expect to pull in).

    Sub-based MMO’s are still alive. There’s quite a few out there including the “newly” released Tera, Aion, WoW (ofc), EVE Online and probably a few others that I can’t think of right now.

    My point is that the sub-based MMO’s have never been that many to begin with. Before WoW there was very few indeed and just because WoW has lost some subscribers (especially now since it’s at the end of an expansion again) doesn’t mean the sub-based MMOs are “dead”.

    Also, SWTOR was never a “great hope”. Everyone knew it was gonna fail expect for the people working on it. You can’t release a WoW clone (don’t argue that it isn’t, the only thing different is the dialogue system. They even copied ALL The skills basically and put their names on it) and expect it to sell.

    Blade & Souls and ofc Project Titan are the current “Great hope” if anything, considering the developers behind them both (NCSoft and Blizzard) are both experienced in the MMO market.

    I’m surprised anyone put any hopes into SWTOR considering BioWare has never had any experience with MMO’s and the company overall has gone to shit over the past years.

    #19 2 years ago
  20. GrimRita

    Its funny looking back to this time last year when I was calling this game SWTWoW and others dismissed it as not being a WoW clone. (Gloat over)

    Like I said earlier – this game sold over 2 million copies so those who purchased it knew it was a subs based MMO. After 2 months, 300k gone, 4 months another 400k gone and so it continued.

    EA can try and put their PR bullshit on this anyway they like when the truth is, Bioware created a poor product that no one sees value in paying for.

    #20 2 years ago
  21. viralshag

    @20, It is ridiculous to put the sub-drop on the fact it had a sub or wasn’t F2P.

    In my opinion they’re only digging a hole for themselves. If that’s the reason they give to the shareholders, then those shareholders will most likely be expecting the game to suddenly sky-rocket back to popularity and financial success.

    And everyone by now should know how the F2P transition goes. The game goes F2P, player numbers increase (by 2000% or some other silly PR figure) because everyone is trying the game, then everything goes quiet again because people have again moved on to other/better things.

    Then they’ll be looking for some other excuse as to why they’re still having trouble.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. TheBlackHole

    EVE and RuneScape would have a thing or two to say about that, but I agree if Bioware can’t make it work with Star Wars, it would be a struggle for anyone else to succeed.

    Interested to see how TESO does.

    #22 2 years ago
  23. GrimRita

    @22 – Not really. You just need a developer who are CREATIVE and wont copy World of Borecraft.

    I swear, had Star Wars Galaxies come around today with better graphics, it would have been hailed a success. 8 years on from its release, people are ready for sandbox MMOs as themepark ones have had their day big time

    #23 2 years ago
  24. Talkar

    @24
    Don’t blame the devs, blame the gamers. SWTOR started development not long after WoW had been released, and they saw how popular that was getting, and the star wars fans kept saying they wanted a star wars version of it. The gamers demanded, and the devs delivered.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. absolutezero

    Man I can’t wait for immersion breaking cash shops everywhere. Locked chests, just open it with money! Here have some heroin its good for you!

    #25 2 years ago
  26. TheBlackHole

    @24 “Not really. You just need a developer who are CREATIVE and wont copy World of Borecraft.”

    What, you mean the game with over 10 million subs?

    So why has nobody else managed to match that popularity, and how as it stayed so big if it’s so boring? (Genuinely don’t know – I’ve never played WoW).

    #26 2 years ago
  27. GrimRita

    @25 – Please. It has NOTHING to do with the gamers. We didnt ask for a WoW clone. If you look at all the build up videos whats the one key word? ‘Story’.

    And yes, WoW probably did have an influence on the dev teams brain but the questions they should have asked themselves should have been -

    - When are we releasing this approx?
    - Whats are USP?
    - What will we do better than WoW?

    Well USP was story – which no one cared for and it certainly wasnt better than WoW.

    Even if I was to believe what you say, look what happened with Star Wars Galaxies when it turned ‘WoWsy’. Almost everyone LEFT.

    So I dont know who they were asking, or the type of focus groups they were using but clearly it wasnt aimed at their target market. By using the Hero Engine must have prevented a good 500k additional players from playing because it wont work on their laptop/PC.

    @27
    Look at it as a 7 year time(for some money) investment. Thats one of the reasons WoW remains top of the tree. Its a very poor MMO imo – easy to play, does nothing special but it does do fun things and have tons of content.

    Bioware should have really looked at how they will draw people away from that huge time/money investment and give them a reason to play and importantly STAY in their game – of course, they failed.

    We already have WoW – we dont need any more but if you want to copy it, dont be expecting to topple it, like EA did. And just look at the fall out

    #27 2 years ago
  28. Talkar

    @28
    Actually they did.

    #28 2 years ago

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