MMOs and the ‘Supposed’ Decline of the Subscription Model

Scribed December 18, 2012 under The Cynic Dialogues

I’ve played Massively Multi-player Online games for almost two decades. I’m not saying that to brag, but to establish myself as someone who saw their creation and the model that supported them for almost as long. Two things recently have made me wonder about the commentary being said of game developers. The facts as I see them are this;

So the media is reporting that the era of the subscription model is at an end. Many have cited the most recent examples of Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World as justification for stating so. In fact, many in the industry have shifted game development to the more profitable micro-transaction and free-to-play models. The argument seems to be that players no longer are willing to pay for games on a monthly basis, not unless new content is injected into their game. Sounds reasonable from a consumer and developer standpoint… right?

The problem is this; They are wrong. The subscription model is almost certainly still viable (WoW?), but the approach to shifting away from this model altogether in giant leaps is seemingly random and almost certainly an act of desperation. Lets take for example Dungeon and Dragons Online by Atari. They initially launched as a subscription model and subsequently were the first AAA MMO to shift away from subscriptions to the untested waters of micro-transactions and the F2P model. It was a smashing success, more so then the subscription model was for them. Awesome, I just proved myself wrong in my own article didn’t I?

Well, sort of. My posit, however, is that Atari skipped a step. Subscription games since then, have skipped the same step. If your games not worth paying $15 a month, ask your subscriber base what they would be willing to pay. Do you think Atari could have kept themselves in business for … $5 a month? Possibly. The price point of being the cheapest AAA MMO per month certainly might of drawn some players to them. Why did developers simply make the leap from 12-15 dollars a month to free? That jump was almost certainly the first mistake in maintaining your persistent online game.

The industry as a whole has recently decided the subscription model relies on something they haven’t had to worry about in some time; Content. Game designers are struggling to keep up with the massive addiction players have grown into with the traditional MMO today. Gamers are playing more and more hours per day; up to 48.5 hours per week in extreme cases according to NPD (source). If gamers are playing longer and your still making games with the same amount of content, no wonder your subscribers are failing to stick around to pay into a subscription model.

You see its not that the games themselves are uninteresting, or fail to grab our imagination. Clearly the initial sales of Star Wars: The Old Republic proved that. In fact one would of imagined a growing player base with game play as movie-true as one had gotten out of the recent Star Wars homage. Instead the first month ended and the player base started its quick abandonment of the game as a whole. Was the subscription model to blame? Did they charge too much? I don’t believe that’s where they went wrong.

Players cited by large a lack of “stuff” to do at the end game. Sure they had raids somewhat on a scale that World of Warcraft had (afterall they were trying to replicate its successful game design mechanics). The problem was the content was chewed through far too quickly. If your game has nothing to offer players to do at the end of “maxing your character” and by large the vast majority of players do not wish to participate in raiding end-game (evidence; Guild Wars 2 that has none); what is left?

So another recent article deserves mention, this one from Forbes online (yea I’m a bit surprised at the source too). This one goes to show that perhaps the industry gave up too quickly. One of the longest running MMOs is gaining in subscriber momentum, and whats this… they have a subscription model? Pretty shocking isn’t it? What is CCP’s recipe for success that every other recent developer has missed out on? It’s simple, they have a means of generating unlimited content.

For you see, in EVE Online, players ARE the content. EVE Online is what I would consider a TRUE sandbox game environment. The world is modifiable (to the designers permissible level) by the player base. Players build, mine, trade, explore, and destroy each other in a massive gorgeous space environment. Hard to wonder how this hasn’t been more successful isn’t it?

The key to EVE Online’s success is in how it approaches content. No, EVE Online doesn’t release monthly expansions like other publishers might. They don’t introduce new raids or dungeons on a consistent basis (though they do release quarterly “expansions”). Instead they allow the players themselves to generate alliances, corporations, and mega fleets all to own their own little piece of virtual space. Conflict is at every corner in EVE and their is no truly safe place to hide. Every player can kill every other player and all your stuff that’s in your ship explodes with you (a demoralizing first lesson for newcomers).

Its a harsh world and its one with more levels of depth than any MMO to date. They have their own economist on staff to release reports on a yearly basis and to make adjustments to the games thriving player-driven economy. The level of depth in this game is truly mindblowing; yet its also the games one major weakness. The games depth could also be translated into the games difficulty level. It is one of the most complicated MMOs to master and even players who’ve put in 4 years would be shamed into saying they know everything in that game. Its the one limiting factor that’s kept its subscriber base relatively small compared to the behemoth World of Warcraft.

Things are changing, however, and the previously mentioned Forbes article shows a growing population in a time period where games charging a subscription fee rarely show growth (even World of Warcraft has lost millions of subscriptions despite a recent expansion).

The lesson to be had here is that subscription models aren’t dead. The trick is creating the content necessary to keep your player base involved and happy.  IS the solution more sandbox mechanics in your MMOs? John Smedley certainly thinks so. As a lead developer for Everquest 1 & 2 and Planetside 2, his vision is that all of SOE games will contain elements of a sandbox environment. Its the only way he believes that games in the modern MMO environment could survive.  One can hope developers take note of the sandbox mechanic and incorporate it into future titles; we know John Smedley took note!

Till next time!

Sidenote:  Their are some promising sandbox MMOs on the horizon I should note; Kickstarter recently showcased a new “Pathfinder MMO” that is described and created by some of the ex-staff from CCP (makers of EVE).

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