We’ve all seen the signs over the past couple of years, as the dull thud of MMO properties dropping dead against an avalanche of post-30 fleeing subscribers fought unwinnable battles against smaller players giving away their wares for “free”. The groans we all collectively moaned when yet another group of developers and publishers decided that they would finally be the ones who would be able to steal away those dedicated paying customers from the few titles that have been able to successfully support the subscription model.
Blissfully ignoring any lessons learned from the many that had fallen before them, they pressed ahead with multi million dollar development schedules and marketing efforts, hoping to ride the hype train of favourable reviews and beta weekends into ultimate success. But what many people had realized, even as early as 2008, was that the business model that had sustained niche properties of die-hard players, such as Ultima Online, Planetside, Everquest and Eve Online, could never extend into the million plus mainstream audiences many of these “extensive” games required to stay afloat.
All of them saw nothing but dollars in their collective eyes, as Blizzard’s extensively profitable behemoth stood, almost mockingly profitable in a field of straggling contenders. After all, it was – and still is – positively ancient in gaming terms, slowly hemorrhaging players and less-than-gracefully extending its life through an almost unending pile of paid content expansions. As the cracks began to show, with Blizzard offering basic free to play elements as it attempts to stem the flow of players leaving – a whopping 1 million active gamers dropped subs over the last nine months.
A new hope
Enter EA/Bioware, one of the most bankable and successful partnerships in recent gaming history, with phenomenally successful franchises such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect, who thought they could be the combination with the clout to take down WoW. But they’d never admit it, claiming that there would be a new and yet to be unearthed audience that were waiting to get their paws on the diamond of fantasy Sci-fi: Star Wars. But unlike Star Wars Galaxies, which catered to a very niche audience and featured more experimental and creative elements, this new property would essentially emulate the gameplay of WoW but emphasize story over grinding.
Unsurprisingly, the absolutely epic cost of development they had in mind, and the quick turnaround in funding they needed, relied on a successful stint at the yet to be cracked monthly subscription (although EA had already begun to dabble in F2P with games like Need For Speed World and Battlefield Play4Free). Like most Godzilla stories in gaming, EA began to build the entire foundation for itself to fail, as it quickly set the stage to replicate every single thing that caused others, including one of its very own failures, to resort to death or freemium within the space of months.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this
First of all, they built a business model that relied heavily on a top-down approach – get an enormous number of subscribers, push them through a client purchase with 30 days, then take the initial hit to the base after the first month. If the subscriber loss can be stemmed, and those same subscribers kept, then it’s just a free ride on the gravy train to the land of potato wedges. The problem with this tactic, however, is the sheer fact that it’s flawed by design. To get large amounts of initial subscribers means a larger marketing budget, which means more money spent on development. The more money spent, requires more players to break even quickly so investors are happy.
So having a large number of subscribers after the first month isn’t necessarily a mark of success, at least not if you had to spend millions of dollars to get them. The sheer fact is that only the most diehard player will re-sub in order to see if the game will get better, since they have invested money already. Nothing has been earned by the developer, since there’s still a lot of debt to pay, and the project backers begin to get worried. The second mistake was a common one, and one they had already made before; developing the exact same experience in a different universe.
Gamers are not stupid, and they are well aware when you are not trying to reinvent the wheel, but simply modify the tread. So, in most cases, many will play along, just to see if things ride a little smoother this time. But this sort of trust is rarely granted while there are other options available. Back when World of Warcraft released, there was not the enormous smorgasbord of full featured F2P options there are now.
Almost every failed property up to SWTOR was begging players to come in and stay a while, buoyed by the success of others who noticed that revenue increases once payment becomes optional – making SWTOR‘s decision to use a subscription model strange.
The third, and most important, mistake is one that almost every single MMO has made since; people don’t play WoW or EVE for the game (necessarily), they play it for the relationships developed through it. Call it the rewards of being the legacy option, but millions of people are willing and able to drop $15 a month because they have grown strong bonds with other players through the game. Many people have met and married, started businesses, or just find the game idle entertainment to wind down alongside their long standing guild mates. Very few of these groups are willing to take risks and branch out to other environments when they may lose the connections they have grown exclusively online, just like many would be loathe to change from a forum or social club.
The barrier of entry is rarely a problem when creating new communities; games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Guild Wars and so on have dedicated players who willingly move across the properties since there is no forced ongoing fee. But subscription fees always require value, as simply charging people for the right to exist in your game is not enough to keep people invested. Players have already decided that they want to choose the direction of development, and support those options they feel deserve feeding with their cash. As a result, content packs are offered, and can be modified based on player feedback. Unsuccessful projects can be scrapped, like any market based object, and reshaped to suit the audience.
Free is no longer a dirty word
Free2Play was once a dirty word in this industry, the filthy realm of dodgy casual games and South Korean WoW clones. But as time wore on, small developers found solice in its ability to reverse the traditional model of MMO. Growing a player base with the titillating freedom of a full game, but dangling extras in front of them, found surprisingly rewarding results. The lack of barrier to entry simply removed that “hrm, maybe” resistance from friends and allowed subscriber numbers to be up to 15 times the amount of a subscription MMO. So even if less than 20% paid a single dollar, the amount that did drastically made up for it. In an instant, the two biggest problems were solved – keeping numbers up across the experience spectrum, and introducing new and varying possibilities for added revenue.
Now everyone’s doing it. Valve made one of the most ambitious, polished and controversial attempts via Team Fortress 2. TF2 isn’t the first FPS to attempt using the model, but it’s easily the most polished and likely, most successful. It was then followed up by Blacklight: Retribution and Tribes: Ascend, both of which are easily two of the best F2P games I’ve ever played, let alone FPS’s. Then you have trading card games, dungeon crawlers, real time and turn based strategy hybrids, MOBAs, shoot em ups, flight sims – the list goes on. On top of this, China, after banning game consoles in 2000, has millions of young gamers with an enormous thirst for F2P titles; so much so that Activision has teamed up with a local company to produce Call Of Duty Online: a PC & Chinese exclusive that will almost certainly do extraordinarily well.
But not all games are designed to fit the bill, particularly small independent and single player focused titles, which will always fill a market for traditional pricing. So, also, will big budget titles, such as Guild Wars 2, where development and scope justify a relatively high initial cost. But the era of forced payment for most online, massively multiplayer games is drawing to a close, especially when titles like Planetside 2, Firefall, and the very keenly awaited Path of Exile are all joining the F2P future. The power is finally in the hands of the player, so it’s up to us now to answer the question – will we end up paying to support the games we love?