The Subscription Model For MMOs Died Five Years Ago Today
Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to be the game. Officially announced on Oct. 21, 2008 and launched three years later, it was the last game that was non-facetiously dubbed the “WoW killer.” The budget was huge, estimated to be as high as $200 million. It had a veteran gaming studio behind it and was bolstered by the weight of the biggest sci-fi license in the world. It was simply too big to fail.
But fail it did. By mid-2012, subscriptions were falling and revenue was declining. From a public facing, everything was rosy and functioning perfectly fine, even as people were laid off, servers emptied, and press releases touting the game's increasing sales sounded about as convincing as Han Solo on the Death Star.
Things were definitely not “fine.” As Senior Producer Bruce Maclean would later admit, “The mood was, 'We are in trouble.' We were not doing well.” On July 31, 2012, a little more than seven months after its much-ballyhooed launch, reality set in. BioWare announced that The Old Republic would be going free-to-play. And I'd argue that the “new hope” for subscription MMORPGs died with it.
End of one era, start of another
We know, SWTOR doesn't have the greatest free-to-play model in the world. But it does at least call itself free-to-play and better resembles that model than, say, World of Warcraft. That first point might seem like mere semantics or marketing-speak, but when “FREE!” is blasted out on all channels, it has an effect – not only on the players, who expect more for their (lack of) money, but on the industry as a whole, which takes notice. If SWTOR can get rid of its required sub and call itself “free” and thrive, then other games are going to follow suit, to some extent or another.
This, I'd surmise, was a watershed moment of MMO pricing over the past few years. Since SWTOR's announcement, exactly one significant game has launched with a required subscription fee and stuck with it: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. A few high-profile games have tried – WildStar, The Elder Scrolls Online, The Secret World – but all have either switched to full free-to-play or done away with a required sub while still charging a box price. By and large, players aren't buying it – the concept or an actual subscription – any more.
These days, hearing that a game requires a subscription is heard by many as “short-term cash grab until we go B2P/F2P,” or that the game will outright fail.
Before SWTOR, there were still a few sub-only games that seemed like they'd succeed charging their $15/month. There was nothing unusual about games like Rift, Star Trek Online, or DC Universe Online (which went F2P before SWTOR's launch). Sure, Turbine had started the party, with Dungeons & Dragons Online and The Lord of the Rings Online going F2P a little earlier, but there still seemed to be room for both sub and F2P games.
That changed with SWTOR's monumental announcement. After that, a game with a required sub was met with a lack of faith that even Darth Vader wouldn't find disturbing. Even before they launched, I remember fielding questions on various casts how long games like TESO or TSW would last before ditching their subs – something we rarely asked about the previous generation of MMORPGs. “I'll wait until it goes free-to-play” became a common refrain among patient, wallet-conscious gamers.
These days, hearing that a game requires a subscription is heard by many as “short-term cash grab until we go B2P/F2P,” or that the game will outright fail. Companies now have to defend their decisions to charge a sub fee the way they used to have to defend gameplay decisions. Correct or not, the same thinking often applies to non-MMORPG B2P games like Overwatch.
Be honest: If a new MMORPG was announced today with a required sub, you'd raise an eyebrow, too, wouldn't you? Can you remember feeling that way before mid-2012? If Star Wars: The Old Republic couldn't survive with a sub, what would make this game think it can? Regardless of how you rate the “free-ness” of the F2P games that have shown up over the past five years, it's been virtual suicide for MMORPGs to even discuss requiring a subscription.
AAA F2P? LOL
Since July 31, 2012, that's been the new normal, and it doesn't look to change any time soon, at least not in the AAA space. A few indie games might be able to draw a niche audience with a sub – then again, virtually every MMORPG in development is an indie, niche title.
Maybe there's a connection between those two observations: that subs are dead and there are no more AAA MMORPGs in the works. As much as we might say nice things about F2P models, maybe very expensive MMORPGs require subs – and, these days, a little more – to remain afloat. SWTOR was very expensive and has one of the least-friendly F2P models out there, while The Elder Scrolls Online – which was rumored to have a budget on par with SWTOR's – is a B2P game that triple-dips with a box price, (optional) subscription, and a cash shop that heavily features lockboxes. Meanwhile, WoW and FFXIV, neither of which could be classified as “cheap,” chug along with their subs.
If you want a “good” F2P game, you have to go with an indie game that, while potentially a high-quality game like Path of Exile or Warframe, doesn't have that “full MMORPG” feel that made you fall in love with the genre 10+ years ago. If you're still holding out hope for that earth-shattering, life-sucking, AAA MMORPG to end all AAA MMORPGs, you might have to deal with it requiring a subscription – and based on how SWTOR, and every game but one, since has failed in that endeavor – I wouldn't expect that to happen any time soon. In other words, it's probably better that EverQuest Next died before we could be disappointed by its exact payment model.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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