Whenever someone brings up MMOs someone else always mentions that you have to pay a monthly fee in addition to the purchase price of the game. In the past, it was always explained away as being a necessary thing. After all, MMOs, unlike other types of games, have to have constant content updates in order to stay relevant. You’ve got to pay those developers somehow, right? On top of that, MMOs require tons of bandwidth – and we can’t forget the servers.
Still, many see the monthly fee as an unnecessary roadblock. While $15 might not seem like a whole lot, to a frugal person, that can quickly add up. After all, that ends up being $180 a year. Add in expansion packs and… well, you’ve got yourself an investment.
But it is necessary, right?
Well, maybe not.
Up until recently the words “free to play” were a condemnation. To be labeled “free” was equal to being labeled “worst game ever.” It was typically indicative of grindy MMORPGs that were extremely niche and couldn’t hold a large market. After all, that was why they were free in the first place, because no one in their right mind would pay for them. It was a telltale sign of shovelware, a mark of a game that had something incredibly wrong with its core mechanics.
In the recent past, however, that has changed.
With the advent of gaming marketplaces and things like hats in TF2 or extra mounts and pets in WoW, suddenly, there is a way for developers to make money after a game has been released without charging everyone a certain fee. This is advantageous to developers as they can still pull in a ton of cash while making it optional to the user. After all, making your game free exposes it to a much wider audience. There’s a pretty good chance that you will hook a lot of players on that concept alone. Once you have a decent pool of players, you just have to dangle the right carrot in front of them for wallets to open up.
Skeptical? Understandable – but the results speak for themselves. Last year Turbine reported that their revenue tripled from Lord of the Rings Online after they made it free to play and added in a pay store. Likewise, Blizzard made over a million after they sold a ton of virtual pets. Turns out, in a game built on collecting shiny things, people want to buy shiny things.
Of course, that brings up another bag of questions. If you make money based on micropayments, then how do you determine what to sell? Up until now, most games have used cosmetic items as walletbait instead of things that give players advantages over one another. It seems like this is the line in the sand for most companies, but isn’t there a worry that greed could change that? After all, game companies are still companies and their prime directive is to make a profit. Without a doubt, a special weapon or enchant would sell like crazy if it gave players a distinct advantage in combat.
Likewise, how fair is to charge for cosmetic items? “Micropayments” typically seemed to signal smaller, $5 investments instead of $10 or $20 dollar items, yet companies like Blizzard have been pushing it with special mounts that cost quite a bit – and Blizzard still charges a monthly fee.
Strip that monthly fee away and you have to figure that more items must be introduced in order to make up for the lost monthly income.
But let’s move away from that argument and back to the main topic – subscriptions themselves. I’ve got to seriously wonder if they are on their way out with the next generation of MMOs. After all, in one of my previous articles, I looked at the possibility of the MMOFPS genre rising up to the popularity of the MMORPG. FPS gamers aren’t exactly used to paying a monthly subscription fee – so it would be quote a hurdle to expect them to adjust to it.
But maybe that’s just the thing – maybe it isn’t cut and dry “this is better than that.” Maybe, instead, the subscription model has to match the game itself. As I mentioned in the opener, some of the larger MMOs on the market can get away with monthly fees because of the amount of content they push out. With World of Warcraft, Blizzard pushes a new patch out every three months or so that typically has a ton of brand new content in it. Some feel that the monthly fee is worth it just for this, arguing that they are miniature expansions. Other games, though, that don’t update as often – or that don’t rely on updates as much – could probably do much better if they left the subscription model in the dust.
Going back to the MMOFPS example, it almost feels silly to pay a monthly fee for something like Planetside. The game basically hasn’t changed that much since its launch ages ago, so what are you really paying for? Upkeep? At this point, so few people play that I can’t imagine the servers are taxed beyond what a few micropayments could fix.
Or perhaps it just makes sense for all older MMOs to eventually switch to a free-to-play micro-transaction driven system. After all, the only way many of these MMOs are going to pull in players is if they are free. With a crowded market, how many people are going to pay monthly for a decade old game when they could play a much newer (and more populated) game?
So, here’s where I toss it over to you. Do you think the subscription model is old and crusty? Or do you think it is still a mark of quality? Can a good game be free to play? Does the genre matter?
Let me know in the comments!