The return of the MMO subscription?


Some of the big MMO news last week all had to do with business models and how they’re changing up a little in 2016:

  • RIFT is starting to charge for earrings/Planeswalker: Water accessibility
  • Trove is adjusting the free store so that you can’t buy free classes any longer, will be putting undisclosed content behind a sub
  • RIFT and Trove are beefing up their subscription packages
  • The Secret World is increasing the value of its subscription starting this month
  • SWTOR’s subs are rising

And while the cynical might claim dying games (except Trove had a banner year and there’s no sign that RIFT is on the way out) and a desperate cash grab, I think it’s a sign that businesses are being smart and constantly reevaluating how their business models work. Other than the ham-handed way that Trion handled the RIFT thing (what with little advance notice and slapping up a paywall that seems to hurt new players far more than veterans), I’m in approval of these moves.

More than anything, I want MMOs to survive and thrive with their souls intact. That means that I want them to make money to not only sustain operations but keep adding content while not compromising the fun and engagement of the game with their business model decisions. And I think a studio always has to be looking at multiple channels for making revenue, balancing between the need to make money and the desire to please players with unfettered content.

We can’t get it all for free. We need to accept this. F2P and B2P models have a lot going for them, particularly in getting warm bodies in the door that can get to know the game with no (or a single fixed) up-front cost. And while a complete freeloader does add some value to a game — by providing a bigger community, more player “content,” and more word of mouth — they don’t put the food on the table or get expansions funded. The only way you can get money from stalwart freeloaders is by shoving ads in the game, which is something only a couple of MMOs (Dungeon Runners, Anarchy Online) have ever flirted with.

I deeply understand the appeal of wanting to play for free, but I’m not a child. I know these games need to make money and I can’t resent them for taking moves from doing so. I just always rather them do so in a way that makes me WANT to spend money instead of feeling penalized that I’m not. I’d also rather not see lockboxes up the wazoo, but the world-weary realist in me knows that they make a lot of money, so as long as I can ignore them, I’ll turn my ire elsewhere.

Beefing up the value of subscription packages is a great way to wean players off the freebie teat and into spending regular amounts of money. Heck, I haven’t subbed to The Secret World since it went B2P, but you can better believe that now I’m going to with these changes. It became worth it for me to do so.

It’s funny to me that in 2014 we were decrying WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online for being so dumb as to launch as sub-only, and that now in 2016 subscriptions seem to be more of an in-thing. Oh, it was dumb for them to do that, but what conventional wisdom, which said “F2P or bust!” missed, is that it was the hybrid business model that should have prevailed. Most “free-to-play” MMOs actually sport a hybrid model that offers a subscription package, and even some buy-to-play games, like ESO, do as well.

Of course, there are bad ways to handle these models, and as players we should always be critically examining them. SWTOR’s subs are up, to be sure, but that’s also taking place in a game where you’re downright penalized for not subscribing and where gaudy “subscribe and get these shinies!” lures are shoved in your face. Practically everyone I knew playing the game was subbed up; F2P players were seen as an outlier in my guilds. It’s the stick-and-carrot double approach. Guess it works for them, but it feels kind of skeezy even so.

Really, gamers shouldn’t freak out to the level they seem to when studios make these business model adjustments. Nobody likes change and we all like our free stuff, but there is a problem with a game being SO free that it nose-dives into insolvency because players never broke out their wallets. Even World of Warcraft has shown over the past few years that it’s looking beyond the subscription to other revenue channels (WoW token, cash shop) to financially prop up the game.


8 thoughts on “The return of the MMO subscription?

  1. Wilhelm Arcturus February 1, 2016 / 12:37 pm

    Well, we had the revelation from Daybreak last year that heaping on benefits for subscribers pretty quickly hits a point of diminishing returns. (And, of course, if you try taking those benefits away later it sets off a firestorm.)

    I think we are seeing more of a move towards making people pay if they want to play after a certain point. That is what Trion is doing with Rift and Trove, making sure that somebody pays if you want to go outside of a now shrinking free zone. The SWTOR model seems to be the direction for success currently, where if you are serious about playing you need to subscribe.

  2. bhagpuss February 1, 2016 / 1:50 pm

    Thing is, all these sub studios moved to F2P because they were bleeding players to other MMOs, didn’t they? Whether that was to more popular subscription titles or games that were already F2P. Do we really think anyone that was already charging a sub stopped doing so because they genuinely believed F2P was a sounder ethical model?

    There are a LOT of MMOs. Even now, when the flood has dried up a little, there are still literally hundreds to choose from, with new ones coming into Early Acces, Open Alpha or Beta or even Launching every month. MMOs may not be the hot ticket they once were but online games still are and all these producers are competing for market share.

    What I see happening here is consolidation. Smaller, older MMOs like Rift and TSW need to try and lock in the players they have. Unless they’re lucky enough to be attahed to a massive IP that raises their boat (hi SW:ToR) about the only remaining route for most of them to grab more players is a Steam launch. Once that’s done it really is on to a service model and keeping whatever players they can.

    Having a “free” front end that’s really a glorified free trial is always going to be a useful marketing tool and microtransactions in the company store are going to remain a significant part of the income stream, but with shrinking dev teams and restricted resources the conflict between producing stuff to sell in those stores, servicing customers that aren’t paying and coming up with enough new content to keep the core players paying and playing is going to be a stretch.

    The changes we are seeing would appear to be companies starting to cut their coats according to their increasingly threadbare cloth. Every new, big “free” MMO that launches is going to put some new holes in the weave so the thrust has to be to try and stop people leaving wherever possible. Locking them into subs that can be made to look attractive if purchased months ahead is a good way to do that – if they can persuade enough people to stump up.

    Whether, after having spent half a decade training MMO players to deride and despise subscriptions, they’ll be able to turn the ship around will be very interesting to see.

  3. Xannziee February 2, 2016 / 1:47 am

    I prefer B2P model with optional sub and buing DLC if u dont sub. That way i can sub while leveling or playing a lot and take a break at summer with maybee no sub but still possible to log in. Thats where i got a bit sad about FFIX cos I had to sub so i dropped that… tho I prefer ESO anyho :0)

  4. Ocho February 2, 2016 / 12:13 pm

    I am actually shocked you haven’t bought a Secret World lifetime yet. And with their new changes, a dropped lifetime price, and that they’re getting rid of it, now is the best time to look into it. … Of course one has to wonder *why* they’re ditching the lifetime at this point…

  5. Syp February 2, 2016 / 2:40 pm

    Ocho — Well, beforehand it was $200 for what I saw as a rather weak package. Now it’s $150 for a much stronger subscription package. I never felt tempted beforehand.

  6. Sally Bowls (@SallyBowls) February 3, 2016 / 5:56 am

    I agree but a couple of points.

    One can argue that subs are on the rise but I see nothing that says sub-only is on the rise. TESO and Wildstar would still be wrong to be mandatory sub in 2016, just like in 2014 Ironically, as much as the cool kids railed on it, the SWTOR model seems pretty good.

    I also don’t think “prop up the game” is quite fair for WoW. They could eliminate the cash shop and half the sub price and probably still be profitable. They added a cash shop because it makes them a couple of hundred million dollars more a year than not having the cash shop. Whether ATVI is making 100 or 300 or 1000 million dollars a year in profit, they would like an extra $200M.

  7. draylynn February 18, 2016 / 10:00 am

    F2P makes a quick buck, but it can’t retain the players as well as a pure P2P, it quickly puts players off the game and ruins the RPG experience. I’ll take a P2P (NO MALL) MMORPG over this F2P tripe or P2P with mall, any day. Even WoW has become a cash-grabbing-cow.
    Players are starting to get sick of the abuse, someone’s going to have to make a decision before everyone runs off to one-time-purchase MMO’s that you can freely host your own server.

    Bring back the pure P2P or dig your graves, either way, doesn’t matter any more… Meanwhile, I’ll be playing my 24/7 Wurm Unlimited/ARK/Minecraft.. and a gazillion other game server(s) that cost less than £10 each with my friends… much cheaper and still fun and if they decided to release DLC’s, I’d still buy them, because it’s a lot cheaper then the scam-o-lot item malls MMORPG’s are providing nowadays.

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