Is the writing on the wall that paying monthly for MMO’s is soon to be a thing of the past? When some of us started playing text based adventures the idea of paying by the minute for internet service was acceptable, but soon unlimited plans became the way of the land and everyone had to jump on board. Fast forward to the early days of Everquest, when the decision was made to raise the price of their monthly subscription. The player base revolted saying EQ would be done for if this move was made, but as how addiction works, we continued playing.
Perhaps that was a turning point, when these companies knew they could push their customers just far enough if their game was good/addictive enough to keep people from quitting. We learned with games such as Asheron’s Call 2, that if a game sucks people will run away, but we also learned that if a game is good enough one could make money without being number one.
When World of Warcraft exploded the common wisdom was that no other company would dethrone Blizzard anytime soon, but they could offer an alternative, just enough to make a profit. We saw a boom of new MMO’s show up with many I am sure you have never heard of. However, many of these MMO’s were turning a profit, enough to keep going and the industry thought things would level off.
When Guild Wars dumped the idea of monthly subscriptions, many people laughed at the idea. Even after the early failure of Everquest 2, most MMO’s were doing fine even in the large shadow cast by World of Warcraft. Not everyone was laughing because not only was Guild Wars a good game, but there was not a model that could be used that had already been used with many Asian MMO’s.
When we first saw a MMO go free-to-play it was thought that it meant a game was failing and in many cases that was true. Games like Age of Conan saw a mass exodus, but it was still salvageable so going free-to-play made sense. The same happened with Lord of the Rings, less players, but worth keeping up.
When Sony Online Entertainment launched the Everquest 2 free-to-play it became more common place to offer a subscription service alongside a free-to-play where you could sell additional perks and services. Not only did that extra revenue work for the free-to-play side, but for the subscription side as well.
Now seeing MMO’s go free-to-play alongside a subscription service is a normal occurrence. If the game is older, like City of Heroes it may bring in new blood. If the game is newer, like DC Universe Online it may give a dying game some new life. In SOE’s case if nothing else, they can convince their subscribers to go All Access to help pad their subscription numbers.
Even the MMO superpower World of Warcraft has seen its numbers drop sharply and not just people who stop logging in but keep their account active. Blizzard has been losing subscribers by the boatload and they are not just waiting for the next expansion, they want a new game. On the horizon, we have Old Republic. While it looks as if this game will be a hit so did DCUO.
There are many gamers from the early EQ days that consider themselves retired from MMO’s for a variety of reasons. Some of the newer gamers are burned out and they experienced an over saturation of MMO’s some good, some not so good, but the key was there were too many to subscribe to. Now many people are getting used to the free-to-play model and with W.O.W. perhaps beginning its slide down, the field may open up. Not to one dominate MMO, but a widening choice were you don’t have to slap down $50 plus $14.99 just to see if it makes it past the first month or not.
Studies show that if you charge ten bucks for a 15-episode television show, it may or may not sell well, but if you offer each episode for 99 cents, you will end up making more money in the long run. If you play a game for free and a one-time fee of five bucks gets you that new mount you will feel more inclined to buy it. American’s have run into debt because we don’t realize a three dollar cup of coffee three times a week is four hundred and sixty-eight dollars a year.
Only time will tell how free-to-play will change the MMO landscape. For those of us who can enjoy a game and walk away it may become a great opportunity to experience many new games. For those that have to have it all, it may start up a new debate about MMO addiction and how people go broke by purchasing a two-dollar sword here and a ten-dollar name change there. Think it cannot happen, look for the headlines on Second Life where people pay two hundred bucks a month for a virtual condo. Kind of makes you wonder why they didn’t think of this sooner.