Over the past couple of years I’ve written a smattering of articles on the state of the MMORPG. I pondered if the Free To Play model was the future. Later, I wrote a post patting myself on the back that, among other predictions of mine, MMOs indeed appeared to be toppling in that direction, like the dominos of Communism that so engrossed the US psyche in the 1960s. In November 2011 I mocked the half-assedness of DC Universe Online, snarkily suggesting there was a good reason it didn’t even last a year with a subscription model before going free to play. Or to use the more accurate buzzword, “freemium”: a free baseline of access and content which is then supplemented by micro-purchases for advanced stuff, as the individual gamer wishes.
Well, so, funny thing about that. Star Wars: The Old Republic just announced they’re going free to play this Fall, which puts it squarely into the “we didn’t even make it one year” category. I knew they’d been having some dropoffs in subscriber numbers, a big sign of which was enabling limited free server transfers about a month ago; if you looked into the specifics of that it was pretty obvious it was less about letting people play with friends and more about consolidating populations, most likely in preparation for complete shutdown of certain servers with lower player counts. But there’s a big jump between that and completely abandoning your intended subscription model.
This article on WebProNews doesn’t pull any punches, pointing to the news as tantamount to EA and Bioware admitting the game is a failure. That’s rough, considering I certainly feel Old Republic’s quality level was (and is) much higher than DCU Online’s, but I’ll admit, for all my oracular pretensions, I did not see this coming. At least not so soon. If I could think of one perfect storm, one set of circumstances for an MMORPG that could justify the old-school subscription model, it would have been a company with Bioware’s track record for quality married to a red-hot license like the Star Wars universe. And yet here they are not only giving up on it, but showing every sign that this wasn’t part of the plan. The “Free vs. Subscriber” listing on the official site right now is woefully generic and what features have so far been discussed elsewhere are basically ones already used by most Freemium MMORPG’s, such as a “virtual cash” store system or certain character classes and endgame content locked off.
Look, if it’s a way to keep the game from shutting down entirely, I’m all for it. I’m even tempted to switch to Freemium status since a lot of the subscriber content is stuff I’ve never experienced and maybe never will (endgame raiding and the like). What most worries me is that the majority of development effort in the next few months is going to be spent trying to overhaul everything to a Freemium setup, rather than improving the game itself. We’re still waiting on chat bubbles, for heaven’s sake.
In a way, though, I suppose it’s better that they didn’t have some Freemium system already in place, because to quote a certain Sith Lord, we might find that lack of faith disturbing. Can you imagine shelling out $60 for a game on its release, and then $15 a month for several months, only to find out that the company intended a Freemium model all along and just wanted to gouge some cash up front? Would we be outraged? Or would we perhaps treat it like the thought of a first-run movie–you go pay the theater price because you don’t want to wait for it to be available on cable or Netflix.
The weirdest thing for me about the announcement is that EA announced that the Old Republic client software would go on sale for $15 in the time leading up to the Freemium switch. And that’s just bizarre, every other MMORPG that’s gone Freemium has offered up their client software for free as well. That’s part of the whole point, you waive the entry fee so people decide to come in and nose around. This is like charging a cover for an Open House.
I mean, seriously, how long after this fifteen dollar sale do you think it’ll be before they do just offer the client free of charge? Maybe they’re planning to offer some vanity pet or mount for the $15 as well…?
Don’t laugh. World of Warcraft and Rift haven’t quite gone Freemium yet, but both of them now offer “unlimited trials” where people can play for free as long as they want, as long as they don’t exceed a certain character level. And both have also started offering up in-game vanity items for real world cash purchase, where in the old days that was a matter of attending certain events or accomplishing certain tasks. I’m not lying about it being $15, either, and that’s on top of the monthly subscription fee.
I don’t think they’ll stay above the need for Freemium, though. I expect even WoW will go Freemium in the next year or two, and though I’ve been scoffed at for making that claim, take a look at this quarterly report from Blizzard. The numbers say WoW’s subscription levels stabilized and are holding at around 10 million after the drop-off from the 12 million peak last year, but how is it you lose 16% of your players and experience a 100% drop in revenue? I think the answer is that a lot of the subscribers are the under level 20, free to play accounts. Hell, I made one after canceling my regular subscription. I don’t touch it, but it’s there, and it probably counts. Right now Blizzard is making absolutely no money off all those people, whereas if they bit the bullet and put a full Freemium system in place, the experiences of EQ2, LOTRO, etc. say you might get even more money out of a given customer than you would with the standard $15 a month.
I’m guessing Blizzard’s holding their breath and waiting to see how the Mists of Pandaren expansion does. The Old Republic didn’t kill off WoW like some expected, and in fact some are saying that this news of TOR going F2P is proof the champion continues to vanquish all challengers. But I wonder if it’s less of an implosion than an inevitability. In this economy where people continue to have to closely monitor their luxury spending, the Freemium model exerts a hefty gravitational pull. I’m waiting now to see how long it will take The Secret World to go Freemium after its release, but I think it’s no longer a matter of quality so much as a market mandate so strong that eventually, nothing will escape. Not even WoW.