This blog turned five yesterday – so I’ve been reflecting on the big changes the MMORPG industry has witnessed in those years. One, the conversion of so many games to a Free-to-Play model, seems to be reversing at this moment. I started blogging in 2011, just as the Free-to-Play conversion wave was building. Now it seems as though a studio-led push for a return to subscriptions is spreading.
SWTOR and KoTFE
Bioware were early on this trend, if trend it is, by encouraging us to (re-)subscribe to SWTOR ahead of the launch of Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion to gain bonus items and to benefit from the pre-launch bonus 12x experience rate. This Thursday, February 11th, we should see the first post-expansion story chapter open – again only if you subscribe.
The Secret World
In a move, perhaps, to address the financial issues of developer Funcom; The Secret World is revamping its subscriber benefits to more closely resemble the model in games like FFXIV where you accrue new items or other benefits based on the length of time subscribed.
Developer Trion has caused some controversy with planned changes to both Rift and Trove: certain items that were available via in-game currencies will become cash-only purchases. At the same time Trion have been promoting subscriptions for Rift with enhanced benefits.
Daybreak Games also is busy backing away from its previous Free-to-Play focus. The seemingly very popular nostalgia servers for both Everquest and Everquest 2 are firmly subscription only, that’s quite a unique take on a subscriber benefit I suppose. Also the zombie-survival game H1Z1 is being split in two and it/they will be buy-to-play not free-to-play in future (see Wilhelm’s concise overview of this).
So is this a trend or a few isolated changes? It seems to me that MMO studios aren’t doing quite so well off of Free-to-Play. It’s a potentially worrying trend, not because I expect to play without paying anything, but because of the potential impact on group gaming. The big problem with the older “subscription or nothing” model for me was the big paywall barrier to just “jumping into a game with friends”. I’m not happy with having to cajole people into subbing to play a game with me. In the Free-to-Play era it has been much easier to try new games together. Invariably if I’ve stuck with a game for more than a month or two, I’ve spent money on it. If we are seeing a wholesale return to subscriptions then I may have to narrow my gaming selection somewhat.
I wonder if we’ll see other studios leaping on this trend in some fashion. It would be hard for non-hybrid Free-to-Play games like Neverwinter to suddenly put up subscription barriers but games like Star Trek Online, Elder Scrolls or Wildstar could conceivably start pushing subs again, perhaps?