Subscriptions comeback?

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.


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.

Everquest 1/2

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?

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3 Responses to Subscriptions comeback?

  1. ironweakness says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing, and even sent a question to the Massively OP podcast (yet to be answered) on this trend. However I don’t think it’s a move back to subscription only, but a change (improvement?) to the B2P/F2P with premium supcription hybrid. All of the games mentioned have had the option before, the value is simply being increased to make that option more enticing.

    In my opinion this may improve things because if it is successful there is the possibility that cash shop items will be less sleazy; companies have to realize by now the bad PR they get from selling certain types of items or services. (Right Trion?) so if they can increase subscription sales, they could (in theory) refrain from any taboo microtransaction practices.

    And if it remains a hybridization, then it will also allow for the type of social and/or casual gameplay that F2P excels at, allowing players to move back and forth between subscription status and not, without being completely locked out of the game. I would think that if these studios end up with more players subbing even half or 1/3 of the year, they’ll do better than relying on microtransactions.

  2. bhagpuss says:

    I agree with Ironweakness but I also think it has long been obvious this is where we were going to end up. The true, full F2P model has never really taken hold in the West. Almost every supposedly F2P MMO has always had some kind of Premium membership option that is a Subscription in everything but name. There’s been a problem with finding enough incentives to get people to take those up, so most of the games have also run fairly aggressive cash shops as well. All in all it’s not been a great situation for developers or players.

    I always thought we would drift to some kind of hybrid F2P/Sub model where the F2P part effectively acted as a very generous, unlimited free trial but to play the end game, which is where most people seem to want to be, you’d have to put some money down. That is, I think, where we are close to being now.

    It works extremely well for me because my primary interest is in the lower levels and the incidental content that most developers seem to be happy to hand out for nothing. By the time I get to the parts they want me to pay for, if I ever do, I am usually happy to move on. One thing they haven’t really tried much is variable price subs – there are MMOs I’d pay $5 s month for a limited sub that I wouldn’t pay $14.99 for and I might well take three or four subs if the total came to less than two at the current going rate.

    It will keep changing, anyway. If you come back to this topic in another five years all the goal posts will have moved and probably so will the pitch!

  3. I posted about this a while ago too when I noticed the change to swtor and eso, and how they are seemingly giving a better deal with getting the newest content packs. It seems to be working too, probably because content seems to be far more interesting than an exp buff

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