There’s the new title chugging its way through alpha testing, called City of Steam. It’s supposed to be really good; I’ve heard from more than one source that it’s going well at least. It’s a browser title though, and for me after I hear browser, it’s blah, blah, blah, bu-blah. Browser, for me, is a very short step up from mobile in my mind. There’s another title called Sevencore, last year I was kind of psyched about this game, a F2P title coming out from a small developer. I remember thinking this game looked interesting, but I haven't played a F2P title since before TOR dropped, which is odd because they have been at times all I've played. An interesting and potentially devastating development from all the new AAA games going F2P, where does that leave smaller more niche developers?
Games without subscriptions are the new in-thing with MMO game development these days; although even in the West they’ve been around for more than a decade. Take World of Warcraft out the equation and I think you would find that the MMO genre has been fairly level over the past couple decades with a nice percent growth each year. In fact if you do the numbers I think MMO growth has been between 5% and 10% year on year in the last fifteen years. It’s an interesting thought. In the stock market if you had numbers like that you would have had a very good run, but you’d also need to be looking out for signs of a bear market, seeing if the market was prime for a correction.
The new F2P kick looks good in theory but sometimes there are unintended consequences. Many smaller, more niche games are unlikely to do well as a result of large F2P titles. The more they are forced to compete on unequal footing the worse it is likely to get. Even if their games are the same quality, which is difficult to argue, they don’t have the same advertising budgets and wow factor. The MMO market has always been ridiculously fickle, and hard to predict. The very pronounced development time means that sometimes decisions that seemed like smart moves in early development might not pan out by launch. Certainly TOR might have been better off being less like WoW, although at the beginning of their development gamers didn’t want any other form of gameplay than what WoW had to offer.
It seems as if World of Warcraft has fostered unrealistic expectations. Consider if a MMO was doing 300,000 subs fifteen years ago; at 5% growth that’s about 624,000 and 1.25 million at 10% growth. World of Warcraft is an outlier or the exception that proves the rule, either way it’s an anomaly. The truth is that no MMO sub should expect annual subs over 1 million, and that’s the truth. MMO companies have been blinded by the success of WoW without realizing that it’s unlikely to be obtained, at all, let alone in the near future. Economists have been saying that a game needs to take a bite of out WoWs’ subscribers when the reality is that it’s a juggernaut unlikely to ever have a peer. Bioware and Funcom are the latest companies to fall under the spell of unrealistic expectations.
The question then becomes, what do these numbers mean for F2P, the emerging era of sub-less AAA MMO development? Does the growth seen is the previous decade and a half translate into dollar signs for F2P games? Does the success of the few companies whose former subscription based games translate into future success for the industry as a whole if it becomes F2P? These questions will be asked sooner or later, and ignoring the possibilities is an enormous risk. In many ways, it’s likely that companies would be better off attempting to view F2P akin to the DVD market for the movie business. Have a plan to stay sub based for a certain amount of time, or until a certain profit or subscription number is met and then go F2P. This gives early adopters the chance to start from the ground up, but anyone who feels the game is not worth the subscription can jump on later. More than anything its not the choice that matters but knowing and recognizing options rather than setting in stone a business model. Like Darwin said, adaption is the key to survival of the fittest.