It has been at least two or three years now since the first time I publicly stated my opinion that WoW would go free to play in at least some parts of the world. This thought had initially crossed my mind well before then, but frankly, for quite a while, it seemed too far-fetched to warrant presenting, even as unsubstantiated conjecture, which is what it was. After all, Blizzard's offering had a truly dominant position in the global MMOG marketplace. How realistic could it be to think that its grip might loosen enough to prompt a shift to a different type of revenue model?
Given this background, I've naturally found it very interesting to see the buzz that has arisen recently around this and similar possibilities. About week and a half ago, a US-based market research company called SuperData caught my attention with a blog posting that suggested introducing micro-transactions could be “a wise move, if handled well”. The piece even served up a few numbers, although with no real indication of how they were arrived at, thus leaving me to guess how much credibility I should assign to them.
It's SuperData's belief that WoW's total revenue for this April was $93 million. While pointing out that this is “not a bad sum”, the company says it represents a drop of 54 percent compared to $204 million only seven months earlier. Over the course of a full year, that would be more than $1.2 billion. To put this in perspective, this is right about one quarter of the $4.8 billion Activision brought in last year. What's more, we're also told that the game's player base in the eastern hemisphere has lost a substantial 1.3 million monthly active users.
Despite these sharp declines, “the game has seen an increasing conversion rate for the its current, add-on, extra-game store, and its microtransaction revenues have held pat overall.” Here again, the basis for this statement is not provided. However, if we assume this is basically accurate, it means the average micro-transaction spending per user has increased by a rather meaningful amount, roughly two-fold. As a group, those subscribers who didn't quit during the period in question are apparently willing to reach into their wallets after paying their monthly fee.
The conclusion SuperData draws from this is that “dedicated WoW players are interested in - and will spend money on - microtransactions.” Furthermore, the company seems to feel that Blizzard is hoping to entice further spending by adding such a system and making power-ups and performance enhancers available for purchase. This approach is, of course, anathema to some. However, it's certainly not unreasonable to think that many of those who object most strenuously have already left.
From elsewhere, we can also factor in that in an interview a month ago, game director Tom Chilton told NowGamer “At some point it's possible that World of Warcraft could end up being free-to-play.” Obviously, he didn't say it will happen. As a further consideration, let's toss in Blizzard honcho Mike Morhaime's recent statement that Titan won't be a subscription MMORPG. When I look at all these things together within the perspective of current global and regional market trends where F2P is increasing its lead in market share, shifting over to that model or perhaps to some form of hybrid seems to be an appealing and likely outcome.
What will it mean if WoW does make such a change? I tend to think it way well be more meaningful symbolically than in actuality. It was the perfect storm, the right game at the right time to attain a truly dominant market position, the likes of which I strongly suspect no other MMOG ever will. I also doubt that its use of the subscription revenue model substantially impacted its success, either positively or negatively. Assuming appropriate changes to its design, it would have fared just as well had it launched employing F2P or a decent hybrid.
What will happen though is that the monthly fee approach will no longer have the title that can be pointed to as its seemingly invulnerable champion. Even if another subscription release does manage to reach the top of the global popularity heap, which won't be easy to begin with, it won't even approach the kind of dominance WoW once had. Don't get me wrong – its transition to F2P won't mean the subscription model is dead or even mortally wounded. It may, however, foster wider recognition that the past is... well, the past. The MMOG landscape will almost certainly never return to the way it was, no matter how much some people wish it hadn't changed.
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