This week, Blizzard announced that its subscription base for World of Warcraft rose by more than 100,000. Since all logic says that a near-decade-old MMO should be tailing off, that's something of a surprise—especially since game industry augurs have spent the last year or so predicting the death of subscription-based games. For some time now, the free-to-play model's been rolling over the games business like some kind of evil Katamari, getting bigger and bigger as it sucks up developers, publishers and game projects alike. So what's up with WoW's upward trend? Is the turnaround just a fluke, or could it mean gamers aren't as gung-ho about free-to-play as business analysts say they are?
Interestingly enough, Blizzard itself seems to be banking on the fluke theory. The same press release that announced the rise in WoW subscriptions also talked about Blizzard's future projects, emphasizing their free-to-play approach. It mentions the strategy's success in the West and more significantly, China.
China, with its ridiculous population density and rising wealth represents the brass ring to many game publishers. (Which is actually kind of funny, since China doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word “copyright”.) While console game makers continue to struggle to protect their assets within China, PC publishers seem to be hoping free-to-play is a way to work around the country's penchant for piracy.
Regardless of what's going on in China, on the U.S., free-to-play seems both hero and villain. Among newer game enthusiasts, it could be the only thing they know. For some time now, mobile and social games have advanced the “try before you buy” concept, so consumers who tend to play games only on occasion (say, while waiting in lines or on break at work) have come to expect it. Competition within these markets is so fierce, developers can no longer expect to be paid for their work and must give it away for free or risk being ignored completely. The hope of course, is that once gamers have tried a game, they'll be willing to pay for the no-ads version or for additional content. The problem with that theory is that with so many interactive options, consumers are just as likely (I admit, I do this a lot) to download other free titles once the first one asks for payment.
Then again, I'm an old hand at this stuff. I've been playing games all my life, and part of the reason is the level of attachment they offer me. Games I've owned outright I've taken the time to develop meaningful relationships with; in the current free-to-play atmosphere I've become downright fickle. Free-to-play prevents me from feeling obligated to try anything for very long, so if a game doesn't grab me within thirty seconds, into the trash it goes. Even games that do interest me generally get only an hour or so—however long it takes me to run into the “click here to buy gems” screen.
With as much experience as I have, I'm hardly an accurate representation of today's gamer. In fact, by now everyone's probably heard of what I think of as my free-to-play polar opposite--game industry bean counters call them “whales.” If you haven't heard this unflattering term, whales are gamers who become addicted to the free-to-play money-sink format and spend hundreds of dollars on games that embrace it. It's no doubt easy enough to turn into one, especially when micro-transactions range from $.99 cents to $99.99, but when I see it happening, I can't help but think of Zoolander's The Great Mugatu, “I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!” How in hell did this free-to-play garbage ever replace the notion of “one price, unlimited play”? It's like Disneyland started letting people in for free, then charging them ten bucks every time they want to ride Space Mountain.
Which brings us back to subscription fees and a segment of the WoW audience going back to paying them. Isn't paying a subscription fee the same thing as spending money through micro-transactions? Well, the two aren't twins, though they could be seen perhaps as first cousins. I would argue the difference is that subscription fees, while ongoing, are set. You know the price of admission up front, and once you've paid it you have the freedom to play as much as you want. Conversely, micro-transaction-dependent games are all about throttling your experience. They're set up from the get-go to prevent you from playing more than five minutes at a time, exploring new areas or completing hard levels without powerups. Their stance is clear: to fully enjoy our game, you must pay. And pay. And pay.
It's insidious, and has a negative transformative effect on the burgeoning (and in many cases, inexperienced) game audience. Still, as bad as the experiential and financial effects free-to-play games have had on the gaming public, the creative effect they've had on games is far worse. How can that be? Come back next week and I'll tell you.
Next week, Sunday February 16th, we'll examine how the free-to-play model is undermining game development.