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The Social Hub: The Subscription Model - A Matter of Expectations

Column By Christina Gonzalez on March 17, 2014

Subscriptions. From where we are right now, the topic is worth revisiting. The Elder Scrolls Online is set for release in just a couple of weeks, while WildStar will be debuting in early June. While both games will launch with subscriptions, there are some who feel that the subscription model is outmoded, with a contingent of players that agree that a free to play game attracts them more. Yet, despite some games launching with subscriptions and then converting to a hybrid model (or even buy to play in the case of The Secret World), a couple of studios are trying again. The MMO player community is divided into several types of players whose interest isn’t uniform, so while some might speak for one model or another, the truth is all models work for some people. So why, especially with the most successful game being a subscription-based game, does the idea of subscriptions seem to bother so many?

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When a controversial opinion piece from a blogger posting on Forbes wrote a piece on ESO (seemingly before he had any experience with the game) calling it a failure in the making, the backbone of his argument was that Zenimax was charging a subscription and subscriptions are a thing of the past. It was a lot of doom calling that was also reflected in other bits of early mainstream press about the game around the net. ‘This is a subscription game and nobody plays those anymore’ was the general theme. In ESO’s case specifically, a few tossed around the idea that players merely wanted a co-op Skyrim and nobody wanted an MMO (despite the fact that the MMO was already in development before Skyrim was released). And, reading some of these, it seemed that some people really didn’t seem to get MMOs or subscriptions.

It’s not difficult to understand why some might come to these initial conclusions. MMORPGs exploded in number after the success of WoW, leading to more games and the perception of diluted quality in the genre. WoW succeeded as a subscription game, but no other game could even remotely match its numbers. Even just taking Western gamers into account, the sub numbers for WoW dwarf those for all other games. A few larger budget and highly anticipated titles came and went. Some still survive or thrive under those hybrid models mentioned above. Others languished. A few games did or have stayed subscription-based for many years with small, but dedicated populations. It’s not that subscriptions are a thing of the past, it’s that expectations have to be in line with what whichever portion of the community you are chasing can and will deliver for a quality game.

With AAA MMO development taking a good four or five years, one must take into consideration the time period when development began for certain games and the climate at the time. We’re now at the point where games that are coming out this year and next year started their development cycles right around or even soon after some of the hyped releases started converting to hybrid models and numbers for WoW began to slip. I think that puts us in an era of more reasonable expectations and concentration on making the game versus chasing any particular coattails.

That doesn’t mean that devs aren’t trying to go after players who enjoy some of the aspects of other games, since with as much choice as players have today, capturing extended loyalty is not a given. At the recent WildStar press event this month in California, Carbine’s Jeremy Gaffney said the team believes that good games sell if you make a game that players want to play and on top of that, they are planning many updates and new content that is based around how people play the game. That’s how they aim to earn your entertainment investment each month. Carbine knows that the game isn’t guaranteed player loyalty for a long time. The idea of earning the player’s cash every month is something that Zenimax has also expressed. Both games will be compared, and sometimes unfairly, because they’re both subscription games launching in a similar window, but they’re different and the majority of each game’s player base will probably be quite different.

Yet the notion of earning the player’s dollars (or Euro, Yuan, Yen, etc) every month is not something new, but it is something we’re not necessarily used to right now. We’ve gotten used to delayed or infrequent content updates, cash shops selling many items we used to get for free (even if they were rare), and a lot of player churn because there are many cheap options from other multiplayer online games like MOBAs, or even other sources of entertainment. Yet some people remember regular content updates, new items released, sometimes new features, built upon the sub revenue that kept a game going.

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