I think there's no longer any argument about the direction in which the MMO market is heading, with the proliferation of free-to-play titles and decline of subscription-based games over the past five years. In fact, while there are still more than a few MMORPGs out there that employ a subscription-only payment model -- you can find most of them on our game list -- only a handful can continue to boast "blockbuster" success. This trend doesn't necessarily suggest that subscriptions are completely going the way of the dodo, or that there is no room in the genre for pay-to-play monetization, but it does indicate that developers have been increasingly required to think differently about how to implement subscriptions within free-to-play and freemium models.
The question of how we got here is an interesting one, and our resident free-to-play columnist, Richard Aihoshi, does a stellar job of delving into the details of market shifts and trends in The Free Zone. One overarching theme, however, that deserves attention is the alignment between the propagation of free-to-play payment models with marketing efforts that give primacy to consumer choice. The MMO subgenre may be a relatively small one in the greater video games industry, but it nonetheless reflects a wider consumer market, at least in "Western" locales like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and several continental European countries, that puts individual choice at the forefront of monetization.
Not so long ago, it was relatively commonplace to head over to the local Wherehouse, HMV, or other music store to pick up the latest CD, a form of media that represents a "complete package," a series of songs that have been bundled together for a set price. With the advent of iTunes, Amazon MP3s, and other music platforms, consumers have been given the ability to purchase discrete pieces of content, in the form of individual tracks, as well as entire albums. Other services like Pandora and Spotify will allow you to listen to an unlimited number of songs, with subscriptions available for a more custom experience.
Similarly, television show and movie rental services like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, and Amazon Instant Video have become choice-driven alternatives to bundle-based cable boxes. Rather than having to pay a flat monthly fee for a number of channels that a household may or may not be interested in, consumers now have the option to rent or purchase shows and movies piecemeal, or pay a smaller subscription for access to a smaller selection. Unlike cable, the power to choose what to watch, and when, is in the hands of the consumer with these media services.
There are a plethora of examples that fit this theme of consumer choice, from gym memberships that allow you to choose "packs" of workout lessons instead of monthly fees, to online services that provide customized goods and gifts. Furthermore, this primacy of selection, where the power of choice is the customer's greatest asset, is central to marketing efforts, such as with Sony Online Entertainment's "Free to Play. Your Way" campaign.
What emerges is a narrative of consumer choice, particular in the MMO genre, where subscription payment models were once the norm, but have since become restrictive, and free-to-play has become the path to liberation and fun. Funcom's Age of Conan, for example, adopted the subtitle "Unchained" when it went F2P in 2011, implying that the game had initially been in a state of restraint and subsequently unshackled, extending the metaphor to the player, who has also been liberated in the process to play as s/he likes. Similarly, the company's newer MMORPG, The Secret World, which became buy-to-play in 2012, gives players the opportunity to "Pay Once. Play Forever." Fans of TSW are no longer restricted by the game's monthly fee, and new players are offered the prospect of being let out of the gate after a one-time fee, with optional in-game items available for purchase.
An economist and/or psychologist would likely have more to say about this narrative as it relates to larger themes relating to freedom of choice, but there does seem to be some alignment with consumer choice and social ideals prevalent in Western countries relating to individualism. The United States in particular prides itself on individual freedoms, and one wonders if the MMO free-to-play model is a microcosm that represents wider narratives of choice.
Of course, the increasing number of free-to-play games over the past few years may just be due to the rapid expansion of the MMO genre as a whole, and the difficulty for players to keep up multiple subscriptions at once. The genre is also heavily influenced by "Eastern" free-to-play models based on microtransactions made popular in regions such as China and South Korea, although the terms of such models often differ in the subject of rental versus ownership of items. Still, it would be reductive to say that the rise of free-to-play monetization in Western countries is uniquely the result of a saturated market, or one influenced only by outside forces. Although these factors may contribute to the newfound popularity of F2P over subscription-based MMORPGs, such growth seems to be aligned with other consumer-oriented initiatives based on choice.
Is the shift to free-to-play models of monetization good for MMOs in general? As a gamer, I'd certainly say so. Anyone who's heard me talk about F2P games will know that I'm a big proponent of the model for a number of reasons, not the least of which because I like to play a lot of MMOs concurrently and am cheap. I also think that the MMO genre is one of the best areas within which to promote consumer choice and customization, because of the ease with which developers can add content relative to brick-and-mortar businesses that depend on physical materials. To be sure, it can't be "easy" for a developer to create a new in-game mount, which must draw upon huge amounts of work and resources that have put in place the appropriate infrastructure. Yet, one has to think that ongoing costs related to creating new digital goods are smaller than, say, a local silkscreener that has to purchase shirts, ink, and other items to make every custom t-shirt.
There's no question that free-to-play MMORPGs are here to stay, and that subscription-only models of monetization are becoming more and more archaic. I posit that this shift in monetization is supported by a narrative of consumer choice, where players have been liberated from restrictive monthly fees and empowered with the ability to pick and choose their desired content. This narrative is reflected in other consumer markets, and is possibly aligned with social ideals related to individuality and freedom of choice. In this manner, players and consumers enjoy a sense of agency in their purchases, rather than being passive in choosing the kinds of content they receive.
You know what else I'd like to see go free-to-use? Antivirus products. They're necessary, but subscriptions are a scam!
You can follow Som on Twitter and ask him what he does subscribe to @sominator.