Early this month, during the Q2 Activision Blizzard earnings conference call, Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime stated that the long-awaited Project Titan is “unlikely” to be a subscription-based MMORPG. His choice of words didn't absolutely rule out the possibility, but it does seem quite reasonable to think it won't be. If we make this assumption, there are three main conclusions we can reach; it won't be subscription-based, it won't be an MMORPG, and it won't be either.
Were I a gambling man, I'd put my money on the first one. Switching genres would be a massive step in terms of the game design, perhaps not a great deal smaller than starting over completely from scratch. Of course, doing that as well as adopting a different business model would involve even more. Two months ago, I brought up the possibility that Titan might go free to play, if not globally, then at least in certain key markets where it's predominant. At that time, I wasn't convinced it will actually happen; however, I did feel the prospect wasn't nearly the longshot it would have been a few years ago.
And now? I'm still not completely confident. My gut sense suggests that the chances Titan will be F2P in China et al have increased. Here in this hemisphere too, but I also think they're still significantly lower. In this respect, my best guess is that Activision will take a more conservative route, one that will include selling the game. After all, doing so – at least initially – is a lock to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. Why would the company give up such an enormous influx of cash? Answer: it won't.
However, there's also a huge amount to be made from giving players the opportunities to make voluntary purchases. Indeed, although there's no way of knowing, this could arguably comprise a larger revenue stream over the entire lifetime of the game. I tend to doubt that Activision is willing to turn its back on this money either. What's more, if Titan is designed to be F2P or at least F2P-ready for China, it seems relatively easy to implement some form of item shop in regions where an initial purchase will be required.
It's certainly not easy to make predictions about an endeavor that is still at least a couple of years from release – and honestly, would a lot of people be surprised if it turns out to be longer? That said, speculating is another matter, and in this regard, we're able to factor in current industry and market trends projected forward. As we are aware, F2P holds the majority share globally as measured by both dollars and players. It has also been gaining on both fronts for a number of years, and there's no readily apparent reason to think this situation will change before 2015 or 2016 – or after then either.
I also assume that Titan will be re-designed to fit what the market is expected to be when it launches, not what it is now or was in the past. It's abundantly clear from what Morhaime said that Blizzard knows the market is now very different from how it was when World of Warcraft came out. If not, why even consider such a dramatic change as dropping subscriptions?
So, what intrigues me is how far the company is willing to go. The obvious guess is some form of buy to play, but does anyone actually think this will happen without implementing other significant revenue streams? I don't, which means I'm wondering both what and how extensive they will be. The conservative route would be to offer only items that have no effect on gameplay. With my player hat on my head, that's definitely what I'd prefer.
However, when I try to think from the publisher's profit-driven perspective, I have to ask myself whether this will be the optimal approach a few years from now. Like it or not, I have my doubts. A lot of Western gamers are already used to items like temporary XP boosters; even if we don't use them ourselves, we aren't annoyed enough by the fact that others do to quit games we otherwise enjoy. In this light, the key question for companies isn't whether to offer merchandise that provides advantages. Rather, it's where to find the balancing point that will bring in the most money even if it does lead some individuals to opt out.
Let's also not forget that the large majority of the external funds in the recently announced Activision deal will come from an investment fund and Tencent. How likely is it that either will be content with any strategy where the company doesn't try to maximize its future profits?
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