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Michael Bitton: The Return of Subs: FFXIV, WildStar, and ESO

Column By Michael Bitton on August 21, 2013

The trend line has, up until this week, been clear: the MMO genre is going in an increasingly F2P direction. The subscription model held for quite a while here in the West, but MMO developers have been fast-adopting the F2P business model (with various twists) for some time now. Just about every new release is F2P in some form and even games released subscription-based have been making the switch at a breakneck pace.

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Whereas in previous years, Western gamers expected to find a subscription with every MMO purchase, there are now people shocked when an MMO developer decides to, perhaps stubbornly, go against the grain and stick with the subscription-model (read: Square Enix with Final Fantasy XIV).

People have been trying to make heads-or-tails of Square Enix’s decision to stay with subscriptions on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn for some time now, but with Carbine Studios’ recent announcement that WildStar would too be a subscription-based game, FFXIV doesn’t seem like the odd-man out anymore.

For what it’s worth, Square Enix’s Naoki Yoshida offered a lengthy defense of his team’s decision to stick with subscriptions for FFXIV in an interview with VentureBeat earlier this summer:

“Now, you have Blizzard and you have Square Enix. We’re the only two companies in the industry, basically, that are making MMOs with our own money. That gives us an advantage, because where other companies have to get money from investors and have to pay that back, we don’t have a lot of time to build slowly and be able to pay that back. Investors want their returns right away. With Square Enix and Blizzard, because we’re putting our own money into it, we don’t have those investors to worry about, and that means we can release something and maybe take a little bit of a hit at the beginning, but as long as we’re increasing the amount of people we have, then we’ll get that money and make the players happy. We’ll get into that cycle I talked about before, where we’re creating good content and have that steady income to keep the cycle going.

With version 1.0, even though we call it a failure, we still had a user base. During the time that we were developing this game, 2.0, we were able to increase the amount of subscribers threefold as well. Again, it takes time. It takes showing the users that we’re really into this and giving them that new content. But we’re able to see a rise there. That’s what we’re looking for in this. Again, we’re not saying—The market didn’t change. It’s that there are two different types of models. Choosing the model that’s right for your product and being successful with that is what’s important. We believe that the bigger the game, the larger the scale of the MMO, it’s going to be better for the game if it’s on a subscription model.”

Having read through Mr. Yoshida's explanation when the article originally went to press, I could understand Mr. Yoshida’s point-of-view, but it was still hard to reconcile how the game would survive in an increasingly F2P world. While I personally prefer the subscription model, it’s always been my opinion that MMOs have succeeded despite this business model, not because of it. Attrition is your worst enemy with a subscription based model and you’re fighting it all the time as new games release and the game gets older. 

Now imagine trying to justify this cost to players when games like Guild Wars 2 (I lump B2P into the overall loosely defined F2P category) are offering aggressive bi-weekly content updates for the price of the box and it’s pretty easy to appreciate that the pressure to keep subscriptions at a healthy level would be higher today than ever. It was always tough, but now the deck is really stacked against you if you’re exclusively subscription-based. This is the reason I was plenty convinced that WildStar would be going free-to-play in some form and that the folks at Zenimax Online would be crazy not to do the same.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong. The F2P model is going to likely remain the predominant business model for most MMOs going forward, but the big AAA MMO developers may be looking to challenge the notion that it’s the only way to go. Of the big AAA MMOs on the horizon over the next few years (EQN, WS, FFXIV, and ESO), two of the four are announced as subscription-based, while EverQuest Next (similar to all other SOE titles) will go F2P. 

I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop with Elder Scrolls Online (see footnote down below).  If Square Enix can justify it with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and now Carbine Studios with WildStar, there is no doubt in my mind that Elder Scrolls Online will follow suit as a subscription-based MMO. This is especially likely when you consider the logic Mr. Yoshida offered behind his company’s decision to stick with subscriptions. Zenimax Online is also making their MMO with their own money and if you follow the same thinking as Mr. Yoshida, then it would also make sense for the ESO team up to go subscription-based with Elder Scrolls Online.

Zenimax has been curiously mum on the ESO business model for some time now, which leads me to believe they’ve been wrestling with it internally. It’s understandable. While the market shifting towards F2P adds pressure for Zenimax to do the same with ESO, it’s risky in terms of the message it sends about the IP. Despite the ubiquity of the F2P model these days, it is still associated with titles that offer less quality, and this isn’t the message you want to send with an Elder Scrolls game as it can devalue the IP as a whole. This is likely a significant factor in whatever internal discussions the team has had on the subject and I feel that if this hasn’t been settled internally just yet, Carbine Studios’ announcement this week will be a game changer in those deliberations.

Two years ago I felt BioWare were plugging their fingers in their ears when they decided to stubbornly pursue subscriptions with Star Wars: The Old Republic. It was clearly not the right decision for them and you’d think that if the trend itself weren’t enough, the game’s spectacular failure would have really sealed the deal for anyone looking to go subscription-based. With that in mind, it’s hard to say if Square Enix and Carbine are simply making a calculated decision here or that they are just equally as stubborn and doomed to a similar fate.

Can newly-released subscription MMOs really thrive in today’s market? Or will we be back here in a year or so discussing these games’ switchover to F2P? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

UPDATE: It's not so often that you get to have your theory confirmed within hours of speculating! Zenimax Online announced earlier this morning that Elder Scrolls Online will be subscription-based. This piece was written before the news developed, so please consider that when commenting! ;)

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB


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