Do Subscriptions Make a Difference in Community?
It’s no secret that not everyone is pleased with the momentum free to play gained over the past 5-7 years in the MMORPG genre. Subscription game after subscription game converted to the freemium model to boost population (and revenue) and new games released as free to play right from the start. Yet with several games like Final Fantasy XIV, WildStar, and The Elder Scrolls Online released or set to release with subscriptions in some form, it seemed an appropriate time to examine the potential impact versus some of the wishful thinking out there with regards to the issue.
Reading MMO discussions here and elsewhere, it’s common to see complaints about free to play and lists of reasons why subscription games have arguably better communities. Some will argue that subscriptions are good for keeping people out of a game, with assumptions about just who those people are and why they supposedly taint communities. They’re ‘poor’, they’re ‘kids’, they’re ‘newbs’, they’re “freeloaders”, they know nothing about MMOs, or any number of similar comments pop up across gaming communities around the internet.
Those who enjoy access to the very games the developer and publisher intended for them to download and play freely have diluted MMOs and “ruined” communities, the arguments go. The oft-referred to “Barrens Chat” crowd. Yet the new blood in the genre has been what has kept it alive thusfar, and even led to the degree of variety we have today. For good or bad.
With a subscription, barriers to entry go back up, which is something developers and their publishers do take into consideration. The above ‘undesirables’ are supposedly driven away. With a free to play game, studios sell the experience, but also the lack of barriers, hoping to turn their profits on attracting numbers and entice a consistent percentage of those to pay. With subs, things feel ‘fairer’ because the content and updates aren’t concentrated on the “whales” who spend more and keep everyone else afloat, and there's little guesswork on any given day how much revenue will come in. MMOs, regardless of payment model, need the bodies on the servers playing the game, because if your servers appear to be dead, even going F2P might not save you.
Yet if a game is going to be a subscription game, is it wiser to go all in as a sub game, like SWTOR, or with a contingency plan in place to change your model? MMO players skew older and the average age was around 35 last I saw numbers, so at this point, many of us have been around the proverbial block a couple of times and aren’t wearing rose-colored glasses (aside for our first game or two, no?). If people see a sub game as a grab with obvious seams where a cash shop would serve, they just may not bite. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a subscription game and both looks and feels like one. SWTOR felt like one too, though BioWare hired monetization experts in the end to gate a few things. Yet let's take for granted that players will play a new sub game, the impact on communities – is it perception or reality? Both?