These days, it doesn't seem to take much at all to start another round of speculation that World of Warcraft is about to implement some form of free to play. I've felt for some time that this will eventually happen, at least on a regional basis, with China most likely. The inevitable counter-argument is that the venerable game brings in too much money via subscriptions to change. However, is this assumption as solid as those who make it would like to be?
Last week, datamining of the 6.1 patch that is now on the public test realm revealed the presence of a new “veteran” account type. It turned out that this basically just means lapsed accounts will be treated like new F2P ones, with the same restrictions, mainly being capped at level 20. So, this can be seen as merely correcting an oversight that happened when limited F2P was instituted. However, it's also a step, albeit a baby one, toward allowing more unpaid access. So, I doubt this significantly affects the likelihood of WoW becoming F2P in China or anywhere else.
That being said, I also find that the line of thinking noted above is often more bluster than well thought out. For instance, those who support it tend to neglect the way Blizzard counts subscribers. I believe that to most readers of this site, myself included, it means players or accounts that pay a monthly fee (or some variation such as multi-month or lifetime). The issue is that these represent no more than about half of WoW's stated figures.
So, when someone says that there are seven million subscribers, it gives us the opportunity to infer incorrectly that the game is pulling in $15 from each. This is highly inaccurate. The number of accounts that pay this monthly fee is more like 3.5 million. Obviously, this still represents a great deal of money. What's more, the title's total revenue also includes what comes in from millions of players who pay by purchasing blocks of hours.
But what if we look at these two types of users a little more closely? Let's start with those who pay a monthly fee. As we've seen with other MMOGs, shifting to F2P would probably involve offering some form of subscription-like option. Unsurprisingly, the likely cost would be the same $15 per month as before. It's true some players would object strongly enough to walk away. But based on what we've seen with other releases, we're talking about modest leakage, nothing approaching a mass exodus.
Accordingly, the most likely scenario is one where the revenue lost due to subscribers quitting would be a relatively small part of the total. Due to the huge size of WoW's population, it would be quite a few dollars, but proportionally, the amount at risk wouldn't be nearly as daunting. That said, I can understand being conservative when the bird in hand is so fat and juicy. But it's also shrinking.
And what of the other players, the 3.5 million or so who buy blocks of time? It's difficult to envision them leaving the game in droves either. Why would they? Where they live, F2P is the “standard” revenue model. I'd guess that a lot, quite possibly a large majority, have played at least one such title. So, whether through observation or personal experience, they'll know what they're getting into. Few will have meaningfully inaccurate conceptions of how cash shop-based releases work. Neither will very many be scared by the possibility of being gouged since they'll already know what their spending patterns are likely to be.
Let's also take a moment to remember that because the F2P segment is larger than P2P in China and Asia, shifting a game from the latter to the former opens the door to far more potential players than the same change would here. For instance, if we say F2P is 60 percent of the Chinese market, then switching WoW over would open it up to 1.5 times as many new users while – as discussed above – probably losing relatively few current ones.
From a business point of view, this appears to be a winning proposition, one in which the reasonable potential gain outweighs the likely risk. This is the main reason I continue to think the change will happen; it would be profitable. I'm not prepared to predict a time frame since I have no read on the mindset of Activision's execs. Neither am I privy to the intentions of Tencent. Seemingly the key stakeholder with the most to gain, the latter is ostensibly a silent partner but did bankroll a substantial portion of the management buyout. Nonetheless, to answer the question I posed to begin this column, I do think we're getting closer.
- How likely is it that WoW will switch to F2P in China this year? By the end of 2016?
- How soon do you think the game will loosen the F2P restrictions that currently apply here?
- How likely is it that the subscription MMOG segment will continue to shrink, both globally and in North America? Here, how small will it be in five years? In 10?