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The Free Zone: Three Reasons Subscription Isn't Dying

By Richard Aihoshi on June 28, 2010 | Columns | Comments

Three Reasons Subscription Isn't Dying

In this week's column, Richard Aihoshi looks at the state of the other major MMOG business model, then provides an unusual tale from the development side

Subscription isn't dying.

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No ifs, ands, buts or other qualifiers. MMO gamers who prefer to pay for their fun via flat monthly fees won't run out of options any time soon. Not gonna happen. In some corners, it's popular to set up an either/or dichotomy where the free to play and subscription models are in direct competition such that the success and growth of one can only come at the expense of the other. That's just not so.

And it's not what's happening. Although F2P is on the upswing, that doesn't mean the subscription segment is in decline. Indeed, there are strong reasons to believe it's in good shape and will remain so.

1. Box sales provide an immediate infusion of cash

Although the publisher receives only part of the price we pay, we're still talking about a lot of money. As an artificial example, a million boxes at $25 wholesale produces a very welcome quick start toward recovering the cost of development. It seems reasonable that the more a company has spent on a game, the more attractive this inflow is likely to be. As a result, it's also probable that very large-budget projects will tend toward the subscription model.

2. There's a very substantial market

Millions of people are willing and/or happy to sign up to pay their $15 or less per month. Just in North America and Europe, we're looking at a market worth a billion dollars or more this year. This is large enough to attract companies with modest budgets and expectations. After all, a one or two percent share can still be ample to turn a nice profit depending on your development and operating costs. There are also far fewer competitors.

3. It's growing

The current trend where F2P is growing more rapidly and thus gaining market share doesn't mean subscription is shrinking, at least not in dollars. So, not only is there a substantial pie available, it's also getting larger.

In addition, there are some very knowledgeable industry members and observers who believe F2P is a phenomenon that will run its course soon enough, and effectively collapse under its own weight. While I don't subscribe to this type of scenario, it would even take us back to monthly fees being predominant in the market.

Seldom seen stories

In the course of communicating with developers, publishers and other industry members, I sometimes have occasion to get interesting behind the scenes-type glimpses, many of which are off the record. They typically take the form of anecdotes about interesting and humorous situations, unusual happenings, memorable problems, etc. Recently, I asked various companies if they'd be willing to make some of these available for public consumption.

When they are, I plan, like today, to run them instead of the MMOG trivia question. The first comes from Artix Entertainment, which offers an F2P portfolio including five core titles, MMORPGs AdventureQuest Worlds and EpicDuel plus online RPGs AdventureQuest, DragonFable and MechQuest. CEO Adam Bohn tells us about an unexpected coding challenge.

The Doom-Night

Ever code a game using an iPhone? Although there doesn't appear to be an app for that, Artix Entertainment has actually done it... right in the middle of the East Coast's largest anime and gaming convention.

Last September, the highly anticipated DoomKnight class was launched in our F2P web browser RPG DragonFable the day our team left for DragonCon. Releasing new content every week is something we have perfected over the past four years, so updating the game with in this manner was nothing too out of the ordinary for our code monkeys.

We should have fed 'em more bananas.

The DoomKnight class seemed to work just fine during testing - emphasis on the italics - but the moment the team reached DragonCon after our eight-hour expedition, the release fell apart. Completely.

Sleep deprived, car sick, and surrounded by 40,000 kitty-eared cosplayers, the team gathered in our already overcrowded hotel room and looted every laptop that we had brought - which, of course, happened to only be three, since we had not foreseen such a critical disaster. The other 20 were 441 miles away and turning around to get them was just not feasible.

So we got the next best thing... iPhones!

We have never fixed broken code before using a cell phone (let alone know anyone who has). But they are called smart phones after all... and that was a good enough reason for the stressed-out team.

So, after a countless number of caffeine-fueled hours, the DoomKnight class was finally functional... and bug-free! The thrilled team members selflessly rewarded themselves with the best thank-you of all, sleep.

Not every release goes according to plan. But if they did, the Artix team wouldn't be able to come up with clever puns on our mishaps, such as this particular Doom-Night one.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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