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The List: Why the Subscription is Here to Stay

Columns By William Murphy on December 18, 2010

Why the Subscription is Here to Stay

One of the biggest stories in the MMO world during the course of 2010 has undoubtedly been the F2P movement led by DDO: Unlimited’s successful re-launch. The very fact that Turbine was able to pull DDO back from the brink of death by merely shaking up its revenue model showed every studio that’s been struggling to compete in the crowded market that maybe there is another way to keep their games afloat than simply charging a monthly subscription. Granted, there’s a lot of stigma attached to the F2P games market, and with good reason. But there’s also a growing fear that soon every game will be F2P and thereby will require its players to shell out too much money to with the game (RE: a generalization).

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Now, I’m not a CFO or anyone who really has any in-depth knowledge of how the revenue streams for our MMOs work. But, since I’ve got a keyboard and a podium I’ll just give it my best shot: subscription-based games are here to stay. While I’ll be the first one to say thank you do studios who try something new with their revenue model, I have no doubt that “Ye Old Subscription” is going to be around for a long time to come. Here are just a few of the reasons why I think so, and be sure to add your own in the comments below.

5.) MMOs Cost a Lot of Money

Not just to make, but to maintain. Not every game will be able to survive on the wishes and hopes that some players will shell out money on the F2P model. The sheer size of these worlds we play in demands millions of investment dollars, and for that reason alone I tend to think that unless a game is designed from the outset as a free experience, it will likely hold a subscription fee. That is, at least until the game can no longer sustain itself with a subscription a lone, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day. Box sales can only account for so much, and the ongoing cost of maintaining a game needs to be recouped somewhere.

4.) You Get What You Pay For

There’s a firm belief in our consumer culture that you get what you pay for. An Audi will drive and hold up better than a Kia, and similarly a subscription-based game should be of higher quality and value than a free-to-play game. The only thing is that I’m not so sure that’s been true in recent years. A number of games have come out which probably should/would have been launched as F2P if DDO:U’s success had been realized sooner. In the future, I believe that the subscription-based games will be reserved for only those titles which really can prove their worth, as players are definitely responding with their wallets these days. Sure, many of us buy each game as it releases, but so few wind up subscribing for any length of time. Only the “top games” in the genre will be fueled by subscriptions in time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, which brings me to my next point.

3.) The Cream of the Crop

I firmly believe that the videogame industry is one built on competition and the need for studios to best one another. If company A sees a product come out of company B that sells several million copies and is met by rave reviews you can bet your ass that developers and suits alike will be thinking: “We can do better than that. In fact, here’s what’s wrong with that game, so why don’t we make our own and leave out the crappy parts?” There’s no such thing as a perfect game, especially in the MMO industry. The wants and needs of the player and the technology with which the games are delivered are constantly changing. But the most popular (for the hardcore gamer) titles in the pack will likely always hold a subscription fee. It’s not that the free games are bad, or that the subscription games are better. It’s just the mentality that the better games are those who don’t try to nickel and dime their players. Of course, we know what happens when a game does try to get the best of both worlds.

2.) F2P is Risky

Just as risky as relying on subscriptions to turn a profit. Making your game F2P in its entirety, without truly requiring players to pay anything for their enjoyment is a dangerous game. You run the risk, unless very skillfully and carefully planned, of getting less buy-in than you need just as you do with requiring a subscription. Of course the real smart idea would be finding a way to design a game that only needs to survive via box-sales, but I think we all know that only one company has that market cornered right now (and even they’re planning on instituting a micro-transaction plan of sorts). But yes, going F2P is no guarantor of success. For this reason alone, we’ll always see companies play it safe with the subscription model.

1.) Us

Lastly, we’ll be the ones to make sure subscriptions stay afloat. We hardcore fans of the MMO. We are hesitant to pick up on new ideas unless they are proven. We are wary of F2P games due to years of Eastern-born grind-fests. We much prefer to simply pay our $15 and go on our merry way. That’s not to say we’re not against F2P done the right way… we’re just very specific about what that right way is. And for this reason, for the million plus registered users here at the site, we’ll be enough to make sure that the subscription model is around for a long time. I just hope it stays at $15 for a while more.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all of his pointless rambling.