It isn't difficult at all to find predictions that this year will be a very good or even a great one for the subscription MMOG segment. For the most part, this thinking seems to be fueled by the impending arrivals of two high-profile titles. The more prominent of the pair is Zenimax' The Elder Scrolls Online, which brings one of the game industry's premier properties into the massively multiplayer space. Several years in the making with a team that has grown to include hundreds of people, it's a mega-project that has undoubtedly consumed hundreds of millions of dollars, and still counting.
I went on record last time with a wish I've been expressing in private for a while now, that it will be very successful. In this respect, its choice of revenue model doesn't matter to me in the slightest. Indeed, each time a new “next big one” has come along, I've wished it well regardless of its approach to charging me. I've never expected any of them to approach the kind of dominance that World of Warcraft achieved; the market has grown and evolved far too much for this to be realistic. That said, I'm disappointed the gap is still as wide as it is.
It's certainly possible to interpret WoW's shrinking user numbers as presenting a major opportunity. After all, those millions of people will find something else to play, won't they? I agree with this thinking. However, I'm much less confident presuming they'll stick together and surge into TESO at launch.
Sure, they're used to paying an ongoing $15 per month fee, so the thought of paying it won't be much of a barrier to entry for them. But let's not forget the cost of the box. A lot of WoW players didn't get into the game until well after it launched. As a result, they didn't pay $60 when they started. I can't even guess at the proportion, but some got the client for nothing after the first 20 levels were made available for free. It seems reasonable to think a fair number of these individuals will look to do what they did before, move into an MMOG that has a lower than full retail cost of trial / entry, or possibly none at all.
In addition, WoW is the seminal theme park. Those who have played it for any length of time are used to this style, including the ones who've left recently. This brings us to a fairly common misconception about MMO players. We like to think we're keen to see changes and innovations in the genre. This isn't completely inaccurate, but in general, we're more comfortable with evolution than revolution, albeit to different degrees. So, will everyone regard TESO as offering a smooth, natural transition? Some, yes. Others, no. Furthermore, there are plenty of other options, both subscription and F2P, with play experiences that are closer to what former WoW players know, and also requiring, as noted, less or no up-front cost.
One factor that's not easy to assess is the degree to which TESO can pull from the console side of the IP's user base. I wonder how many are either eager or at least won't mind starting to fork over $15 a month. Looking back a while, Final Fantasy XI, despite representing arguably the top console franchise at the time, only managed limited success converting PS2 players. Yes, that was two generations of hardware ago, but it still seems fair to wonder how much better TESO can do.
As for WildStar, I also wish it every success. Not having played it at all, I have no personal basis for judging how well it's likely to do. That said, I haven't seen any credible indications suggesting it might be a title that will re-shape the MMOG landscape. Will it bring a lot of new players into the category, or mainly compete for the current ones?
If anyone truly believes NCsoft's offering can reach and sustain a player population in the seven digits, or even the mid- to high six digits, I'm keen to see why in the comments. Furthermore, I hope you end up being correct. But I'd definitely bet the under.
What's more, even if both do well, another question remains. How much would their combined success alter the market balance that currently exists between subscription and F2P? In this respect, taking gamers away from WoW or any other sub-based titles makes no difference. For it to change significantly, the two games would have to pull in substantial numbers of non-MMOG players and/or convert a lot who now choose F2Ps.
Frankly, this seems like a pretty tall order. So, to answer the question I posed to begin this column, while I have no reason to think 2014 will be a bad year for the subscription MMOG segment, neither do I expect it will be a banner one.