Should we ditch the Subscription?
Since the latter half of last year, I’ve played an awful lot of games. Most have been fairly good, some have been excellent, and a few have been terrible. They have, for the most part, had one major thing in common though: they’ve all been free-to-play. Some games – I’m thinking of almost every MMORTS game I’ve ever played, although things like World of Tanks makes it pretty obvious as well – make you know from the very beginning that paying extra will give you certain advantages and may even give you the edge over other players, others gently edge you into paying for support over and above what is necessary. For the most part though, these are full experiences and to say that I haven’t paid a penny on subscription fees over the last several months, I’ve had many happy hours of gaming bliss.
So perhaps it’s just the cheapskate inside of me, but I’m often surprised when I find that a developer wants their fans to pay a subscription in return for their usage, not only a subscription in fact but an initial purchase as well. It’s an anachronism, surely, a dinosaur from the early days of the MMO, to expect somebody to pay for game time, especially when there are so many great games out there all vying for time. Each month, many brilliant games are released for consoles, for PC, online and offline, all which more than deserve a few hours of your time. So it seems counter-productive, like it could actually have a negative effect on your game-playing time (which, let’s face it, there’s less and less of each year) to make you keep playing something that perhaps you’re only vaguely interested in. It becomes more ridiculous when you think that the quality of these subscription-based MMOs isn’t usually a great deal better than the free-to-play stuff.
So why bother?
Now let me say very quickly – because I know, dear reader, that you’ve probably already started penning a witty, insightful comment damning me for even suggesting such a thing as ditching subscription-based MMOs – that I fully understand the reasoning behind having them. There are two major reasons as far as I’m concerned, the first is actual support. While I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the majority of free-to-play MMOs are totally profitable and they never need to panic about meeting wage deadlines or other financial difficulties, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that, at least post-release, these games are run on skeleton crews. Updates tend to be minor, bigger expansions tend to be fewer and far between. It isn’t a bad thing, mind; it’s just how it is. The subscription fee not only pays for your usage of a server, but for the on-going team of people needed to continue growing the title.
The KFC Effect
I like to pull this story out occasionally to prove a point when people tell me that more expensive is always better (you’d be amazed how many people believe that unquestioningly). In the early half of the 1970s, KFC introduced their extra crispy chicken. It didn’t cost them anything extra to make and, being the friendly grease vendor that they were (and remain to this day, chicken heads urban legends aside), they decided to give it away for free. People that wanted an extra layer of crisp (technical terms, here) on their fried chicken could request it and would be sent on their merry way believing that they had received the bargain of a lifetime. The scheme was an unmitigated disaster and it was pulled from the menu. Some young marketing genius felt that there was still life in the product and decided to up the price by, let’s say, 10 cents (although I’ve been unable to quickly find the exact amount)
You can see where I’m going with this: despite the recipe being exactly the same and the value going down (because customers were being charged for exactly the same thing they could have gotten free), extra crispy chicken became a KFC staple and has been charged for ever since. Again, it costs them no extra to make but because people see the extra value (even though it’s in their heads); they feel they’re getting bang for their buck. The subscription MMO often seems the same way, although the benefits can be fantastic. It would take you about half a second on Google to find somebody complaining about free-to-play MMOs and the horrible effect they’re having on the genre, somebody who says something like “if you want to play an MMO, pay monthly and avoid playing with annoying, cheap Koreans.” Koreans, it seems, always get the blame for everything, even in the MMO world.
The Secret World
And I was told an interesting fact this week. The Secret World, the game I was so excited for when talking about mysteries not too long ago, is £40/50 euros to purchase. That’s a pretty high price for a PC game, but obviously you’ve then got a subscription on top of that. But there’s more, although the game doesn’t actually come out until June, you can buy item packs right now which range from £12 to £160/200 euros. The highest priced pack includes a lifetime subscription, which seems like a fair deal until you realize that you’d have to play this game for upwards of a year to get your money’s worth, a dedication that most people, not having played the game, will not really be able to make at this point. I have no doubt at all that The Secret World will be a fantastic game, but they’re already trying to monetize it like a free-to-play game, having their subscription-based cake and eating it.
On the other hand, going free-to-play is obviously going to have a huge effect on an MMO and the folks at Star Trek highlighted this perfectly. When asked why there had been no major updates in two years, one of the producers on the game answered candidly: “Well, while these are challenging arguments, the fact is that the game just underwent a massive transformation from a subscription game to a free-to-play game (something I wouldn’t consider insignificant). Even with all of those major changes, this team has continued to deliver monthly events and C-Store updates all the while working on our next major release (Season 6) which will include a new Fleet Advancement system focused around building a Fleet Star base, as well as several new max level only challenges in both space and ground, along with tons of new rewards. WoW style raiding is not something planned for STO, although we do intend to continue to make 20-man Fleet Actions, the first of which is launching with Season 6.”
Subscription based services
There are definite negatives to the subscription-based services, but there are positives as well. I’d love to say that every game could cope as a free-to-play adventure, but the truth of the matter is that those pushing the boundaries of what the genre is capable of both need and deserve extra-income to continue pushing. Free-to-play developers will definitely manage to top what is achieved by the subscription-based services and probably quicker than developers of the latter would like to admit, but they won’t be pushing out the envelope, they’ll just be improving what’s already out there. And so long as there are people happy to pay to be on the cutting edge, that’s how our little corner of the industry will work. And while I wish those people the best of luck; I’m quite happy to wait while the free-to-play folks play catch-up.