Saturday, 12 May 2012

Subscription MMO's and why they are under threat


Lineage 2 looked cool but sucked in so many ways
Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that this is really my opinion on the subject of MMO games and how they fund themselves.  This is just a piece with my points for why subscription MMO's are good and also why they can be bad. 

I have played several sub based MMO games in my years as a PC gamer.  The very first was Lineage 2 a game I now have a distinct dislike of for reasons far too numerous to list here alone, possibly in a different post one day.  Lineage 2 though was pretty cool at the time and after looking at games like Star wars galaxies, Anarchy online and Ultima online, MMO games seemed like the next evolutionary step.  They had thousands of players on at the same time, all doing different things from you, but inhabiting the same space.  The last sub based MMO I played was Star trek online, and yes before you all start laughing I agree with all of the negative points on that game, but the starship combat is still some of the best fun I have had online in a long time.

The thing is, after playing these subscription games I started to notice the cheaper offers that where around the net.  Granted they may not have looked as slick and shiny, or even be as big, but they still offered the same kind of gameplay and features.  I could party with friends, go on quests, unlock new skills, explore new areas of the world and find sweet loot and it was all free.  The only monetary incentive was either cosmetic items, new characters, better items or XP boosts.  Which for a free game was pretty reasonable, the developers need the money to keep the servers running, and the items aren't needed to complete the game so it works out well for both sides.  An example of this is Shaiya, a comparitively old game now, but at the time was a prefectly viable alternative to Lineage 2.

This was a great free alternative to Lineage 2
The problem I found with subscription MMO's was the that for my money I wasn't getting anything particularly worth the time and effort I was putting in.  I also felt like I had to play or else my money was just burning away so the game lost some of its appeal.  The other disheartening thing was the way other players seemed to just level and improve so quickly.  These are the kind of players who literally play nothing else and must shit in a bucket strapped to their backsides, because the time they invest is hazardous to any normal human being.  The free MMO games I can come back to when I feel and see the new additions and just play.  Yes players there have rocketed through the levels, but its not as bad because you haven't invested months of cash into playing to get where you are.

There are other more annoying aspects to subscriber MMO's.  Games that force every player into an open PVP enviroment ruin the game for some.  Its like you pay for other players to just randomly kill you while you harvest beans or something.  You don't ask for this, no they just run over and kill you.  The response will always be "its part of the game" which is amusing because thats the kind of shit Drug dealers say on the streets of Baltimore, so if they say it, it must be acceptable.  I have lost track here a little, its just the open PVP thing still boggles my mind.  Developers honestly think that having a game system that allows new players to be killed by higher level players in the starting zones is acceptable?  And when those players leave and never renew their subscription, how does that help?

STO's space combat is still awesome fun
The other problem I see with Subscription MMO's is the massive financial gamble that plays out months before the games launch.  You only have to look at APB to see the pitfalls involved here.  The cost of MMO game development has gotten so high, that if the subscription figures are too low the company is sunk let alone the game.  Its all rosey at first since plenty of players buy copies of the game and get a month free to play, but after that many will leave not wanting to pay.  After that first thirty day period it becomes make or break time for a new MMO.

Free MMO games have little trouble from this because they develop on a lower cost and can better deal with the ebb and flow of player numbers.  Many players who signup will probably spend a small amount on microtransactions before leaving and so the developer earns what they need to continue running.  World of Tanks is one of the great success stories of the free to play model, but there are more traditional MMO's like lord of the rings online and warhammer online, both of them originally being subscriber based games that after going free2play became more popular and more profitable.

lets face it the elephant in the room is world of warcraft, THE MMO game.  I have never played it personally largely because I don't like warcrafts setting or character design and its cool to hate the popular stuff :)  But WOW has done such a good job of being an MMO to all players of MMO games that there is very little room left to make a steady profit from subs.  EVE online stands out because it took a very different route, aiming for a deeper set of gameplay mechanics and an older subscriber base which keeps the children and morons out, but keeps the adults and more dedicated bastards in.  It also helps because its all about space combat and player run economics, my friend Critical Pheelan can maybe one day explain those systems to you all one day.

Yeah I am not sure why WoW never quite WOW'd me
The recently released Star wars the old republic is putting on a brave face despite the recent loss of over 400,000 subscribers, and the fact that its playerbase is somewhere around 1.4 million while World of warcraft is around 10 million or more.  Also since the old republic was made by bioware, who are currently in a massive PR crisis after the abortive end to Mass effect, resources are being split between a few projects unlike Blizzard who only really focus on warcraft, and very slowly develop other titles.  Diablo III is only just being released after a very long development cycle and the next chapter of Starcraft 2 is still a ways off.

Do I think that these subscriber games should go free to play?  Yes.  Subscriptions are tough to swallow especially after playing for a while and realising you don't want to anymore.  Don't you feel like you wasted money after all that?  When you tot up the amount you cumulatively spent?  Thats how I felt after playing, like I could have bought other games and played them for free after the intial purchase and never looked back.  Which brings me to.

Amazing to look at, but incredibly elitist
Guild wars 2.  Its launching sometime this century, and many believe its this year the poor fools.  Its a mainstream MMO with a mainstream MMO budget being paid for by customers once, and thats it.  Yes its true, you just buy the main game for around £30 - 40 on PC and never pay subscriptions.  It will use microtransactions, but its not essential to completing the game or acquiring loot, its just a method of funding the game post launch and no doubt there will be other means in the works also.  I like to think that Guild wars is a prime example of what can be done without needing to scalp gamers every month for no real gain.  Yes the money apparently keeps the servers running and pays for the updates, but since other free MMO games do this without anywhere near as much I do have to ask, why does it take so long?  Why does it cost so much?  And why can a smaller dev team do the same amount of work with less money?

It seems like I am knocking the likes of EVE and WoW, and yes I am a bit.  EVE have already embraced microtransactions anyway with the recent store addition for your avatars and the PLEX system, while World of Warcraft has been running an in game auction house for real money now for around 2 years at least.  Can they not drop the subscription charges a little?  EVE soon will be making a mint from DUST 514 and its PSN microtransactions and you can bet most of that cash will funnel back into the EVE development and not DUST.  Diablo III and its real money auction house with its own optional subscription model will bring in more money for warcraft.  It already seems like both companies have plenty of optional revenue sources lined up, but still mug you every month for cash to play their game.
Guild wars 2 will dominate the free to play market on release

Free to play seems like the way to go these days.  More players are willing to stay with the product, pay when they feel and take a break without feeling like they are wasting money.  I don't see games like WoW going this route ever really, unless they make a sequel and EVE is a little more volatile with its subscriber base being more then willing to vocalise its displeasure with CCP such as the recent $70 monocle debacle.

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