Monday, November 28, 2011

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The Fate of Subscription-Based MMOs in 2011: Go Free-to-Play, or Die

Jennings_and_lumley Scott "Lum the Mad" Jennings has a good write-up on the state of MMOs in 2011, based on predictions he made for them last year. (He quite literally wrote the book on MMOs.) As I read him, the big trend for 2011: Go free-to-play, or die. (Or in the case of World of Warcraft, start dying.) Sample:

[H]ow did other subscription MMOs do [in 2011]?
  • EVERQUEST 2: went free to play
  • CITY OF HEROES: went free to play
  • LINEAGE 2: went free to play
  • AGE OF CONAN: went free to play
  • STAR TREK ONLINE: went free to play
  • FINAL FANTASY 14: still involuntarily free to play
  • EVE: attempted suicide by CEO, layoffs, trying to come back
  • STAR WARS GALAXIES: cancelled
  • LEGO ONLINE: cancelled

Much more great Lum snark and analysis here. This trend is bad news for World of Warcraft, which lost about 1 million subscribers in 2011, and for Star Wars: The Old Republic, releasing this month and last I heard, will be subscription based. By contrast, the overall trend is good news for Second Life, which has been freemium since 2006. (As it happens, Jennings is also an occasional SLer, known in-world as Lum Lumley.)

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Aeonix Aeon

It's only good news for Linden Lab in the past tense. They're focusing on Premium Memberships, at the expense of the existing eco-system and "free" users. If anything, they are going in the opposite direction which they should be.

bongo

DC online... free to play.
add snark here.

foneco zuzu

Well, if they try to go premium, is in a good way, let the free users adjust and then if they feel up, move to premium, I only needed 2 weeks in 2010 to move to premium and only due to live support and yes it has being very helpful all the times i needed it!
So as long as Sl still is free to join and play, i dont see no fear of the LAb trying to make some move to a premium account!
What i fear is the fu..... rush to make SL mainstream!!!
It will never have 11.000.000,00 active users, it will never be the hype of the news, and why the Lab should care, they are selling a drug they know its 2 hard to leave behind until competition improves! and That is still a long way to go.

Arcadia Codesmith

I'm quite fond of Lum, as he's been writing about MMOs for almost as long as I've been playing them.

But the first line of this piece is, "Every year I make crazy predictions that fail miserably."

The FTP revenue model has proven very successful at rescuing games that are on the verge of cancellation. But in general, the reason MMOs are on the verge is because they launch with too little content, and the content is shallow (a byproduct of targeting the "casual" audience... which, as it turns out, craves complexity and depth as much as the "hardcore" audience).

WoW isn't a deep game -- it's the McDonalds of MMOs. But like McDonalds, it's responded to customer demands for more variety by expanding its content. Like most businesses, it's been impacted by an unfavorable economic climate, but it's still proof that the subscription model is viable and can be wildly successful.

Comparisons to Second Life fall flat because SL has a uniquely weird revenue model; artists, designers and programmers, who in MMOs get paid a full-time wage to create content, instead must purchase space through middlemen and try to recoup by selling their wares (generally for pennies).

That's pushing artis gratis to a whole new level of exploitation.

Hiro Pendragon

Disagree.

I'll post what I just posted on the blog: (addressed to Lum as the second person)

There's only so many players of MMOGs, and so many hours in the day. Most MMOs will fail, because the majority of video games don't become blockbusters. Why should we expect a higher % of MMOGs succeed where single-player or console-multiplayer games do not? There are thousands of game releases a year, and maybe a couple dozen become blockbusters. Duh. Citing low success rate of MMOs as evidence that "All MMOs need to go free-to-play" is simply ignoring obvious facts.

WoW "taking a back seat" is ludicrously spun. Let's look at it from another perspective: Blizzard is earning 10 million paying subscriptions of about $15 each+ every month on a nearly-decade-old game.

What do we know about the game industry? After about 2 years, even the biggest AAA titles wind up on the discount rack. How are MMOGs any different? The fact that there are still people playing MMOGs over 2 years old is evidence that the industry is thriving.

You're completely wrong on this.

Pussycat Catnap

Most games are not going free-to-play so much as limited-play-for-free.

Free players get an intro set of tools, intro number of alts, intro amount of advancement, and so on.

WoW for example, is free up to level 20. group content starts at level 15 - so its a very well aimed ploy to convince you that its worth buying. Just as the game gets 'fun', you stagnate until you hand over the credit card.

Speaking of alts... why is SL the only one of these online platforms that seems so alt-unfriendly... They really should switch that and have a master account, where you group in all your alts. Especially if they want to attract more gamers and add more gaming tools.
- And going premium could just be a way of adding more to the number of alts you can bundle in.
- Make it worthwhile by having 'no-trans' items able to move between the alts. But prevent people from all grouping up by only letting one 'alt' login at a time.

Pussycat Catnap

Adding, that I agree 103% with everything Hiro posted just above at 7:40am.

That WoW came in 2005, and still has 10-million subscriptions... that's not a failure. That's a 'WoW' moment. Frankly, the game -should- die as far as fad-logic goes. Its ooooolllllldddd...

So is SL btw. :)

But it plods on.

One major reason its losing people is that its been a Lllloooooonnnngg time since the last Xpac. Look at its lifecycle - near the end of every Xpac, WoW loses 10-20% of its people. After an XPac hits, it usually gains double that back.

It shouldn't, based on its age. But ti does.

And once more: WoW is free to play now, just as much as those other examples. Most of them have limits on free players. WoW's limit is the level cap and access to guilds & trading. :)

Hamlet Au

"Blizzard is earning 10 million paying subscriptions of about $15 each+ every month on a nearly-decade-old game."

Actually, it's much less than that: Only 5-6 million WoW subscribers pay $15/month. The remaining 4-5 million are in Asia, and generally pay by the hour to play in Internet cafes, WAY less. I believe about 12 cents an hour. WoW's revenue from Asia ain't that great. In any case, the fact remains that WoW, while a great success, is an absolute outlier.

Arcadia Codesmith

Then "Star Wars: The Old Republic" is poised to become the next outlier.

I'm not knocking F2P entirely. It's saved some games that I really like from the dustbin. But it does so at a cost -- free players are second-class citizens and must remain second-class citizens, because the revenue comes from the desire to upgrade your status.

Consequently, any game that rejects that social segmentation is better served by a subscription model. It's a steady revenue stream that is not dependent on your ability and desire to crank out new and improved sparkle ponies every week.

You may not post massive user numbers with a subscription game... but massive numbers of subscribers that aren't giving you any money are just a drain on resources.

Hamlet Au

> Then "Star Wars: The Old Republic" is poised to become the next outlier.


Maybe. Of course, I heard people say that about Star Trek Online. And Matrix Online. And when it launched as a subscription MMO, Lord of the Rings Online. And etc. etc.

Arcadia Codesmith

Enthusiasm for STO was already waning during the Beta, when the thinness of content was becoming apparent (particularly on the Klingon side).

Matrix Online I heard virtually no buzz about... the movies were old news by the time they got it out the door. A good property doesn't mean a good game, but a turkey can drag even a great game down (not saying MO was... that's one of the few I never played).

LotRO... solid game, good execution, great look and feel. I think the one thing that tripped them up coming out of the gate was the same thing that sank DDO -- forced grouping.

I personally think that TOR has some glaring flaws, but it's still looking like the biggest launch in years. Can they retain? That's the question.

Hiro Pendragon

"the fact remains that WoW, while a great success, is an absolute outlier."

Agreed. Except, we can look at things from another perspective: the user's.

How many MMOG players are there that would pay money at all? What % of them do Free 2 Play, and what % do subscription? In this case, I think the % for subscription is very high. It doesn't matter if it's a very small number of providers.

An analogy would be looking at, say, mobile phone carriers. I could say that the iPhone is dead because it's only carried by a handful of the many hundreds of mobile carriers. From the perspective of comparing it to companies, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are "outliers". From the perspective of what users are using, they take up the market share.

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