If you listen to everything the media has to say on the MMO genre then you’d be led to believe it’s in a state of decline. The vast majority of games in the space are now turning F2P while only the market leaders maintain their subscription models.
One example is EA’s blockbuster MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. The game launched with lofty expectations in December 2011 as the most expensive video game ever made. But post-launch and subscribers began to dip and soon fell below the 1m player mark, which prompted EA to roll out its F2P plan for the game just six-months into its lifespan.
This is just one example. But there are plenty of similar stories. Even the MMO darling World of Warcraft is in decline. But is the switch to F2P really the failure it has become perceived to be? Another example is publisher Trion Worlds and its MMO Rift.
“We’d been looking at alternate models possibilities for quite some time. For us it was less of a decision of if the model would be changing, and more a decision and plan around what and when would make the most sense,” says Scott Hartsman, CEO Trion Worlds.
Rift launched in March 2011 and by August had amassed a player base of 1m. But despite generating $100m in total revenue by January of the following year, Trion made the decision to take the game F2P six months later.
“It can be very risky, but the risks involved are largely ones that can be mitigated. You have to aim for something that can genuinely be perceived as being additive to the experience,” says Hartsman. “You have to develop a plan that fits the product’s design, customers’ expectations and that you can actually deliver.”
“That danger is very real. It’s where a lot
of the extra work and planning comes in.
For us, it was important to make sure that
existing customers’ loyalty was rewarded,
and that they viewed the addition of new
benefits and new users as positive.”
Scott Hartsman, Trion Worlds
MMOs are no stranger to change as new content is typically introduced on a regular basis. But switching to an entirely new business model is a more drastic measure.
Hartsman warns that rocking the boat too much can cause trouble amongst the game’s existing fan base.
“That danger is very real. It’s where a lot of the extra work and planning comes in. For us, it was important to make sure that existing customers’ loyalty was rewarded, and that they viewed the addition of new benefits and new users as positive.”
Another free-to-play adoptee is NCsoft’s Aion. It was one of the biggest MMO releases in history. It also became the fastest selling PC game in the UK in 2009 and sold 470,000 copies across Europe.
But like so many of its rivals, Aion also made the switch at the start of last year as F2P specialist Gameforge took over distribution and publishing rights.
“Keeping players informed about the F2P switch was key as they are at the heart of the game,” says Rob Noble, UK and Nordics territory manager.
“The reception was extremely positive with many players glad that the VIP option offered them to keep a similar subscription experience and new players loved the possibility to try out the game for free.”
It’s only natural to wonder if these games would have survived if they had remained subscription-based.
“Not a chance,” says Hartsman. “A decade ago when MMOs were niche, players joined then to meet friends to play with online. Today, people play the games that they can easily play with their friends.
“Any barrier that stands in the way of that is a serious one and subscription is the biggest barrier of all.”