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The Coming Downfall of Traditional MMOs.
by Josh Bycer on 10/04/11 04:10:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Times seem to be changing for the MMO market. With the recent announcements of Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online moving to a free-to-play format, along with World of Warcraft which has changed their up to level 10 trial, to a 20 level F2P model. The time of the $15 a month subscription model appears to be fading away and looking at the genre, it seems like MMOs are facing pressure from within and outside to make this change.

Let's start by looking inward at the genre. MMO design is different from other genres, due to the size and cost of development. Most singleplayer games are aimed at 8 to 10 hours of play, MMOs want gamers to play for months and that requires a lot of time developing content. Putting out a MMO that flops can be the death of a company due to the enormous cost of development. Because of the investment, the gameplay in MMOs has not evolved as much as other genres.

When you look at the action genre for instance, we've gone from the days of Double Dragon, to God of War and Devil May Cry. With the MMO genre however, the majority of MMOs aim to be like WoW, which was aimed to be like EverQuest. WoW's success was not at inventing the wheel, but building a better mousetrap. Blizzard streamlined the design and made it more accessible to everyone, along with being at the right place at the right time. Because of those factors, WoW became the 800 pound gorilla it is today. This is why many MMOs are trying to be like WoW instead of doing something different, why fix something that wasn't broken? The times that we do see original game design, like Star Trek Online or DC Universe, it doesn't make the same money as WoW.

MMOs have been trying to mix things up by providing more content for the subscription fee and many promise content every month to players to keep them paying. Let's be frank here, when a developer says that they can put out expansion quality content once per month and continue to do that for the length of the game's life-cycle, THEY ARE LYING. Unless they have been working on all that content while developing the base game, or have their entire development staff working round the clock, it just won't happen.

DC Universe fell into that trap, they did have content for the first two months, and then after that it started to dip. Star Trek Online played it smart and instead of promising huge content, they instead put out new story arcs for players to do every month, which is far easier to develop then brand new content. at the time, were perhaps the most forward thinkers on the market. Instead of trying to take on WoW with Guild Wars, they instead went the expansion model route. Meaning, there was no subscription, instead gamers who wanted content could buy expansions at $40 a pop. That way, people could choose what to buy and didn't have to worry about spending money without having new content.

From within the genre, we have a case where everyone was trying to do the same thing, and when that happens, only one or two MMOS came out on top. With other genres, there is diversity within the genre giving players reasons to play multiple games. With the MMO genre however, how many people actually subscribe to 2 or more MMOS at the exact same time?

Moving on let's look outside of the genre and how MMOs have fallen behind. Going back to the late 90s when EverQuest came out, there weren't games that allowed people to socialize while playing. Multiplayer games like shooters didn't give players the options to hang out, just frag your friends. Because of this, MMOs fit into the community niche and people were willing to pay a premium to be a part of that. Another side of this was the continued support by the developers, with rare exception, once a game was released it was done and no more would be added to it with exception at the time to MMOs.

However, times have changed and MMOs existing in the bubble of social interaction has popped. Developers have seen how fostering a community can prolong the life of the game and how worthwhile it was to continue supporting it. Valve with Team Fortress 2, is still going strong with an influx of new content. It's no longer about making a multiplayer game that will only last a short while. Activision is banking on Call of Duty: Elite to keep people playing COD all year long. As developers are adding value to their games, it is taking value away from MMOs.

The standard subscription to an MMO is $15 a month, with a yearlong cost coming out to $180. With Call of Duty: Elite coming in at $50 a year you can see the difference in price. When you can have your social interaction, with new content at more than half the cost of a subscription based game, it's hard to justify spending the fee each month. What has been even worse for MMOs would have to be the rise of the F2P market.

F2P games have been coming into their own, with mass successes like League of Legends. More and more developers are embracing this model, with F2P games both standalone and on social networking sites. The biggest advantage to F2P games is that it allows gamers to play what they want, spend what they want and not be pressured to keep paying. The success of this market has really forced a lot of developers to look at design differently, such as with Age of Empires Online, or with Valve working on DOTA 2.

F2P games have honestly knocked the wind out of the MMO genre's sails. With a very low barrier of entry (0 dollars,) along with the social features one would have found in an MMO, there are fewer reasons to be playing a typical MMO today then 5 or 10 years ago. Perhaps the biggest evidence of the F2P model working is how it has been used to revive the same MMOs that have had trouble in the market.

Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, have both found success once they switched off of the subscription model. With STO and DCUO making the switch soon, I predict that they'll find success after the change. The reason is that a well designed F2P model works better for someone like me. I've always hated having to pay a subscription for a game, as with my constant switching between titles, I never felt that I was getting my money's worth. With F2P games, I can drop in whenever I want and if I'm enjoying myself, I can spend money for more things to do.

A long time ago I joked about WoW dropping their subscription as a snowball's chance in hell, today, I'm not joking. WoW's numbers have been slowly slipping (still high but slipping,) and I think there will come a time where WoW will become F2P. As one of the few remaining MMOs with a subscription based model, in a sea of games offering content at a lower cost, it will be interesting to see what Blizzard will do to keep people playing WoW.

The MMO market is undergoing a shakeup, much like the transition we're seeing of the move from retail to a digital format of buying games. As other genres continue to support their games and offer players reasons to stick around, traditional MMOs are finding themselves no longer standing out from other genres. With Star Wars: The Old Republic looking to be the next fighter in the arena and perhaps more importantly, one of the few properties that could take on WoW, it's going to be interesting to watch these two duke it out for subscribers.

Josh Bycer.

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Justin Smith
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Another problem games like WoW that have been around for a long time have in common is that the player bas is tired and old; as in old to the game. Players that have been around a while become bored because there really isn't much left to do. Blizzard always is attempting to give them more content but as mentioned in the article this doesn't happen often enough. In addition a companies main goal is to keep the players playing by introducing content to higher level characters. The newer people don't have as much to look forward to immediately and the old players don't have the urge to create new ones. Thus players at lower levels that are new don't get the same experience as players who are old did when they started playing. The experience the old players had and have is what is keeping them playing, but the new players don't get that feeling and don't stay around as long thus MMO companies continuously lose players.

Gerald Belman
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The subscription model is NOT dead. People will pay for quality and cutting edge games. Like the previous commentators imply: it is part of a lifecycle. When games get older they are more likely to go F2P because they can't get people to pay for them. But if they are quality in the beginning they do not start out that way.

F2P is not a sign of success as many people see it. It is a sign that the game is flagging and they need to scrape out as much revenue as they can.

Free to play markets lower the quality of the game. You pay to play a game - you shouldn't pay to progress in a game. If you want to attract new players, that is what free trials are for. Free to play markets lower the transparency of the actual cost of the game.

I sympathize with people who don't want to pay subscriptions every month - but if something is good enough - you will pay to be a part of it. Part of the misconception is due to the fact that there are a huge amount of second rate MMO's out their - of course they need to be F2P.

All this hype about free to play being the future of MMO's is just a result of the currently crappy economy and some misguided understanding of profitability.

I'll pay a Hundred dollars to play TOR. 50 for the game and three months worth of subscription. Then I'll re-evaluate and see if I want to continue playing.

Martin Juranek
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P2W (ehm, F2P) is detrimental to game quality. It forces the game to be made less enjoyable to make players pay. Bad game does it obviously and greadily, good one does it less and don't try to milk players so much, but it does it too.

There are some (exactly one comes to my mind) valid argument (from player's perspective) behind it, like: "I don't have as much time as some kids and to compensate, I'm glad to invest much less than other hobbies costs me." But I think that they (or at least this one) makes twisted state of F2P an axiom.

If these games were not time consuming and not so determined by character's level/equip, skilled player would need much less time investment to be equaly powerfull as someone with less skill.

Jeremy Reaban
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I actually think there is a danger of a F2P backlash. It's not obvious, but generally these games end up costing a lot more than monthly subscription fees. It might be the rage now, but eventually the public will catch on.

In the traditional/asian F2P style game, basically at a certain level (generally the 2nd or 3rd level cap) you really had to break out the wallet to continue any further in the game - usually spending tons of money on enhancing your equipment (not to mention mounts, decorations, all sorts of other stuff)

Most of the recent hybrid models seem to eschew that blatant gouging at high levels, but do seem to mostly be content to trying to soak its subscribers by adding an item mall as well. And perhaps offering free players some limited content.

I recently have City of Heroes Freedom a try - they aren't really even pretending to be catering to new/free players, it seems all about adding lots and lots of stuff to the item mall that the hard core subscribers want.

And LOTRO is even worse. They seem to be heading towards the spend $100s in the item mall to enhance your gear model (on top of the subscription)

Christian Kulenkampff
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"Free to Play" does not mean "Everything is free". Balancing free and premium content is a post-release process, which will never satisfy everybody.

Julien Wera
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There are some interesting things in this blog post, but one thing struck me : it is extremely ethnocentric. I mean, there are a lot of MMOs and other types of online games mentioned in this post, and every single one of them is of American origin, which leads me to think that this analysis is 100% centered on a North American market, which is probably only the 4th market for online games in the world.

Even the two games mentioned as the most recent proofs for the downfall of traditionnal MMOs, Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online, are very focused on a US-based market only due to the brands they use (although people will have heard about "Star Trek" in Europe very few of them will actually know what it is, and while Batman or Superman will be known outside the US, the "DC" brand is largely unknown).

That doesn't mean that the conclusions are wrong, just that the thinking and analysis behind them are... missing the largest part of the market which is very unfortunate because it great reduces the credit of the whole thing.

Besides that, WoW has been "free-to-play" (pay-as-you-play really, but with no box or any upfront payment required) for many years in China, so there's a good chance they would go for that model in the west, which would be a first, but probably would still work well.