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.
Arena.net 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.