EA recently announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic will launch December 20/22, and that it will charge a traditional $15 monthly subscription fee. This, in itself, is not terribly surprising. Subscriptions are, after all, synonymous with quality, and EA has certainly been tooting the quality horn with SW:TOR.
But this happens amidst a significant market shift: every other online game, it seems, is going to the F2P space to escape World of Warcraft's suffocating grip on what few subscription dollars are available, right?
Maybe not. I disagree that the market is shifting to F2P; rather, I think it's expanding from a subscription-exclusive environment to one that has both subscription and microtransaction models. I think there's still a strong market for subscription-based games, they just need to be of a sufficient quality to justify that subscription fee.
One of the big problems is that many subscription-based MMORPGs have been largely very similar to one another; after all, the tactic of "cloning" is the backbone of the non-MMO games market. However, unlike single-purchase games where users satisfy their desire for "more of the same" by buying more similar titles, MMORPGs satisfy that desire innately. Players who like WoW just keep playing WoW, they don't have to look for another game. That's why games like the original Everquest and Ultima Online are still running today. Thus, the traditional logic of "if this game is successful, we'll copy it and we'll also be successful" fails to apply.
Is it Different or is it Better?
In order to capture players, your game either has to be BETTER or DIFFERENT. Rift, for example, goes straight down the better route, and has done well for itself. Others, like EVE Online, fully embrace the different route and carve out a strong niche for themselves. However, it seems that most MMOs waver too far along the middle ground, failing to garner the support they need to be successful in a subscription market.
What route is SW:TOR taking? Is it better than WoW? Will current WoW players want to play SW:TOR instead? Or is it different than WoW? Will players not playing WoW want to play SW:TOR instead? Or does it waver down that middle ground?
I feel like SW:TOR is wavering too far down that middle ground. It fights for better status with its fully voice-acted questing, for example, without breaking the typical mold of character classes, talent trees, quest grinding, and so forth. It fights for different status with its single-player-like quest story and NPC companions.
So here's SW:TOR's problem: the different aspects of the game don't do much to justify a subscription fee. Ultimately, I think SW:TOR will suffer in much the same way that D&D Online suffered: the core game design of solo and small party is too far removed from the epic sense of multiplayer persistence that players expect to get with their subscription fees.
Perhaps the arguments that apply to Darkspore and Diablo 3 also apply to SW:TOR: why do I have to play what basically amounts to a single player game online? Except there's an added question for SW:TOR: why a monthly fee on top of that?
What is a subscription for?
If you both buy a game and pay a subscription, then you are paying a subscription for a service that goes above and beyond what you could get if you just bought the game. Arguably, does does NOT include patches. Imagine if SW:TOR shipped as a boxed game with the server software and people just hosted their own small servers for themselves and their friends, not unlike hosting your own Counterstrike server. What would they be missing out on by not playing on the large subscription servers?
Content updates are one of the biggest arguments in favour of subscriptions. Some games, like Asheron's Call and Rift, have frequent, rigorous, and meaningful content updates that certainly justify the subscription charged by the game. But most MMORPGs fall flat on free content updates and many simply rely on selling expansions to provide that content.
Selling expansions also does NOT justify a subscription fee. Consider the analogue of content DLC, like those for Fallout 3. Thus, it makes sense that paying a subscription would provide players with content of the quality of those DLC packs as a basic element of that subscription fee.
The only other strong arugment is that the subscription fee provides a service that goes above and beyond what players would be able to provide for themselves. Servers capable of hosting thousands of players simultaneously, for example.
When did MMOs stop being "Massive"?
The problem with paying a subscription fee for a large persistant world is when the game itself isolates players from that large persistant world. With each passing year, MMO design has 'refined' itself to further isolate players from one another. 12 years ago, players in an MMO would all be in the same dungeon; now each player gets their own instance of the dungeon. Quests used to be largely loose sets of objectives that players could accomplish together; now quests are tightly tuned and designed for solitary completion and often prohibit other players from jumping in part-way.
Let me take a closer look at SW:TOR, and snip a little blurb from their website's "what is the game about" section:
Choose to be a Jedi, a Sith, or from a variety of other classic Star Wars roles, and make decisions which define your personal story and determine your path down the light or dark side of the Force. Along the way you will befriend courageous companions who will fight at your side or possibly betray you based on your actions. Together, you will battle enemies in dynamic Star Wars combat and team up with other players to overcome incredible challenges.
I added italics here to point out that "other players" only end up at the very end, almost like an afterthought. What are those incredible challenges? "Flashpoints", which are basically what other MMORPGs refer to as "dungeons" or "instances." There's 5 of them, according to the SW:TOR website. Oh, and there's guilds, of course. But contrast that to the main thrust of what the game is about: it's your personal story and your personal companions.
When MMOs stop being Massive, they stop justfying a subscription
In all the major subscription-to-F2P transitions I've watched unfold in the past while, pretty much every game involved has been a not-so-massive game. DDO, LOTRO, CO, STO, AoC, game after game where there was little sense of a massive persistant world. All of these are games that could have worked as single player games with optional multiplayer components, either with in-game peer-to-peer hosting or private dedicated servers. The only reason they had to justify their subscription server was a refusal to offer the alternative.
Now I'm sure, by this point, everyone reading is screaming "Yeah, but dude, WoW totally isn't massive and, by your argument, totally doesn't justify a subscription." And I'd be "I agree." I don't subscribe to WoW. Do you? If you do, can you justify it? Is it just because you don't have an alternative?
It's pretty obvious: there are people who want to play WoW so much that they'll pay the subscription fee even if it isn't worth a subscription fee. And herein lies the rub: Star Wars: the Old Republic may not be worth a subscription fee, but will there be enough players willing to play the game that they'll overlook this point and subscribe anyways?
People subscribe to XBox Gold; because they're cornered and feel they have to. People subscribe to cable or satelite TV for the same reason. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the next Call of Duty came out with a $15 monthly subscription and online-only play, because people would still play it even if the subscription were totally unjustifiable. Ultimately, it comes down to this: are people so eager to play SW:TOR that they'll pay a subscription fee because they have no alternative, even if they get no value from subscribing?
My sense is "yes", what's yours?