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Star Wars: The Old Subscription Model
by Simon Ludgate on 09/26/11 12:29:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


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?

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Tiago Raposo
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I say yes.

Personaly I'm a singleplayer player, multiplayer has it's place but I'm more into singleplayer experiences. I've tried WoW, DDo, Guild Wars, and in all of those I ended playing a lot more solo than with a party.

To me Guild Wars has the best business model, since the server hosts the world and the cities, but the entire world outside is instanced, which could be made like a closed traditional multiplayer among the party, thus removing the need for a dedicated server. And for that, there's no subscription, just the price of the game.

WoW, on the other hand, needs dedicated servers to host everyone in an open world, no instances. But that doesn't add to the game, unfortunately. Seeing people wander around is cool, but unnecessary. Helping people kill stuff is not welcome, as you rob them potential experience and loot. Quests are solo. Why pay every month for so little benefits?

I think you where spot on.

sean lindskog
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Some interesting thoughts. I disagree with your criticism of heavily instanced MMOs, and conclusion that these are unworthy of a subscription.

Instanced MMOs have upsides:

- the controlled environment allows the game designers to create significantly more elaborate content

- less griefing

- less problems with server overpopulation and lag

and downsides:

- drastically less sense of a sprawling, open world

- less chance encounters with other players

Some people like instanced stuff better, some open world better. From a developer perspective, both kinds of MMO are insanely difficult to create, and require huge upfront and ongoing development costs, which is why a subscription is justified in either case.

From a player perspective, if you get enough enjoyment from your subscription cost, it is justified. Whether it is instanced or open world is irrelevant.

Simon Ludgate
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How is an MMO where players never interact with each other beyond explicit grouping any more difficult/expensive to create than a single player RPG with a multiplayer component that allows players to explicitly group?

sean lindskog
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I can understand why someone who has never made an MMO might think that. But it's just not true, MMOs are way harder, and instanced MMOs aren't really any easier than non-instanced MMOs. In some ways, they're more work, because you need all the same tech, plus the instancing tech.

There's a reason people aren't taking Neverwinter Night's mod tools, or Realm Crafter, and making commercial, instanced MMOs.

Some things that make MMOs hard:


1. multi-server: the world logic must be distributed across multiple interacting synchronized servers. Much harder than dealing with a single server, or peer-to-peer

2. world persistence: this involves a lot of very complex data base stuff.

3. robust anti-cheat code: MMO economies can be ruined by a single line of bad code. For example, an item duplication bug. The server logic and network code must be extremely well tested and error proof

4. MMO game systems: you need many systems which are not required in a single player game, such as auction houses, looking-for-group tools, and guild tools.

5. scale: look at all the MMOs that worked during beta, then crashed horribly on launch. designing a server and network architecture to support 100,000 simultaneous player is way more difficult than supporting 32 players.


1. character balance: much more important than in a single player game. If you get it wrong, you either change it after ship (and players will FREAK OUT), or don't change it at all (and your game is forever unbalanced).

2. xp and loot balance: if one area of your game gives too much xp/loot, many players will ignore all other content of your game. Then subsequently complain that your game is repetitive or has no content.

3. economy: balancing the economy in an MMO is extremely difficult design work.

4. end-game: MMOs typically require some sort of "end game", e.g. PvP or raid content, to keep players from getting bored.

5. content delivery: Many single player games cost tens of millions of dollars for maybe 15 hours of gameplay. In an MMO, you must somehow be capable of creating hundreds or thousands of hours of content, in an ongoing basis.

Also, there are community relationship challenges far beyond a regular game. And of course, in an MMO the company is maintaining the servers. If the game worlds go down, the developers are getting a phone call. Even if it is 2 a.m.

Gerald Belman
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So basically, If I understand you correctly Simon, you think that TOR will not be better than WOW, but because it is different people will pay the subscription anyways.

Basically you are using WOW as a baseline and you are saying that all other games are either better OR different from WOW.

Isn't it possible that a game could be better AND different from WOW? Why just one or the other?

IDK, it seems like your cloaking your pessimism in some complicated analysis. (much like a sith cloaks his intentions in the dark side of the force, jk btw).

I just want to get you on the right side of history, so that years later we can look back on this fondly and shove it in the other person's face how right we were (whether that person is you or me).

Unlike you I believe that whether or not TOR is successful will ultimately depend on the game being both better AND different than WOW(look at BioWare's history). That's what it takes to depose a game that is so entrenched like WOW. But I guess, in any case, we both agree that it will probably be successful(correct me if I misunderstood you).

Simon Ludgate
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I think you misunderstand. My argument is that, in order to attract a subscribing customer away from WoW and into another game, that other game has to be sufficiently better to attract that customer away. Alternatively, in order to attract customers that are not playing WoW, that game has to be sufficiently different to tap into alternative audiences. A "different" game does not seek to "depose" another, at least not in the sense that it gobbles up its audiences.

Being better AND different is kind of irrelevant, since if the game is sufficiently different to tap into alternative audiences (eg: EVE Online) then the comparative quality to WoW does not influence whether or not WoW audiences are converted. Alternatively, if a game is sufficiently different from WoW, it might well be impossible to determine if it is better than WoW at all. Thus "better and different" is like "new and improved": you can't really be both.

Gerald Belman
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Frank, the best response I ever heard was from a Star Trek fan talking about women in a womens studies class I had to take in college. He said "you see, women are like Klingons". He was totally serious but he didn't really explain it at all, he just left it hanging out there. Everyone just became really silent and the professor was like "um, anyone else?".

Simon, Oh ok, I understand a little better what you are trying to say. You are coming at it from a market share standpoint. If a game is better than WOW it must also be similar - in your view.

Your giving some unique definitions to the simple words "better" and "different". But since in the end they are highly subjective, I'll play along. Although my defenitions will be a little different then too.

See, I think that people who play WOW, play it for it's high quality, but they ARE looking for something different; and they have been looking for something different for quite some time. It's just that nothing with the same or better QUALITY (in their eyes) has come along yet. Hence, TOR, in my opinion will be better and different than WOW, and it will steal some WOW market share(as well as create plenty of market share of its own).