In an entertaining AGDC panel, ZeniMax Online president Matt Firor took the "subscription MMO" end of a subscription vs. free-to-play debate, explaining the current state of the triple-A MMO space, and discussing World Of Warcraft's "perfect storm" and why there will be million-subscription games post-WoW.
Firor, who runs the sister online company to Bethesda Game Studios (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3), and is working on a high-budget unannounced MMO title, was appearing on a panel alongside K2 Network's Joshua Hong (WarRock, Sword Of The New World), who was representing the free-to-play end.
The ZeniMax executive explained of his contribution, "In many ways I'm going to do the tried and true side of this conversation," but offered a lot of relevant information on where he thinks the MMO market is going over the next few years.
As he noted, the current monthly subscription price for core MMOs is $14.99, up from $9.99 or so when the modern MMO was birthed with Ultima Online, and he noted that, inevitably, "Publishers will probably try to stretch that further as time goes on."
Firor, who was previously one of the creators of the Dark Age Of Camelot series at Mythic, said there is really no "versus" when it comes to the two business models. He commented, "The debate's over about whether free to play has a market. Obviously it does."
But he ultimately believes that "people value a game based on the price you're charging for it. If you want to make a subscription game, you have to make a triple-A game." In other words, it's all about fulfilling the prophecies that you are trying to put out by attaching a certain cost on it.
So, gamers will pay for a subscription MMO, simply put, "if they value [the game] enough to do that."
And playing subscription MMOs doesn't stop those players from also playing free titles, Firor noted: "There's no reason why someone can't play World Of Warcraft and then jump on a free-to-play game to get a different experience."
Of course, the specter of World Of Warcraft still looms large across all of these discussions, given its many-times-higher subscriber count compared to its competitors. Firor noted that WoW launched as a "perfect storm," with the "right time, right product, right amount of fun."
But he believes that, even if Blizzard's MMO title dominates, there can be other competitors polling significantly higher numbers than recently-launched runners-up Age Of Conan and Lord Of The Rings Online. He notes that the next big MMO game has to be as successful "on two continents, and probably three".
So what's the benchmark that subscription MMOs should aim for? Firor believe that titles should be able to launch and reach one million subscribers "every couple of years" or so -- although that hasn't happened since World Of Warcraft. Why not? Well, says Firor, "Many of the titles have failed literally because they had to launch because they ran out of money."
Perhaps deep pockets and a majorly extended schedule, both of which Blizzard's MMO has, is the only way to do things right and launch the next million-subscriber MMO, then. This is definitely what ZeniMax is aiming for.
The key to success? As Firor explains somewhat scarily towards the end of the panel: "You never want [your subscribers] to stick their head above the ground" and work out what else is out there in the MMO space that they could be playing instead.