The lights are on
Guild Wars 2’s cash shop is the death knell for monthly subscription fees on even the highest-quality games.
For over a decade, a monthly fee was the accepted price of entry for massively multiplayer games. Players were happy to fork over $10-15 per month in return for access to sprawling online worlds. The sheer size of MMOs dwarfed the most ambitious offline products; as rich as Grand Theft Auto III’s Liberty City is, EverQuest’s multiple continents (and later, extradimensional planes) begged to be explored in a way that is still unheard-of in traditional games.
I personally dropped six-plus years of subscription fees into World of Warcraft, and I don’t regret a penny of it. Those hundreds of dollars bought me unique entertainment that is utterly unlike anything else we’ve built as a species. Exploring richly detailed fantastic worlds with old friends and newly met allies at my side is an unmatched experience. The game eventually paled in my eyes, as all things do, but that doesn’t affect the many memories I still treasure from my time in Azeroth.
Times change, though. Not to take anything away from games that I enjoy – Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World, and others are all great in their own ways – but Guild Wars 2 is easily the best MMO to release in years, and it came out without a subscription fee. If ArenaNet can do it with a game as brilliantly designed, well-executed, and content-rich as GW2, I have a hard time imagining what it would take to get me to pay a subscription fee ever again.
Free-to-play is nothing new, of course. Asian games from Maple Story to Aion have had huge successes in China and Korea without subscription fees or even a one-time box price, and some have even made significant inroads in the U.S. as well. No offense to any of them, but Guild Wars 2 is on a whole new level from any of the (far too many) Korean or Chinese imports I’ve tried. What’s more, the cash shop that generates the necessary ongoing revenue to keep the company profitable is perfectly respectful of players’ time and money.
Many games have trumpeted their lack of power-boosting items in their microtransaction models, but Guild Wars 2 goes a step farther. The cash shop is never thrown into your face, you’re never gated off from content or activities for not spending real money, and most importantly the temporary XP/karma boosters never feel at all mandatory because the game isn’t designed to be painful to grind through without them.
The appeal of monthly subscriptions has been crumbling for years despite World of Warcraft’s continuing success (and you could argue that Blizzard’s juggernaut is in many ways playing by its own rules), but Guild Wars 2 is the kick that is bringing the whole outmoded concept crashing down. Most of the old guard of Western MMO publishing and development have already converted partially or wholly to subscription-free ways of making money – Turbine, Sony Online Entertainment, and Cryptic Studios (now owned by Chinese publisher Perfect World) have all refitted previously subscription-based games over to cash shop models.
I don’t expect we’ll ever see another significant success story in the MMO scene that demands a regular subscription fee. ArenaNet has proven that a triple-A Western-style MMORPG can make money without a subscription model and without disrespecting players with its cash shop offerings, and we’re not ever going back.
And that’s a great thing as far as I’m concerned.