The lights are on
Once dominated by the subscription-based model espoused by
hits like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, over the past decade massively
multiplayer role-playing games have gradually shifted toward free-to-play.
Juggernauts like WoW still fare well with subscriptions, but other publishers
found it easier to lure and keep players if users could try the game for free
and then purchase items via cash shops if they deem it appropriate.
When Bethesda announced in 2013 that Elder Scrolls Online
would adopt a subscription based economic model, many scoffed. After all, the
last few major MMOs to opt for a retail box product/monthly fee, The Lord of
the Rings Online and The Secret World, eventually gravitated toward the
free-to-play system. Yes, you can still subscribe to games like Star Wars: The
Old Republic, The Lord of the Rings Online, and Rift, but it's not required to
play the game and see if you like it anymore. The same can be said for Sony
Online Entertainment, which folded all of its titles (including the EverQuest
and PlanetSide franchises) under the free-to-play umbrella.
In defense of its approach, Bethesda says the $14.99/month
subscription fee is necessary because it plans to support the game with
regular, significant content updates. It's not the only studio taking this approach right now,
either. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launched with a traditional retail
box plus subscription model and brought a dead game back to life (though how
much it's really living is still to be determined.)
If there is any franchise that could potentially pull off
the subscription model in modern times, however, it's Elder Scrolls. More than
20 million people bought copies of Skyrim, making it one of the most successful
retail games of all time. The series also heavily favors exploration and side
quests over base narratives. That could help it elude the potholes that damaged
the momentum for The Old Republic, which was too story-centric and eventually
ran out of compelling content near the end game.
The trick for developer ZeniMax Online Studios is to create
content that draws in that considerable base rather than alienate them with too
many conventional MMO mechanics. MMOs and single-player role-playing games are
very different beasts, but if ZeniMax can successfully create harmony it could
generate a large enough base to sustain this efforts.
We won't have to wait long for results, with Elder Scrolls
Online launching next week (or this weekend for those who pre-ordered) and
WildStar attempting a similar launch two months after ESO launches. By the end
of the year we should know if subscription based games have the stamina to swim against the
tide of free-to-play or if the undertow is too strong. If these games fail to
retain users, it could close the door on the model altogether for new MMOs.
Email the author Matt Bertz, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.