It's 2015! Is it time to stop lying to ourselves about MMO subscriptions yet?
We made it! Now that pesky 2014 is out of the way we can all get on with our lives, confident that this year will see Landmark move into open beta and hopeful for a playable version of EverQuest Next within the next 12 months. Also this year will be Avengers: Age of Ultron and, if we all decide to be super-cool to each other, world peace and the promise of an escape from the nightmarish dystopian future we’re collectively plummeting towards. Happy New Year!
It’s unlikely that 2014 will go down as a vintage year for video games; with a lukewarm reception for many AAA offers and little in the way of smash-hit indie crossovers, I expect we’ll collectively wash our hands of it and move on. If you’re interested, games I liked this year included LISA, Kentucky Route Zero and Wasteland 2. I would be willing to say they were good in front of people, confident that those listening would infer from this small selection that my taste was that of a debonair trendsetter.
“But what about MMOs?”, cry the voices in my head. Well voices, I won’t lie, it’s been a disappointing one. The same mistakes are repeated with a now tedious inevitability, and we’re all subjected to people like me bemoaning the state of the industry. Rest assured that I hate writing about it just as much as you hate reading about it, but what I could really do without is the clown-shoes-merry-go-round that leads us back here time after time.
An example, the first big MMO story of 2015 (it happened on December 30th, but that’s close enough for me), The Elder Scrolls Online may be dropping their subscription model. Nothing is confirmed as of now, and a story about an Australian retailer returning their copies has been debunked.
The option to purchase 6-month subscriptions have been removed; official word is the change was made because players ‘preferred the shorter billing options’, and in other news I’m 18 feet tall with otters for hair. Some commenters have pointed out that the six month option came with a 9% discount, so removing it means more money coming in. This argument is apparently meant to make the situation seem better and not like Zenimax is scrambling for pennies down the side of the couch.
Moves like this are often, and unfairly, seen as the game ‘failing’. Personally, I don’t see shifts like these as any indication of the quality of the game. Instead, I see them as an admission of the contempt that some developers and publishers have for their customers. Ultimately, for all the posturing about the benefits of the subscription model for players, you never see a free to play game switch to a sub model.
It’s this bait-and-switch-esque tactic that grinds my gears. I refuse to believe that any MMO developer looking to court the mainstream MMO market seriously believes their game can thrive with a subscription model. We’re told that the game just works better with this model, then we’re expected to be happy to hear it’s being abandoned for something else.
The worst part about this is that it’s actually true. The games are designed with one payment model in mind, so the new monetization plan is bolted awkwardly onto the game like some lurid growth. It’s always so terribly gauche, and the game is forced to bear the unsightly prosthetic and suffer for it.
As far as I can see, the bulk of complaints about modern free-to-play are a result of this. People don’t like the system to be intrusive, they don’t like content to be portioned piecemeal and some will literally implode at the first whiff of Pay2Win. I’ve seen it happen, it’s horrifying.
The solution to these problems is pretty simple—you just have to build the game to be free from the start. I appreciate that some people prefer to pay their sub and not have to engage further, but the choice is between a well-integrated and unintrusive F2P system or an ugly and permanent scaffold ruining your view. There are some who would consider this a false dichotomy, but outside of World of Warcraft and niche titles without the draw to support F2P, it has become a consistent pattern.
The implication that some developers and publishers still don’t think it’s worthwhile to be honest with us is no excuse for us to lie to ourselves. Subscription should no longer be considered an option; the hypothetical benefits have started dissolving on contact with air.
If we leave that conversation behind we can focus our efforts on the much more worthwhile conversation around what makes for a good MMO business model in 2015.
Imagine a free-to-play game where, if you pay $15 a month then you’ll never miss out on anything you want from the game, it’s never shoved in your face and the challenge isn’t ruined by any powerful items for sale. It can be done, and we’ll get there a lot quicker if we let go of a system that hasn’t been on our side for years.
Well, this one sure turned out ranty. Welcome to 2015!