Subscriptions Are Dead; Long Live Subscriptions

Tobold has a post up talking about the fate of the subscription model. Namely, that while TESO and Wildstar devs are heroically trying to swim against the F2P current, the hard numbers and future MMO releases paint a different, more bleak picture. As somewhat hilariously pointed out by commenter Mike Andrade in that post, this sort of subscription analysis appears to be a Tobold yearly August tradition, but nevermind.

Both Gevlon in the comments and SynCaine in a post come out of the gate with a rather blistering one-two retort: 1) maybe recent sub games are floundering because the games themselves are bad, and 2) where are all the F2P successes then?

Granted, SynCaine moved the goal-posts a bit by specifying “day-1 F2P,” when the facts of the matter are (likely) that subscription games that have made the F2P transition are only still online because of said transition. In other words, SWTOR and LOTRO and Aion and DDO and STO and TSW (etc) are perfectly valid examples of F2P success stories by virtue of those games still being online and profitable. That all of them would prefer the giant piles of initial subscriber cash isn’t really saying anything about the long-term sustainability of the model itself. Why would any of them start off F2P if it’s possible to not leave that money on the table?

But if we’re looking ahead, I suppose ArchAge and SOE’s flagship EverQuest Next being F2P might be potential candidates day-1 F2P success (however that ends up being defined).

The subscription counter-example a lot of people have been using is FF14, which frankly shocked me in terms of subscriber numbers. Apparently there are 2 million of them? If legitimate, that would rocket it past all non-WoW MMOs to be one of the most successful subscription games of all time. Of course, it sells for $15 on Steam every three weeks, there’s a sizable console market for the game (something not many MMOs can achieve), and it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.

Okay, actually FF14 has two million “registered accounts,” which is sort of like subscribers in the same way F2P games are “free to play.” Still, subscriptions! 500,000 people log on at least once per day! For now, anyway.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the subscription game musing is sort of missing the point. While there are subtle pressures involved when you look at a subscription game – worrying about getting your money’s worth even if $15/month is pocket change normally – I agree with people like SynCaine that say if a game is worth it, you’ll pay the money… to a point. Because when you are talking about MMOs, the quality of the content itself is almost a tertiary concern to retention. Don’t believe me? Then tell me how a game like WoW can get away with having zero new content from September 2013 to today and “only” lose around ~10.5% of its population. It’s the people, stupid. Yeah, there’s an underlying game space that needs to be entertaining enough to collect everyone in one spot and having fun during downtime, but how long is anyone really subscribing to a single-player game? You can have the most entertaining base game in the world, but if nobody is making those sticky social connections – perhaps because they already have social networks elsewhere – then they are just going to leave in three months anyway.

Frankly, the biggest issue with subscriptions are companies whom vastly overestimate their own popularity, and otherwise set themselves up for failure. If you budget your MMO such that you need 500,000 people paying $15/month just to survive, you’re going to have a bad time. The lower that floor is, the more space you will have to grow the audience later. Or, hell, just maintain the people you have currently.

So while I do not believe the subscription model itself is going anywhere, I do think that it’s only going to be particularly sustainable to those games which have tightly-wounded social pockets. Creating said pockets out of thin air is incredibly tough, but that’s not going to stop games like TESO and Wildstar from at least capitalizing on 6-12 months of bonus revenue they would not have otherwise had if they went with B2P and/or F2P.

Posted on August 20, 2014, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think it’s also worth mentioning how much of the marketing budget offsets those early sales for the bigger subscription-based releases. Both TESO and WildStar enjoyed some pretty large marketing campaigns from what I could see.

    I have no worries about subscription-based models, especially for games that aren’t trying to blow their budget early. My concern is more with how many of these publishers invest millions in sub-based then expect their games to balloon in size and stay there. To me, MMOs have always been a slow burn toward sustainable levels. WoW is of course an exception, but even it took two expansions to hit a peak.

  2. “it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.”

    This is not correct. ARR does not share content with 1.0. It’s a continuation of 1.0s storyline, closer to a sequel. As I understand it, it’s pretty much a rebuild from the ground up.

    Check out this reddit discussion for more details and view of the scope of the rebuild:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/ffxiv/comments/1m4aei/what_was_ffxiv_10_like/

  3. I find the whole topic/argument odd. Some people seem to have a quasi-religious devotion to payment models, such that it becomes very important that this or that model should succeed or fail. There will always be a place for subscription games, because it is one of the least obtrusive ways to fund continued development. There will always be F2P games as well, because not every game will have a super-dedicated fanbase willing to subscribe to every game they want to play. Dabblers do exist. For that matter, there will be hybrids, trying to get the best of both (I guess you could say most F2P games are currently hybrids, as they offer subscriptions).

    • I do agree with the concerns many people have about the inherent incentive structure that F2P generates. If all your money comes from hats, mounts, and selling more power, then guess what the developers end up spending most of their time on? So in that sense, it makes sense to wish ill on the F2P payment model (even though it will never, ever go away at this point).