Before You Think Subscriptions Are Back In Style…

August 21, 2013


With the news of payment models for Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online coming out this week, I see a lot of people have been weighing in with stunned reactions.

But I can’t say I understand the surprise. I’ve made mention before that the “Launching with a subscription and then transition to free-to-play a few months down the road” seems to be emerging as an efficient business model in itself. Make all the big money up front, and as your player population inevitably dwindles after a while when the shiny has worn off, flip the switch to F2P. On top of that, you also get the benefit of having two “launches” to maximize your publicity as well as the “second rush” that comes with the sub-free players.

Call me overly-suspicious, but as fantastic as these two games look, I don’t think either Carbine or Zenimax (or, at least, their business departments) are under any delusions of grandeur thinking they will break the mold, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they already have their contingency F2P plans in place as a fallback. From a business standpoint, that’s actually quite a very clever route to go, the cousin to the familiar “early adopters pay more to experience everything first” concept. They have no idea if their game will have lasting appeal, but they do know it’s attractive enough that a significant number of gamers will want to jump on board to see what it has to offer — and more importantly, they know this particular audience won’t mind forking out the money to do so right away.

So if one banks on the fact that a good fraction will be willing to pay a subscription for even the first month or two, then why in the world wouldn’t you launch with a sub, especially if you can have F2P all set up as a plan B? It’s not brave, it’s shrewd. You can only win, especially if the heightened number of subscribers hold out for longer than you’d hoped.

Of course, I could be wrong. And I’m also aware the theory borders on cynical (or giving companies too much credit). Still, it was what went through my head as I read these news releases, with not a trace of shock at all. And as to how Wildstar and ESO having a subscription impacts my level of interest and enthusiasm in these games? Probably not at all. As ever, my pattern is to “go all out” when I play an MMO. Which means, in the time span of a single month, I prefer to focus on no more than two games, and I’m definitely not the type to sample 4-5 different ones in a week. Believe me, I’ve tried that, and I just can’t keep up.

So subbing — even for a free game, if the option’s available — has just always felt like the easiest and most obstacle-free route to fit my style. Wildstar and ESO? Yeah, I think I’ll play the hell out of both games when they first come out; I have no doubt I’ll play enough to make whatever box or subscription price worth it in the first couple months. After that, I can always cancel. In other words, business as usual!


  1. Wow. My thoughts exactly. Like you took the words out of my mouth lol

    • Heh heh, thanks, but I’d still love to read your views if you ever do a post 🙂

  2. I agree with Carbine, but ZeniMax might well be thinking it’s something super-duper-special. Their attitude from day one has been that TESO wasn’t down in the MMO dirt with the rest of us, and they’ve shown a shocking lack of understanding how the industry works.

    • I think after the performance of SWTOR, it would be very naive to have that “we have a game/an IP that just can’t fail” attitude. I’m not saying that you couldn’t be correct with Zenimax, but like you’ve said yourself, anything can happen when it comes to the MMO industry and I honestly hope someone over at Z has got to know this too.

  3. I am with Syp on this one. I can see WildStar making that jump 9 months in. But if you read… and believe… what the TESO team are saying in that interview you linked, they are calling out the dark side of F2P in a way that other devs seem disinclined to even acknowledge. Hey, F2P impacts the user experience! And a cash shop seems pretty much anathema to the Elder Scrolls experience.

    Now, whether or not they are living in the real world with that remains to be seen. As you said, SWTOR sure thought they could sustain subs, as did Rift and TSW. But SWTOR also sought to emulate a BioWare game in an MMO environment, and BioWare games tend to be linear stories which come to an end. Elder Scrolls games tend to be much more wide open.

    We’ll see.

    • I actually didn’t read too much into his answer for that particular question in the interview, as it smacks of something someone in publicity wrote for him in advance: “extoll the subscription experience, to let people know we have confidence in our product! But wait, hold back on the criticism on F2P, just a bit — you never know when we’ll have to go that way ourselves!” Like I said, maybe I’m just cynical or giving them way too much credit 😛 But the fact that the question specificaly mentions SWTOR is what made me suspect Zenimax is aware of the status quo, or at least someone in the business department does even if they can’t discuss it openly. As you say, we’ll see!

  4. I dunno… I think that just maybe, there are some developers that are starting to understand that simply rehashing the same thing we have been getting for the last decade with a new skin, a cash shop, and flying the F2P banner just won’t cut it anymore.

    As I have said before, I don’t believe the business model drives success or failure more than the product quality.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself. But with still months to go before either of these games go on the market, I realize it’s all just a waiting game and speculation. We can all hope for quality, though. As it is, I’m quite interested in both games.

  5. I miss the old community prior to the F2P model. I’m really starting to sour on F2P actually. There are exceptions, but most gamers I interact with would rather pay a sub than have their game world be a free for all playground for trolls or a stop gap to the next game release. If that’s an elitist attitude then call me an elitist I guess. But I’m seeing too much negative impact in the gene I love because people with absolutely no investment in a game choose to run the experience for others.

    • I don’t think you’re an elitist, but dammit, you also have to learn to ignore general chat 😛 I know you can’t help it!

      • I CAN’T! Part of it is my kids are getting into MMOs. I’ve probably created tickets for 20 rape discussions in Swtor since it went F2P, among other things. What happened to community?!
        Really I just hate F2P because I don’t want Syp feeling any more entitled to free games than he already is. 😛

      • LOL general chat will drive you to an early grave! But yeah, I totally understand about your kids. Maybe there’s a way to turn off gen chat for them. No one should have to put up with the crap you’ve talked about seeing.

      • @anon – You can! Turn off general chat. Trust me, as an MMO player of 14 years anyone who trots out the “communities in F2P games are worse than sub games” trope is gets a facepalm from me. The most common term for the crap that goes on in general chat is Barrens Chat. Barrens, from WoW, which is the pinnacle of subscription games.

        There hasn’t been an MMO released with a general/zone chat which hasn’t allowed it to be turned off. In fact from Anarchy Online forward I have a ritual for every new character I create. Yes, even my brand new characters on a brand new MMO. Log in, look for the chat window, turn OFF general, turn OFF trade, turn OFF LFG. If you’re not in local or guild, you have nothing of interest to say to me, period. Sub, B2P, F2P, all of them have crap for general chat, so why bother?

      • Maric’s/anon’s problem isn’t that he can’t turn off general chat, it’s that he can’t ignore it! LOL! Sometimes, I just think he loves reporting 😛

  6. I’ll just wait till / if it goes F2P. Patience is a virtue, and money can be spent on more important things. 😛

    • I agree, I am like this with many other things in life (hold off on buying, wait for a sale, etc.) but I think I will bite on these two games 🙂 I have done the “wait until F2P” thing for a couple MMOs in the past though, so I know what you mean.

  7. I agree with your self-titled cynical theory GeeCee, the objective other than making games and having a great time doing so, is to make money. I’ve noted that lately it’s been very par the course for developers to release a game at $60-80 USD, have a $15.99/month sub attached and just let that ride for half a year. Then they have a sale and the late adopters and on-the-fencers jump on board. If they feel growth it’s matching whatever chart they are operating off of, plan B comes into play, in which case they employ a B2P or F2P strategy.

    Presently I have been subbing to Rift, despite there being a free alternative, because I really like the subscription model. I don’t mind F2P and B2P games (I play Path of Exile and The Secret World), but if there’s an option to sub, and I consider the game worth that value to me personally then I’ll go for it.

    Next on the horizon is FFXIV: ARR which I’ll be exploring and beyond that I’m really looking forward to Wildstar. That just looks fantastic. And if Wildstar (or heck, FFXIV for that matter) goes Free to Play? No harm done, I’ll roll with the changes and if the F2P is good (with Rift being my present gold standard) I’ll keep on playing.

    • Yeah, I’m sure their business guys will have had a bunch of numbers crunched to tell them at what point they should discount their game, and then again at what point they should consider making the switch to free. Especially now that so many games have done the F2P switch and have done it relatively successfully, it’s a pattern I wouldn’t be surprised if more are adopting not so much as a “last ditch resort” anymore, but as an actual plan and strategy. A new shiny game with a lot of hype sees some of its highest population numbers in its first months of launch, I think even a first year business student can see that as something to take advantage of.

      Anyway, I am the same with with TSW as you are with Rift – there is a free plan, but I’ve always been subbed…just because you get some nice perks, and because I do love the game and I don’t mind giving them my money at all as a way of telling them to keep up the great work 😀

  8. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “Box + Sub now, BTP or F2P once the population starts tanking”. From the studios standpoint, it is shrewd. For the early adopters, it’s a huge middle finger. Not that it actually occurs, but that it’s PLANNED to occur.

    Star Trek Online started this way. They were a box + sub and the game was atrocious when it first launched. So much that Atari dropped Cryptic entirely. It wasn’t until they were bought up by PW, used PW’s psychologists to start generating funds and now the game is better than ever. It’s not perfect, it still has a few annoying traits (what game doesn’t), but FTP made the game 100x better. The key is that it WASN’T from the initial box and subs that made it a success, but the FTP transition and *gasp* the FTP community!

    Trolls will always be there whether there is a sub or not. So the whole “it keeps out the riff-raff” argument is invalid. If communities can’t adapt to an influx of new players… well, imo, it must not have been that strong a community to begin with.

    • See, I actually don’t see it as a middle finger to the early adopter. Having been an early adopter for a lot of other things other than gaming, I have been totally okay with paying a bit more to use/try/experience a product early because I knew exactly what I was in for 😛

      I see it like this. If I know I want something badly enough, I don’t mind paying for it, and on the flip side, there are also plenty of things I’m not as enthusiastic for but would still be interested, and for such things I’m also more than happy to “wait for a sale”. I think a lot of people are already like this for MMOs, hence the what used to be tongue-in-cheek “I’ll just wait for F2P”, but which is actually now emerging as a de facto business model it and of itself 😀

      As for the community, I tend to agree with you. I think it’s more a factor of the population levels than whether a game is sub or free. Look at WoW, a sub game which has always had its share of riff raff — but then that game has a ton of players. Then look at a free game like TSW, which I think has the most mature and generous and civil community in any MMO I play right now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TSW’s population has been described as a smaller but very loyal fan base, and the game’s genre and mechanics tends not to draw a huge crowd.

      • I completely agree that TSW has one of the best communities out there. However, I have also met others in TSW that trolled and insulted me so much it made me simply not want to log into the game. Even small populations will have jerks, they’re just not as loud and so you don’t encounter them as often.

        I will say that after the latest golem event, I have never seen a community come together as much as they did for that. That real community involvement will make the upcoming fight against the filth so ridiculously awesome, I can’t wait to see it.

      • I’ve been lucky, or maybe I just know enough to ignore general chat (unlike the hapless PaganRites!) because I tend not have had so many bad situations with the community. I’m sure there are bad apples in every game, even in TSW, but the riff raff does seem to be less widespread there. Like you, I was also very impressed with the golem event. Couldn’t believe how everyone was so helpful and coming together get everyone their achievements. I’m looking forward to this filth event too!

  9. […] basically says “fuck you all, here’s your F2P, go stuff yourselves and subscribe anyway.” Like Mogsy, I want to believe they have some awareness of what’s been going on in the industry, but I would […]

  10. […] blogosphere is abuzz with next gen subscription analyzis. MMOGC reminds us that subscriptions aren’t in fact back and she’s not alone in her suspicions. While some MMOs […]

  11. I’m not really a fan of the subscription model – mostly because I’m too casual of a player to get my money’s worth out of it that way and I don’t really push myself quickly to experience the game. But I’ll probably end up buying and subbing for ESO just because I’m a fan of the Elder Scrolls games.

    • I mostly only have 2-2.5 hours a night to game as well. When I get ESO or Wildstar, I’ll probably have to take a break on everything else to give it my full attention, since that’s the way I get my bang for my buck. Now let’s just hope they don’t launch anywhere close to each other! 😛

      • I think ESO will be my only sub game for a long time. I like bouncing around different games too much to pay for them all! So having one sub-game as my main and the F2P’s as fallbacks/alternatives will work well for me.

        The only games I’ve paid a sub for so far have been WoW for a very small stint and FFXI (though I really don’t feel I got my money’s worth out of that one…).

      • For the first time ever, I’m actually running three subs at the moment, SWTOR which I’ve picked up for two months, TSW which I’ve always had since launch…Funcom being a company I’m more than happy to throw money at to support right now, and WoW which I actually should cancel when it runs out this month, because my activity in SWTOR seems to be picking up. I just gotta do the usual subs switcheroo!

  12. They do have something to lose, prospective players. Wildstar was high on my list as a potential MMO for me and my wife to enjoy. Now, I’l just going to let it sit until it goes F2P like we all know it will. Presuming we don’t get caught up in anything else between now and then.

    Given that no AAA MMO since 2005ish has made the subscription model work we know where the majority of the market stands when it comes to the preferred revenue model for this form of entertainment. TOR was the last MMO that probably will get a pass for trying sub first. Now, any game which attempts sub from the onset is going to be met with an ever increasing wave of cynicism and run a huge risk of player backlash.

    • Arguable that the prospective players you speak of are actually a loss…you just said you will play, but only once it’ll go f2p. They know that’s the majority of those who wait, so even though you won’t jump on right away, they know they’ll still have your business eventually. Plus, there’s no guarantee you and F2Pers will spend, being not enthusiastic enough to pay a sub and jump on board right away in the first place, whereas it’s a guaranteed cash cow from the early adopters right up front – so why not go for the better bet?

      And I’d say cynicism and risk of player backlash used to be a bigger issue…but now it’s become a given. No one even batted an eye when TSW went F2P, for example, because it was expected, and part of that was because Funcom never really made it a huge secret that that was what they had as a contingency all along. The entire game was structured in a way where changes during the transition were minimal, all they had to do was “flip the switch”, so to speak.

      That said though, if Zenimax keeps up their arrogant ESO talk, they could face the negativity if or when they ever go F2P. I get that they have to sound confident in their product and there’s matter of brand loyalty, but they might need to tone it down and be a little more realistic.

    • They can still get a lot of those players by converting to F2P later down the road. I don’t think there is many people who would consider a F2P game only when it never used to have subs; the conversion model loses those “MMO tourists” who prefer F2P but it seems to be built on assumptions (which I agree with) tourists prefer subs in general.

      • Heh heh, MMO tourists are a strange breed. It’s hard to really pin down their preferences, as I know people who want to play all the games but like to do it “buffet style”, playing multiple games in a single week. I’d consider myself an MMO tourist as well, but I’m more of the “long vacation” type, playing different games but sticking with one for months at a time before moving on to the next. In my case, yeah subs (if they have them) work better for my play style.

  13. […] i agree with MMOGamerChick when she’s saying that starting with a sub and then going f2p is a viable business model […]

  14. That’s certainly an interesting view. But wouldn’t one also think that a particular MMO is doing badly if they switched from subs to f2p and generate negative publicity? At least that would be my first impression when I hear the news (Tera for example). For me as long, as the game maintains quality and content I wouldn’t mind paying the subs upfront, F2P in another hand…Well I never have a very good impression for F2P games except for a few.

    • Possibly, but I think negative press was a bigger problem before when not so many MMOs also started going the same route. These days, it seems to be a given, and games like TSW for example have never really made it a secret that their business model was adapted for F2P from its outset, and when the time came to transition nobody was too dismayed because it was anticipated all along. Though, you’re probably right about there being bad impressions no matter what, but in the companies’ eyes the extra revenue and publicity they will get from a “second launch” might make up for some of that and make it worth it.

  15. Reblogged this on asian.in.action and commented:
    “Launching with a subscription and then transition to free-to-play a few months down the road” a business model or a sign of failure?

  16. I just wish TESO would take my money now!

    • From what I’ve seen so far in beta, they will probably get mine. At least for the first little while anyway, that’s one game I wouldn’t mind being an “early adopter”!

  17. […] whose outlooks have no doubt been shaped by the industry… have opined that the ZeniMax Online team has an […]

  18. It’s been quiet some time since your last post (As far as i can tell, 1 year) about WildStars. Are you playing it?

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