With the announcement that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be making the switch to a free-to-play model, the Secret World frequently hosting free-to-play weekends and the big hitters of WoW and Rift seeing a decline in monthly subscriptions, 2012 seems to be seeing an end to subscription-based online gaming.
But is this trend necessarily a bad thing?
Paid subscriptions, on a very basic level, demand attention. When you’re paying a set amount each month, regardless of how much that amount is, you’re committing yourself to putting time aside to play that game. If for one reason or another you fail to find the time, then paying any subscription fee at all is just flushing money away for no reason.
That subscription fee brings no guarantees. The game can be offline for some time, often without explanation, and you can claim no reimbursement on your subscription. Equally, paying that money doesn’t mean for a second that you are going to enjoy the experience. Every month, whether new content has been released or not, if you want to continue playing that subscription based MMO, you’re going to have to pay for it. But is a free to play model the solution?
My experiences with Star Trek: Online have warned me how intrusive the free-to-play model can be. Glowing crates litter every battlefield, the only means of opening them a real-money purchase away. Ship designs and crew costumes are forever locked away behind a paywall, which is understandable enough, but the game does everything in its power to constantly drive you towards a purchase.
Annoying though it might be, the truth of the matter is I’ve put around 50 hours into Star Trek: Online, and I’ve never had to drop a penny on it. Despite the game almost begging me for money at every possible occasion, it’s still easy to play and have an enjoyable experience without spending anything at all. Speaking as a gamer on a budget dictated by his wife and child, that can only be a good thing.
The Free to Play model relies on providing a decent experience. If players are not enjoying themselves, they’re not going to be dropping any money on your items, regardless of what they’re offering. Although you can say similar of subscription based games, there’s a world of difference between a player choosing to invest money in your game because they’re enjoying it, and forcing them to pay to keep playing.
The transition to a free-to-play model by many of the industry’s big hitters is perhaps troubling for people used to a subscription model, but the times when free-to-play was a synonym for garbage are long over. Everquest II, DC Universe Online, Star Trek: Online, all providing thousands of hours of enjoyment, and all for nothing. Does it mean MMO’s are coming to an end? No. Does it mean the future of paying for MMO’s is changing? I think it does.
But perhaps we should just stop looking that gift-horse in the mouth?