The topic of subscription versus free-to-play has become one of those cyclic topics in the MMO blogosphere, especially given the trend of most MMOs converting to one sort or another of free-to-play with relatively few exceptions.
Some of the complaints of free-to-play simply refer to the more aggressive in-game marketing. Blue Kae, for example, among others, has complained numerous times about the in-game button to buy consumables in the LOTRO Store in Lord of the Rings Online. Me? I barely notice it. I have a vague awareness that the button is there, but maybe it’s a combination of playing the game since beta so I just know where things are on various UI frames plus the fact that I have no use for any of those consumables anyway. That button isn’t going to be clicked by me, no matter what, so I just ignore it. (Despite having the Lifetime Subscription, I have bought things like additional storage and costume slots. But consumables? Sorry, no sale here.) Age of Conan, on the other hand, opens a huge window on the screen every time I login. It’s just a matter of reaching up and closing that window but that offends me much more than frequent store button placement does. Perhaps it’s a relic from my IRC days, but I find it extremely rude and offensive when an application opens additional windows on its own without my input to do so. That is also why I tend to get highly annoyed when people reply via tell to a conversation I’m holding in normal public chat, despite MMOs not opening separate windows for private messages like an IRC client might. But I digress…
This past weekend two totally unrelated posts came up on the subject of subscriptions.
Pete over at Dragonchasers has canceled both his Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic subscriptions because he isn’t playing them enough to justify the subscription in his opinion.
What makes this whole situation worse is I start to feel guilty about not playing. I’m going through that with SW:TOR now. I don’t really feel like playing but I feel like I -should- play since I’m paying for it. After a while that vague guilt turns to resentment and then I’m even less likely to play.
Last year I wrote a meandering post that touched on the psychology of subscriptions, and the point of that article still applies. It fits what Pete is feeling and what I am currently feeling about SWTOR myself. I haven’t loaded the game in over two weeks. I had four days off last week, and I got plenty of gaming done on both PC and 360, but I couldn’t be bothered to click the SWTOR icon. Now we’re starting the third week, and I have five days off coming up when I get home from this trip. I’ll more than likely play SWTOR out of guilt this week, rather than out of excitement to play it. Who knows, maybe there will finally be more players coming up the ranks in the lower level zones so I can maybe group for the couple Heroics I need. Or at least see some chat going on. Or maybe see some players out in the world.
At this point in my career I am one of those people with a disposable income. Due to being single, no children, and (despite what the previous paragraph makes it sound like, those lengthy breaks are rare) not home very much, so I have far more money than time for gaming, and my interests (and attention span) are very divergent as well. That $15 for the SWTOR subscription? I barely even notice it in the big picture of things in terms of spending the cash. I can blow through ten times that taking my girlfriend to dinner and not blink twice about it. (Well, actually I might blink or gasp even, but I’ll still buy dinner. ) I have no problem whatsoever spending a lot of money on my hobby because it brings me enjoyment and sometimes I think of it as directly supporting a development team I believe in. Example: as I write this I have over $300 worth of Xbox 360 games already pre-ordered for the upcoming few months. I will probably pre-order more as I learn of others releasing in 2012 that I decide I want. That’s just pre-orders. I already own over 60 titles for the 360, some I paid the full $60 for, others I got new at reduced prices, still others I bought pre-owned from Gamestop. I also bought two more games at reduced price from Amazon a few days ago which should be waiting at my door when I get home. And I’m perfectly fine with that. When you put the $15 for SWTOR per month up against what I have and continue to spend for other titles, it’s a pittance. What I resent is the "get your worth" psychology inherent in a subscription. In normal games that are sold as a product, it doesn’t matter to me if I blow through the game in 6 hours or if it takes me 6 years to finally complete it. I paid my money, I have it available to me at any moment. Inasmuch as software is ever "owned" those games are essentially "mine." But when a "service" is introduced, that changes my (and many others’) mindset, and we want to feel like we’re getting value out of our service fees. The same applies to most services. We adjust our wireless phone plans to match our usage. I just lowered my monthly bill $10 by dropping to a lower tier SMS plan because I very rarely exceed 100 SMS per month, for example. Pre-paid phones or time-limited plans are becoming increasingly popular with certain segments of the population who either can’t afford the full "unlimited" monthly plan or have learned that they don’t use their phones enough to "get their money’s worth" from that "unlimited" plan. I could also look back at my Netflix habits last year. I had the "one DVD at a time" plan plus unlimited streaming. I only used the streaming for the most part, but because the psychology of knowing I was paying for DVDs too was a factor, I would put DVDs on my queue as well even though I am not fond of physical media any more, and with my limited time at home it often felt like I was watching the DVD because I "had to" not because I wanted to. On the plus side, I did get to see a handful of newer movies that were not available on streaming, but I resented the feeling that I "needed" to order a DVD simply because I was paying for that particular service. When Netflix finally ordered a streaming-only option, I went for that immediately and dropped the physical disc plan like a hot potato.
It’s one thing to dedicate yourself to playing solo in an MMO. I’m often forced to do so simply because of my job and schedule. It’s another thing entirely to be the only person around in an MMO, which further highlights the fact that when you get down to the nuts and bolts, MMOs really are not very good games at all. It’s only the fact of the other players around you – whether you choose to interact with them directly, indirectly, or not at all – that makes MMOs "special." Tesh has written a few times that he would gladly buy World of Warcraft if it were a single-player offline game. I’ll bet he wouldn’t, though. It’s "easy" enough to try yourself – just go download one of the WoW server emulators, set up your own private server and go play WoW as the only person on the server. Then tell me how long you last at that. Continuing this train of thought, here’s another snippet from Pete:
I’ve been in a love-hate cycle with MMOs for a long time. Lately it feels like my “love” phases are getting shorter and shorter and I think that’s just a result of me acknowledging the reality of my situation vis a vis games that are focused on playing with a regular group of friends. It’s just not going to happen until I give up my night job.
In the meantime, titles like Star Trek Online offer a great experience, guilt free. There are tons of players of all levels and no subscriber’s-guilt for when I decide not to play.
As I mentioned above, my schedule prevents me from any "normal" scheduled activity. I can’t commit to raiding every Thursday because my schedule is completely different every week. I would love and adore to have a static group to play through Dungeons & Dragons Online with, but it isn’t fair of me to demand that every other player involved submit to my schedule, my whims, and none other. Believe me, I am more than self-centered enough to demand exactly that, but I know better than to do so and I know better than to think anyone would be gullible enough either. Pete at least has, in theory, the option of someday giving up the night job. His day job is the normal Monday – Friday, 9 – 5, leaving evenings and weekends open for hobbies and gaming with friends or guild-mates. I will never have that option, at least not until I retire as a curmudgeonly old fart kicking the kids off my lawn. There are a few reasons I have continued with Star Trek Online specifically. Despite instances, the game is hosted on a single shard so there are players active from all over the world 24/7, which has not been the case with The Old Republic. Addtionally, STO does not use the "Trinity" group makeup so when I use the PvE Queue to play an STF, it doesn’t matter if there are no "tanks" or "healers" around. You can just play the game, play with others, and unless things go horribly awry you should at least complete the STF with the bare minimum reward. If you happen to get placed into team with a lot of Tactical captains with uber dps, you’ll likely succeed at the optional objectives for additional reward. If you go into the STF with a pre-made team, there should be little question of your successes just like doing a pre-made guild-only raid in a Trinity MMO. So STOs design allows me to indulge in all the team-play I want without the Trinity stress and limitations, since again with my schedule there just aren’t going to be many friends or guild-mates around; I have no choice but to rely on PUGs. I don’t get all angry if we don’t complete the optional objectives. They’re "optional" for a reason, and life is too short to live it angry at Internet People on an Internet Game.
Now, to completely turn this on its head, I could look at Stargrace’s wonderful adventures in Wurm Online recently. It’s a small, niche, "indie" sandbox MMO. If I chose to involve myself in Wurm, and if I enjoyed the game and believed in what the development team was doing, I might not have as much of a problem supporting them – even with a subscription – because additional charitable psychological factors come into play, those of supporting the "underdog" or the "starving artist" that might make me feel as if I’m doing a good deed and legitimately helping that team as opposed to giving my money to the corporate machines of Activision or Electronic Arts.
Gorden over at We Fly Spitfires is still a fan of subscriptions, and offered up his idea of an adjustable subscription rate based on the number of active players. I’ll just go on record here and say that my own opinion is that is a horrible idea. In fact, banks giving out adjustable mortgages at subprime rates a few years ago were a major factor in the current housing and foreclosure crisis in the US as the economy collapsed and rates rose to the point homeowners could no longer afford them. Sure, you could cap the MMO subscription but why would you? Gamers are hobbyists and fans, and we like to think the people who make the games are as well. In most cases, that’s true, but they are no longer strictly hobbyists – it’s their job now. Companies are in the business of making money. I’ve said for years that I no longer believe the standard $15 per month subscription is profitable on its own. It was one thing in 1999 with Everquest, but can you name a single service that has not increased its rates in the past 13 years? The world economy is crap, inflation is much higher than in ’99, the cost of living is higher than in ’99, the cost of game – especially MMO! – development has skyrocketed since ’99 (waves at SWTOR) and you expect me to believe that every single game that slaps "MMO" on the label can survive at the same $15 per month that EQ got by on? If that were true, Sparkle Ponies would be standard in-game quest items… Remember when WAR was still popular? Yes, that’s right, it was before launch. (Couldn’t resist the dig.) Mythic specifically spoke of the possibility of needing a higher fee than the $15 we’ve become accustomed to. Oh, the Internet Nerdrage was strong with that one. Mythic quickly backtracked and stuck with the $15 after the backlash they received over the very notion of paying a higher fee.
There is still a market for subscriptions, but I am more supportive of having multiple means of monetizing online games. Turbine’s Adam Mersky gave an interview about just that last month at Eurogamer. Pete canceled his Rift and SWTOR because the only option is subscribe or don’t play. I’m considering canceling my SWTOR for the same reason. It has been speculated that SWTOR just might be the final big-name AAA MMO that can even release as subscription-only. Every other MMO that follows will have other methods if they are smart. The Hybrid or F2P model fits my personal style and schedule, while the full subscription might fit others. We demand more "choices" of things to do in-game, and now the reality is that players are going to start demanding more choices of how we pay for or support these online games.
Because I am running out of time before I catch the van to start my day at work, I will end on a tangent: I am also extremely supportive of not limiting oneself to solely "MMOs" or solely to monetized online games, or to any other single genre. If you are truly a gamer, you will indulge and enjoy offline games, multiplayer games, singleplayer games, and the various sorts of massively multiplayer games. To many so-called "gamers" are really just "MMO gamers" and even then limit themselves to a very specific style of MMO. (Gosh that was extremely difficult, but I did it just for Pete LOL!) Try new things! Oh, and get outside every once in awhile, the MMO out there has way better graphics and interactivity!