Massively multiplayer online games resurrect monthly subscriptions

Prepare to pay to play your massively multiplayer online games. “The Elder Scrolls Online,” “Final Fantasy XIV” and “WildStar” are all on track for a 2014 release and will employ a monthly subscription model.

In 2013, it was widely assumed that the monthly subscription model for video games was dead. “World of Warcraft” was the only game that could exist in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) space to charge a monthly fee.

Any existing MMO when “World of Warcraft” was released was expected to die a slow, painful death until someone flipped the server switches off. Any MMO released after “World of Warcraft” was expected to belly flop its way into irrelevance because nothing could compete with the MMO juggernaut.

 

 

And then free-to-play happened.

Free-to-play allows players limited access — the degree of limitations varying from game to game — to MMO games as an alternative to monthly subscriptions. Typically the amount of character slots, equipment slots or game content are limited for free-to-play options.

Over the years many games were forced or willingly made the switch to free-to-play: “from DC Universe Online,” to “The Lord of the Rings Online,” to “Star Trek Online,” to “Rift,” to “Runescape.” The list goes on and on. Not even “Star Wars: The Old Republic” could hold out. It went free-to-play in less than a year.

Sony Online Entertainment made the switch from the monthly subscription model to premium free-to-play with “EverQuest” and “EverQuest 2,” both celebrating 15- and 10-year anniversaries, respectively, this year. It breathed new life into the EverQuest games and has made it sustainable ever since.

In many cases of MMO games going to the free-to-play models, the publishers have seen revenues soar through in-game purchases or new subscribers who prefer to have the complete game up-front for a monthly fee.

How the publishers of MMOs present their subscription model is important. Gamers can pay a monthly fee to play the Sci-Fi MMO “WildStar,” or they can use in-game currency to pay for their subscription fees. It is a concept that has worked well for “EVE Online” as gamers who can invest more of their time into the game can essentially play their game without having to spend any “real world” money. It isn’t free, but “WildStar” provides an alternative source of payment that keeps players invested and logged into their game.

Bethesda Softworks is likely banking on their Elder Scrolls brand to justify pay-to-play. Over 20 million copies of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” were sold across PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. That is a gigantic built-in fanbase of which it can take advantage. Its gamble will likely pay off as “The Elder Scrolls Online” will be available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Although the MMO is fundamentally different from Skyrim, brand recognition will carry gamers over to the online game and they’ll be able to experience something new on the PS4 and Xbox One.

“WildStar’s” options for paying to play and the availability of “The Elder Scrolls Online” and “Final Fantasy XIV ” on multiple platforms will likely prove successful for these MMOs. With that success, they can stave off free-to-play and will repave the road for paying to play games online, making it the norm once again.

Reach the reporter at michael.jerome.martin@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NefariousMike