The Subscription MMO Is Dead

The era of the subscription-based online game has well and truly ended in 2012. It had a good run, really. Fifteen years is quite a long time for anything to stay static in the land of gaming.

Ultima Online introduced the idea back in 1997, when those of us who had internet access were mostly still on dial-up and got booted off of AOL whenever anyone called the house. In 1999, EverQuest came along, drawing in fans and addicts and making the idea popular. It would take another five years before World of Warcraft, launched in 2004, would take the MMORPG mainstream. When Mr. T is hawking your online game in TV commercials that even your grandparents think are kind of funny, you've hit the jackpot of cultural relevance.

World of Warcraft remains the undisputed king of the "traditional" monthly subscription MMOG, yet even its dominance is waning. Blizzard's most recently quarterly numbers put the subscriber base around the nine million mark, a significant decline from the plateau of 10-12 million they held steady at for several years.

Other games in the Western, big-budget MMO space have long since gone free-to-play. All of Sony Online Entertainment's titles, including EverQuest and its successor, EverQuest II, are now without a subscription fee. City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online haven't required a monthly charge in several years. DC Universe Online saw a 700% jump in revenue when it became free. And years before the others converted to free games, Guild Wars had already formed a devoted fan base without ever requiring a monthly fee.

Then of course there are the browser-based games: while generally still less well-regarded among American audiences, they boast participant figures that even World of Warcraft in its heyday could barely dream of. RuneScape, in its decade online, has gone well past the 200 million player mark.

So why, then, does the specter of a decade long gone still hover over otherwise-good games and prevent them from being successful?

Star Wars: The Old Republic, launched by BioWare at the end of last year and The Secret World, brought online by Funcom this summer, both looked to be promising games. The former uses the setting from Knights of the Old Republic, which to this day is still lauded by its many fans. BioWare's story-driven, dialogue-driven style of play, as made popular in KOTOR as well as in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, was an immediate draw, and SW:TOR sold a million copies right out of the gate.

Unfortunately, the subscribers didn't stay. By the beginning of this summer, there were fewer than a million remaining, and BioWare Austin had been hit hard by waves of layoffs. In July, EA gave the impression of caving in, and announced that the game would go free to play this November.

The Secret World, meanwhile, hoped to be an entirely different sort of game. It dispensed entirely with common tropes like levelling or set classes, and instead hoped for a more free-form experience set in a modern-day Earth. Despite provocative storytelling and regular content updates, though, Funcom has not been able to attract the required subscribers to their venture. This week, they laid off half their staff.

Every positive post or tweet about either of those games has generally been met with a wall of, "It looks interesting, but I'll wait until it's free to play."

Players, and potential players, aren't stupid. As every previous big-budget MMORPG, with the exception of World of Warcraft, has inevitably gone to a free-to-play model, they will wait on the sidelines until their new game of choice follows suit. The audience has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: unwilling to pick up a game until it has gone free-to-play, a game must then go free-to-play to gain those players. MMORPGs are also now faced with the simple fact that competition has driven down prices. As players can dabble in so many without paying a flat fee, there are other places to go.

There will not be another licence to print money like World of Warcraft was. The audience is done paying up-front for the box and continuing to pay a third as much again each month thereafter for continued access. Persistent multiplayer environments are not the novelty they once were, and the subscription model now feels like the antiquated relic of a time gone by. The Secret World is certain eventually to follow in the footsteps of SW:TOR and nearly every other MMORPG before it, and go free-to-play if it wishes its audience to grow.

The games themselves are getting better, and more varied, than ever. They aren't all traditional fantasy RPGs anymore; some are shooters, and others are exploring all kinds of environments and play. But the one thing that almost all the new online games have in common is that they will not require a monthly fee.

The subscription model is dead. Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World have both suffered for trying to eke one more year of life out of it. Let us hope they are the last to try. Because the future is here, and it's free.*

* Except for that hat. And that horse. And that house...


    Blizzard really need to drop the subscription shit, it's one reason I don't want to return at the moment, charge more for the expansions I don't care i'd rather free to play than pay to play honestly.

    They also dropped the subscription fee's on their mobile armory app so we'll either see a drop in sub fee's or they'll drop them all together.

    I don't see WoW going F2P anytime before March? Next year mainly due to the whole yearly pass shit with D3.

      Blizzard really need to drop..........the end

        Now now, just because Diablo 3 wasn't as amazing as they made it out to be still doesn't mean they should drop off the face of the planet =P

          My typical bowel movement is more rewarding than D3 was.

          Indeed, most developers will release their game, wash their hands and move onto the next turd, Blizzard will actually take the time to craft a long lasting experience... yes it might not be perfect out of the gate but unfortunately unless they released their entire games free to play for the first year then they'll never get the much needed feedback they need to implement improvements... Patch 1.0.4 LISTENED to what users had to say and so far it's been a rewarding experience. 1.1 and onwards will make the game into the long lasting legacy, or break it into oblivion.

      Blizzard is Free to play to level 20 - at launch of Mists all races including Pandarians will be available to players on the f2p model.

      And they would more likely drop their price on subscription before going f2p

        It's not free to play, it's an unlimited demo. There's a massive amount of restrictions on what you can do which exactly align to the restrictions on their old trial versions, eg can't use the auction house, can't group, can't whisper other players etc.

          Oh god is it ever limited, cant whisper people, can't trade, can't use the Auction house, can't carry more than X amount of gold.

            a lot of those restrictions are in place because of gold sellers though. it means that every time you report spam from a level 1 gold seller, they have to by another CD Key once they have been banned.

              The gold sellers pretty much stopped within the last year well at least on the server I play. It doesn't really work with the F2P accounts either since if they say stuff in trade etc anyone 5 levels higher than then won't see their crap, I was only made aware of this when my mate told me when we were annoying some F2P kid on his server xD

        The reason so many of these Pay-to-Play games are failing is because there service is simply not comparable to WoW. I tried to play SWTOR for a while but stopped because they decided to do a weekly "maintenance" that ended taking the entire night.

        No new release pay-to-play can ever trump WoW. Warcraft is a completed game, with new content constantly being added. For that reason, I am happy to pay my $15 monthly because in the long run I get more hours and content out of five months of WoW than I do with any new release game (with the exception of Skyrim).

          Gold sellers usually operate on stolen accounts, they're not constantly buying CD Keys.

      If I were a company with 9 Million active subscribers. I wouldn't be very inclined to make the game free to play. And for the amount of time people play WoW, the amount of content, the cost of running all those server and staff to update it. $15 is not a lot to ask .

    I agree. The days of the subscription MMO are long dead and NO game will change that, not even WOW2 if it was released tomorrow (sure it would get good numbers, even better then TOR and Secret World combined but it would come nowhere near what the original had). I wish TOR had done better then it had because there are some fantastic stories there to explore and while at the start it had some teething problems (just like any MMO), many of them (not all but most) have been fixed.


    The day subscription mmos die is the day I stop playing mmos. I've played a lot of f2p mmos and while they're normally decent enough games the f2p model is a terrible one. Assuming they avoid the idiocy of making the game pay to win they're still asking you to fork out $5 for vanity clothing for your character, $10 for a dungeon etc. In the end to get access to the full game you end up paying far, far more than you would have if the game used a subscription model. It also often causes the developers to stop making content for players to enjoy and instead start making content that will earn them the most money with microtransactions. This of course means f2p mmos tend to get a lot of sub par content updates.

      I shall point you at GW2, please try point out the sub-par content to me. Thank you, good day

        gw2 technically is b2p which makes up dev costs so it's less of a gamble to produce. But it could very well go f2p somewhere down the line, and that will no way diminish its content.

          I dont see it ever going f2p, the pay once model is something people are more than happy to do, they do it for games with much less content, they pay more for their annual COD games every year.

          given the first game is still for sale ( I think its like $20 for the 3 campaigns & the expansion) I doubt it will ever go F2P.

        I would counter that argument in that GW2 is B2P not F2P.

        And there is a difference. If planned properly that money should be able to tide them over without being excessively greedy or pushing cash shop items.

        Server hosting doesn't cost anything close to what it did when the original subscription fee price was created. Combined with the fact that even a the Heavy Hitter WoW doesn't have huge content updates. For 15 dollars a month and only assuming 5 million(Some of the asian countries don't sub and have different money models) are playing you are making 75million dollars. Even if you assume server hosting takes half of that you get 30million a month. With 30 million a month you should be able to roll out new content on a monthly basis(simply have a couple of rolling teams it might take 4 months to make content. but with 4 teams you have a perpetual content stream)

        Instead content comes in dribs and drabs. And most of the time the Final Boss of any of WoW's expansions doesn't rock up until about a year after the expansions release. So can we equate any content covered up until that boss as part of the Expansion and therefore covered by the $40 that the expansion cost which assuming only 5 million pay is still 200mill (ie what it cost to create SWTOR)

        And there still lowball numbers.

          Thats a good point, the actual development cost of WoW would have been covered very very quickly, and any semi successful MMO for that matter. By that same logic GW2 would almost cover its development costs if it had enough subscriptions because of the b2p model

      and yet sub MMOs sell you vanity mounts for $25...

      I'd rather not pay a sub and pay $5 for the occasional vanity item instead of paying a sub and STILL paying $25 for vanity items

      Also, did you take a look at your sub MMOs and their actual content update schedule? GW1 which is B2P had a lot more regular content updates than WoW (prior to them starting work on GW2 and reducing the GW1 team). The only sub MMO that truly gives you regular content updates is Rift , TSW is attempting it, but that is still too early to tell whether or not they can pull it off.

        The recent firings at the secret world dont bode well for them achieving it either which is Dissapointing since its one of the rare MMO's that doesn't just go into futuristic or medieval fantasy

      I agree that you end up paying more overall - but people are happy to do that. I know it isn't an MMO, but League of Legends makes a ton of money this way. It's a f2p game but people are willing to pay for champions and skins. I know I've paid well over $100 in my time playing LoL.

    Mark my words, come october when everyones annual pass runs out, there will be a MASSIVE drop in subscription numbers to WoW. I've been paying for WoW for nearly a year without paying because what seemed like a good idea at the time failed me and I quit WoW for sw:tor and diablo3, and now guild wars 2.

      Notice when they are releasing Mists? Yeah September almost a year after just in time for everyone to have to put more time in to try the new expansion.

    uhhh, final fantasy XI is older than WoW, and still going strong on a subscription model.

    The 1.1 million drop was at a time where there is no content and people are just waiting for the next expansion. Loads of people have stopped paying for the few months running up to MoP. But I absolutely guarantee that come MoP, we will be seeing a big rise in subscribers again.
    Also, 9.1 million subs is hardly low. Sure, it's lower than usual, but it is still way more successful than any MMO has ever been.
    It's not that people are bored of having to pay more than just an up front fee for a product in a box.
    MMOs - the subscription ones, not the f2p ones - get very regular content updates far bigger than that of any other game. This means that you are not paying for a "boxed product" but additional content updates over time.
    F2P games have to make their money through creating new vanity items, and they get little benefit from making new content, which means that while they might be free, they don't get updated often, if at all. Quite frankly, I play MMOs because I know they are games that - assuming the subs keep coming in - will last "forever". That I won't complete the game and find myself with nothing to do.

    Also, the bit about RuneScape being way more successful than WoW is BS. RS never hit 12 million subscribers for premium accounts, and these were 3x cheaper. If they had got more subs for premium accounts then you might have some ground to stand on, but saying "RS is better because they had 200m free players and WoW has 12m subs" is stupid, because those 200m aren't making Jagex any money.

    Ultimately, I really hope the subscription-based MMO dies. It means a lack of content as well as a ton of community-based issues that are introduced, such as far more casual players who then convince the developers to make the game easier.

      Uh actually Runescape when I was playing back in 06 was 12 bucks a month (for Australians), WoW is 15 bucks a month, so yeah..

      "MMOs – the subscription ones, not the f2p ones – get very regular content updates far bigger than that of any other game."

      Uh no they don't actually. When they do give an update it's in the form of an expansion that they ask you to pay for on top of your subscription. You really should do some actual research.

      Except that most big MMO's wow included don't have regular content updates and they have a B2P model on top of a sub model. All the expansions are B2P with the final boss for each expansion not coming out until a year after release which in my mind means that content is still being covered by the xpak costs since it was content designed for the expansio. While you lose 12 months sub to nothing

        I wouldn't say they don't have regular updates. Every 4-6 months WoW gets big patches with new content raids dungeons, gear etc..

    I disagree that the model is dead. People are simply not willing to pay a subscription for WoW clones any more. If something came along that was really different and captured some attention, people would definitely pay for it.

    I really hope not. For big MMO's I actually prefer the subscription based model. For non MMO's like League of Legends and TF2 it fits perfectly, but there is just too much content that they can lock you out of in an MMO.

    I'd rather have a gym membership and get to use EVERYTHING than have to pay $5 every time I want to use the pool

    I just see this as a form of a entertainment not a tool that i need to help me run my life, like a car or a motorbike. Pay more for fuel, gear etc.

    Why would i want to pay monthly for a game that i might play for 10 hrs over the week really ?

    I disagree as well, the model is not dead if you have enough content to keep people busy.
    And i would much rather have my favorite developers continue to have a job developing content for games i like than for them to drop it like a hot potato as soon as sub numbers drop to work on the next f2p.

    Times are tough all round and sub numbers being lower is temporary at best.

    The Elder Scrolls Online is the MMO for me. Never was that interested in Massively Multiplayer until Bethesda announced this. Can't wait to check it out next year!

      Why how much do you get payed a year to advertise?

      something makes me think you haven't seen any of the screenshots of that game...

      if you think it's going to be like skyrim but with lots of people in the world, you're gonna have a bad time.

    Also, GTA5 open world multiplayer will be epic. Red Dead Redemption multiplay X1000

    I'm pretty certain that if Eve Online adopted a more mainstream F2P pay scheme it would destroy the community. I say "more mainstream" because it technically already has a F2P option if you make enough money in-game.

    What about Eve online and Final Fantasy 11 both still going strongish with at least a million subs.

    Eve's million subs are condensed into a lot of single players, since everyone I played with had multiple accounts for moving things to Jita and AFK mining. I didn't though since I got them to do specialised stuff and I'd be a dogsbody for whatever, from convoy guarding to doing runs to return high value gasses in lowsec to stations while others did the harvesting with rank 5 skills, or just driving the noctis after others cleared WH encounters.

    As Alphamone and Boomzzilla mentioned, Final Fantasy XI is (amazingly!) still going. They're even releasing a new expansion pak to keep the ongoing players interested. Although I'm no longer a Vana'diel resident, my 4 years with the game were wonderful. The monthly fee didn't bother me, because I knew the money I paid was required to keep the service going. I never felt cheated.

    It will be interesting to see how the big re-release of FFXIV goes. AFAIK, they're still sticking with the subscription model.

    Perfect world international was one of the pioneers of the of the f2p model for western countries.
    It's a great game, but what we are left with are 100s of cashed up, max level, epic geared mofo's - who are capable of withstanding 50 vs 1 pvp.

    The games updates revolve around appeasing these cash players wallets. While bugs effecting lower levels or non cash customers still plague the game. I like the concept of f2p, but I fear its effects on game balance, it's too easy to be wrong

    been paying eve sub for 6years and just resubbed for the next year i love sub mmo's keeps alot of the hacker scum out of the game look at what happened to TF2, Get banned just make new steam account back in game being a d-bag troll in under 2hours derp

    Am I the only one that thought SW:TOR didn't even need to be an MMO?

      No, your not. That was my thought when I picked it up.

      I do not belive that the subscription model is dead. I don't see Guildwars 2 numbers getting anywhere near WoW. I would love to be proven wrong, but I just don't see it happening. Yes, WoW's numbers are down, but once again as it has been pointed out here already, people have left while they wait for more content to come out, and many of those people went to Diablo 3! Any argument about the quality of D3 at launch is still null and void in my opinion, as their new patches have been fixing the problems that the comunity have bought up, and there are people who enjoyed it. We were just too busy having fun to sit here and rage about it :-P
      But think about it, Blizzard is working hard on getting MOP out, and the best way they can keep their customers entertained was pointing them to their next game. It's a brilliant move that did pay off. All the numbers show that for better or worse, D3 was the best selling PC game of all time!
      But yes, in any case, I don't agree with the article. You have to have the right content, and deliver it in such a way that people want, and they will pay for it. Unfortuantly, MMO's are trying to just be WoW, instead of something diffrent. Eve is a great example of trying to break the mold, but they just don't have the exposure that many other MMO's have. Until an MMO comes along that just gets the formula right in terms of delivery and content in the game, I just don't see WoW being knocked off any time soon.
      When GW2 comes out this week, I expect all the reports to say that WoW numbers have dropped. When MOP comes out, I expect the same reports to say that GW2 numbers have dropped.
      Retail and digital sale numbers will also back this argument up come early October when Blizzard release numbers.

    i think systems like GW2 will do far better than subscription based mmos in the future, micro transactions for in game items, gold, gems and access to special areas seems a better way to handle things...

    from looking at it GW2 offers the WHOLE game to anyone who purchased it then offers small perks or features to people willing to pay $5+ on items . They don't limit your game play outside being able to join Transaction based entry to PVP form looking at their in game trading / purchase system.

    subscription based games may still go well BUT they have to start offering way more than they do for what they charge... $15/m is a lot for just playing a game and sitting on end game content for months

    The Secret World is extremely worth playing, too. I'm still in my free month... and there's a minor problem for them in that, because I've completed the main story and the vast majority of quests in that free month, PVP is seriously poor, and all that's left is to work on the elite and nightmare-modes of dungeons I've already beaten and to earn more ability points so I can do the same fights in different ways. Hmmm.

    It should have been free to play from the start. When WoW came out I was a student and i could afford to play it obsessively over my summer holidays. It still took more than a month to hit 60 on one character, let alone on a Horde alt, let alone to do all the content I hadn't got anywhere near yet. I haven't done anything like that many hours on TSW.

    The content they have is extremely well made, and the amount of hours it takes is comparable to any single player adventure game you care to name, but an MMO requires more if you're going to ask people to pay. I may resub once the next zone is in... unless it's already free to play by then, in which case boo-yah! I don't really want to resub to just play the same content while I wait for the new zone.

    I don't think it's dead.. it just needs to take a different path. F2P's are the new model right now but within that model is usually some form of Premium Membership that you can have on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis..

    We may yet see Pay2Play come back in a different form.

    i'm personally opposed to F2P.
    its hard for me to explain though, i don't like the idea of spending my real money in a game.
    at least on a monthly subscription model i pay my 15 bucks a month and feel safe that i will still be able to eat or buy clothes.
    and then theres security issues, if someone hacks the account and then decides to spend all the persons real money on game stuff.
    i'm just against it, the system would have to be pretty solid and items reasonably priced

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