Now, it’s not really surprising that they lost some. It’s the end of an expansion, people are bored, and a lot of people supposedly quit to play Diablo 3.
And you also have to pull out the usual caveats. For example, it would still have to lose at least seven million more before any other current MMO would have a serious chance of threatening it. It’s also interesting to note that Battle.net has actually gained nearly seven million users — likely because of Diablo.
Still, it’s hard to argue this isn’t a bit of a shocker. WoW may not be dying, but it’s not nearly as healthy as it used to be. This makes for about three million subscribers lost in total over Cataclysm’s lifespan, or a quarter of the game’s peak populace.
The Fall of the Republic…
I find it interesting that this news comes just a few days after the announcement that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be adopting a limited free to play model in November.
I doubt it surprises anyone that SW:TOR went free to play. For one thing, it seems like free to play is the inevitable fate of all online games these days — more on that in a minute.
For another, no one but the most ardent Star Wars fanboys would have claimed SW:TOR was a runaway hit. It had nice sales early on, but as always, it failed to come anywhere close to WoW. And there were a lot of indications that it was struggling — server merges and the like.
But I did not expect it to be free to play just a year after its release. Either it’s doing much more poorly than I thought, free to play isn’t the death knell people make it out to be, or perhaps a bit of both. But I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that this is what Bioware wanted all along, or that SW:TOR is doing as well as anyone could have hoped.
…And the rise of free to play:
Now comes the fun part: trying to identify a pattern where one may not exist based on a pathetically small amount of evidence.
Of course, we can’t prove anything based on these two largely unrelated incidents. But it does get one thinking. When it comes to WoW, people will undoubtedly use it to justify their particular narrative — the game is too easy, the game is too hard, there isn’t enough content, there’s too much content, X Game is killing it.
I’ll admit even I’ve caught myself wondering if the upcoming launch of Guild Wars 2 is playing a role. After playing the beta, even I’ve found myself questioning the traditional MMO paradigm. But as I’ve mentioned before, GW2 isn’t directly challenging subscription games with its business model, and the game isn’t even out yet, so that’s probably not a major factor.
I do have a pet narrative that I’m going to use this news to advance, though. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that subscription games are a dying business model. I don’t think all games will be free to play this time next year, or even the year after that, but I do believe the balance of power has irrevocably shifted towards free to play — or buy to play, in the case of GW2.
It’s no longer a question of if a new game will become F2P but when. Many of them grow much more successful once they lose their subscription, and at the very least, it allows a “dying” game to continue making money for its developer for much longer. Guild Wars 2 is one of the most hotly anticipated games in recent memory, and it’s skipping the subscription altogether.
Myself, I was never a big fan of the subscription model, and I’ve grown to dislike it more over time. Not that free to play doesn’t have its pitfalls as well, but subscriptions create a sense of restriction and obligation that is antithetical to what games should be. A colleague of mine summed this up very well when he described the phenomenon as “free to not play.”
I suspect many others feel the same, which is why free to play has gone from a shameful subsection of the industry to almost being the new normal.
So I don’t think WoW’s lost subscribers and SW:TOR’s lost business model are the dying gasp of pay to play MMOs, but I do think they’re the latest and most dramatic step in a long progression towards free to play — a progression that will probably take several more years to complete.