WoW, SW:TOR, and the Rise of Free to Play

World of Warcraft loses 1.1 million subscribers in a single quarter.

Holy crap.

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.

My wizard massacring demons near Caldeum in Diablo 3And 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 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.

A cinematic screenshot from Star Wars: The Old RepublicFor 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.

The broken bodies of my fellow raidersOf 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.

My Sylvari elementalist in the Guild Wars 2 betaIt’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.

My elementalist explores Caledon Forest in the Guild Wars 2 betaSo 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.

31 thoughts on “WoW, SW:TOR, and the Rise of Free to Play

  1. Enjoyed this as my husband and I have noticed this also. We played WOW for about 4 years and quit when Cata came out. My husband got real disenchanted when they nerfed the Paladin who was his main. For me it was the constant frickin around with my main which was a Druid. The only downside to free to play is when you have to buy stuff so it doesn’t take you 5x’s as long to kill a mob. Can’t remember the name of the F2P but it was really fun up until that point.

  2. Perhaps it’s best not to play any games at all… 1 hour of game playing = 1 hour of time invested in cyberspace which relies on a server to keep it alive. Once that is gone we’ll find ourselves wishing we had invested our time in something else.

    Yeah I play games here and there, but they always leave me feeling lousy as I know I could have used that time better elsewhere. I have no idea why I bother playing, I always wish I didn’t after I play. It’s the idea that the entertainers push at us, the public; we need entertainment, we must be entertained, here is your entertainment: T.V. Computers, Smartphones, etc. It’s a big money making business that only the elite few profit from.

    Yes we do need some kind of entertainment to liven our lives, but lets look at how did our ancient ancestors entertain themselves. They played music, danced, wrestled, hunted, raised animals told stories. What do we modern humans do? We who are supposedly so much better and smarter than our ancestors? We play; The Sims! Instead of joining the army we play Call of Duty, instead of hunting we play Dangerous Hunts, instead of having a farm, FarmVille suits us just fine. Now we’ve even sunk so low to replace pets with Nintendo Dogs. All from the comfort of our couch or chair. No wonder the world is broken, not that I blame gaming and T.V. alone, they are a small factor to the reason, but do a pretty darn good job of keeping us distracted from doing anything about it.

    • If you feel that games are such a waste of time, you’re not playing the right games. Video games are an art form, same as any other. Some of them are mindless and have no point (just like other art forms), while others can offer incredible emotion and thought-provoking plots.

      We need things like that to expand our minds. It’s no different from when our ancient ancestors told tales around the fire — except with better graphics. Video games are no more or less pointless than movies, television, books, or music.

      And besides, science even shows that video games promote healthy cognition and mental functions. Did you know they’re using Wii games to hold off dementia in the elderly?

      • Yes of course I know all the benefits of all these video games are good for you. But the issue arises when the system fails, nothing endures forever. What will we do? We would have no primitive skills although we had all that in electronic media. Perhaps instead of pushing our dependency on electronic forms of entertainment and simulation we should stop, think, and ponder on where we could be headed.

        Will we become posthuman like in Avatar? Or is what were

      • cut me off and posted by mistake,

        or are we headed into a nightmare of perhaps an enslaved people? Like the Matrix?

    • I think you’re being a tad melodramatic. If the world experienced an event that wiped out all of the gaming servers, I think humans would probably have bigger things to worry about than not being able to log in to WoW. You sound like you just don’t like games, which is completely fine. No need to vilify them completely with blanket negative statements. I play the guitar/mandolin, write prolifically, work full time, and take care of my home all while also playing video games. The games aren’t the problem, the people who abuse them and avoid real life are.

      Also, this is pretty off-topic. We’re discussing payment models in games, not why vidja germs are ruining the world.

      • “humans would probably have bigger things to worry about than not being able to log into WoW” 🙂

        Yeah, but would we? I mean food, heat, money, real life can only get you so far. Not able to log into WoW? My good friend is hyperventilating as I write.

  3. I totally agree with you, that Free to Play games should be the dominant form of video game entertainment. Really hope that Elder Scrolls Online would be free-to-play, because I am not paying a subscription just to play the game.

    • To be clear, I’m not really saying free to play should be dominant for all video games. I have nothing against paying for a game box or even for some DLC, but I dislike the obligation of a monthly subscription for MMOs.

  4. Great article. I’ve thought about this same idea for a while, but you articulated it nicely.

    I never had a problem with subscription based gaming IF the game had enough content to justify the monthly fee. I played WoW on and off from release to Cata (left just after they added Looking For Raid) and never once said, “You know, I wish I hadn’t spent 15$ on this game this month.” It always had something to do, an interesting story, and a large community.

    SW:TOR had a lot of potential, but fell flat because of the clunky combat design, lack of community, and weak endgame. This is an example of where I did say, “I wish I had spent my 15$ elsewhere, as I don’t even want to log in.” There wasn’t enough content to justify my purchase after the first month or so. If it had been more complete upon release, it may have done better.

    I think that the F2P model only works if the game is compelling/polished enough to stand on it’s own without the pay-to-win element. Take Spiral Knights for example. The game provides enough content and enjoyment to play for a few hours until your energy is spent, or gives you the option (quite non-agressively) to spend a little bit of money to proceed or buy better gear. It’s not in your face, and the game is still a lot of fun without spending any money.

    Diablo 3 on the other hand (which isn’t a great comparison as it isn’t truly an MMO) seems like an unfinished beta that includes a pay-to-win element. The entire structure of the game and loot drops is based on using the Auction House (gold and real money) which makes the players feel like they have to use it to progress. The game itself isn’t amazing, and doesn’t keep a player’s attention much past nightmare difficulty. The result is that players have left to find something better, meaning a net financial loss over the next few years for Blizzard.

    I really think the crux of it is that we (gamers) don’t appreciate a company releasing a half-finished product only to “fix” it with patches as it goes evolves. Especially when these “fixes” include DLC that should have been included in the game from the start, and we have to pay for them to boot. I’m sick of seeing AAA titles that have clearly not been fully QAd and have less polish and innovation and some indie titles. Hopefully a couple massive failures will teach these companies what the community wants (and will pay for).

    • I couldn’t agree more! Especially with regards to SWTOR. I was so excited about its release and thought the role playing aspect of it was amazing but I hated the combat mechanics and I felt like endgame was an afterthought, as if they thought their fan base would be happy for 6 months with three OPs to do over and over again,

  5. Freemium is a winning businesses model for mmo s I believe. Myself I just don’t have the time to justify a subscription to a game, and while I didn’t even think twice about Diablo III (old school fan) I would have mumbled a bit if it did require a subscription. I believe it needs to come down to the developers segmenting the development process beyond launch, and truly listening to players. I’ve heard a good deal about knights and though it didn’t take my fancy art wise I do love what is going on in the community.

    Case in point is eve. So far they are doing strong with a mix of casual and hardcore players keeping them pretty busy. Like u said watch this space

  6. Great article. As a loyal WoW fan, I gasped when I saw that headline. While I agree that MMOs are definitely moving towards being more free-to-play, I wonder if that won’t create more problems. For example, would free-to-play invite more casuals to join the game? I’m not one of those WoW players who bemoans the number of casuals– in fact, I am one myself. But there does seem to be a general consensus that the ‘exclusivity’ of WoW is slowly slipping. Finding the right balance between a genuine challenge and an inviting game which can be enjoyed by casuals is Blizzard’s next step, I think.

    • Casuals are the future of games, I think. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of opinion. Personally, I don’t see the issue. I never thought MMOs were the right medium to challenge game skills — it’s a social medium, and that means you need to be able to play with your friends and get somewhere regardless of their skill level.

      Any kind of exclusivity is just antithetical to a good MMO, if you ask me. Something I’ve really started to recognize and despise lately is how many aspects of MMOs are actually devoted to killing the social aspect. Might be another post there…

      And a lot of what people view as challenge in MMOs are really just grinds and time sinks anyway, and those can’t die fast enough in my view.

      • Hear, hear. I refuse to grind, therefore I never have the required gear to tackle the hardest instances. That makes me “casual”, but it also means that I keep coming back to the game because it’s fun, not a job :p

        Still, if F2P results in the profits some companies have reported (profits on LOTRO tripled, according to some reports, when it went F2P a couple of years ago), it seems like companies might be more inclined to satisfy both casual and hardcore demographics – it doesn’t have to be either/or.

      • LotRO went F2P, but also kept up with constant content expansions (both paid and free). Look at how much the game has grown since launch, then compare it to WoW and other ‘big’ titles, there’s almost no contest.

        Sure, it’s not fair to compare LotRO and WoW as they have different setups (one faction vs two, Cataclysm remaking the entire world, etc) but Turbine have managed to find the sweet spot between paid and free.

        It also helps that you can earn LotRO credits by simply playing the game. Each time you complete an achievement (Deeds, etc) you get an amount of credits to spend on premium content. That’s an excellent way of rewarding players.

  7. I think if you purchase a game, playing online should be included (free) with the game purchase. On another note, free to play often means downloading a game from a website – along with paid advert toolbars, programs and add-ons that ultimately slow your computer. My daughter downloaded a game the other day and suddenly random words on the internet were turned into links for ads – took me two hours to disable and isolate the add-on. The internet is turning into a shister used car salesman, and I’m getting pretty sick of having to wade through ads when I want to watch a vid on youtube. It is getting worse than Television!

    • Yikes! That kind of “free to play” is *not* best of breed, nor is it what SW:TOR and other mainstream MMOs are doing. These MMOs are letting you opt out of the subscription in favor of purchasing content piecemeal – one zone or quest pack at a time. It’s not about toolbars and ads and other annoyances.

  8. I used to play wow till LK, when Blizzard started dumbing down the talent trees to one or two builds were the only ones that were effective. In classic there were 6 or 7 builds for warriors alone that worked, by LK 2 and Cata 1. I don’t have a problem with paying a reasonable monthly fee, when I have options. If I have to have the exact same build as everyone else in a class, why bother.

  9. Nice post. I read the same thing about WoW losing players. I’ve never played it before actually. I’m a Diablo fan though. Diablo III has occupied waaaaay too much of my time. At least Blizzard has me in some capacity. Congrats on FP!

  10. I think there are going to be several different business models as the game companies try to work out what works and what people will pay for. I don’t think WoW’s player base – hardcore or casual – has much to worry about. Nothing else on the market is even touching the sides of Wow at the moment. I predict it will be around for a long time yet for everyone to bitch and moan about because their particular brand of gameplay isn’t being adequately serviced, even though it is still the game they all play the most?

    As Massively put it “everybody keep calm and carry on”. 🙂

    Also if anyone is interested in trying the road less travelled in F2P, Massively’s Beau Hindman compiled a short list for his Choose my Adventure. These are not for everyone, but these are games that tend to have a sustainable, if somewhat small and devoted fan base, which is one possible way for a F2P to go. Most people voted for Kingdom of Loathing, which has stayed solvent with several full time employees for the last nine years and still going strong.

    Choose my Adventure

  11. Well, F2P for an MMO is pretty much pay-to-win. I’m not sure about other games, but League of Legends are on a F2P model without the pay-to-win option. You pay money if you wanna do some shopping for some cool points. Aside from that, there’s no advantage gameplay-wise. That’s one of the major reasons why I keep playing LoL.

    • F2P has traditionally meant P2W in a lot of cases, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way. Guild Wars 2 will supposedly not be P2W — with the game mechanics as they are, I’m not sure ArenaNet could implement such a model even if they wanted to. Not with changing some of the fundamental mechanics of the game.

      There’s also the argument that a subscription is the greatest P2W scheme there is. You’re paying for time, and time is invariably the biggest factor in success in any RPG.

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