In many ways Star Wars: The Old Republic has been the final nail in the coffin for subscription based massively multiplayer gaming. After launching to a subscriber base of 1.7 million people in December 2011 numbers are now below a million. This news has come hand in hand with news that the game would be transitioning from a subscription to a free to play model in the coming months.
This is a path trodden by several other formerly subscription based MMOs, to the point where a transition to free to play is seen as inevitable by a lot of gamers. Titles like Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan and DC Universe Online have all made the change, and done so quite successfully. These are also all titles based on iconic franchises, much like SW: TOR.
Given this shift away from subscription models to free to play, one wonders why developers are still bothering to chase the subscription dollar. There are just over 10 million reasons for this - the active subscriber numbers of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
When Blizzard launched World of Warcraft in 2004 it catapulted the Massively Multiplayer genre into the mainstream. Until then games had been relatively successful, garnering at times audiences of hundreds of thousands of people. But even the biggest of these titles, Everquest, peaked at around 450,000 subscribers.
WoW’s subscriber peak on the other hand was just over 12 million, recorded in late 2010. It took years to hit this number, but it is still order of magnitude greater than the results any other Western subscription MMO has managed to hit. It means that Blizzard has huge amounts of cash flow, which has enabled it to keep up a constant flow of content, which in turn has helped keep subscribers happy between the big content drops that come in the form of new expansions.
For many years it was believed that the only way one could significantly eat into this subscriber base and generate big numbers was through a major franchise. Which is why SW: TOR made so much sense when it was announced. Not only was it Star Wars, but it was based upon two of the most beloved Star Wars games ever made - Knights of The Old Republic 1 and 2.
What resulted was an incredibly enjoyable MMO, one that brought some significant new features to the genre. But ultimately it delivered an experience that just doesn’t work in a game made after WoW. Not only did players chew through the levelling experience in record time, but once at maximum level the endgame was found lacking. While years’ worth of post-launch content was in the pipeline, it wasn’t coming quickly enough for a lot of the audience.
This author even lasted longer than most, but cancelled his account a month ago. One of the major problems with a subscription-based MMO is that one feels compelled to play a certain amount in order to see value from the monthly outlay. Subscription MMOs are all or nothing beasts, one can’t easily just dip in and out of the game on a whim, playing because you feel like it, not because you’ve forked out a fee.
We still expect to see smaller, more niche titles, be able to survive with a subscription fee. This is largely due to a combination of modest expectations and the ability to be more focused with ongoing development. But what can only be seen as Star War’s failure to capture a significant subscriber base rings a death knell for the business model in the AAA space, and signifies that Free to Play is going to have to be the way forward for blockbuster titles.