I expressed my cynicism about the future of the subscription-based MMO way back in a feature called "Death of the MMO." (Read that here.) Basically, my thoughts were that the more subscription-based MMOs come out, the harder that business model becomes to sustain.
As I mentioned in that column, one exception of sorts to the equation is the free-to-play business model. A lot of lesser-known MMO titles offer large portions of their games for free, adding microtransaction stores in order to squeeze a little cash out of the hardcore players. This has even become standard fare among the casual crowd, with games like Farmville and Mafia Wars offering the online equivalent of muggings and shakedowns to the "Cat Lady" demographic.
The Lord of the Rings Online, one of my favorite MMOs, switched from the subscription model to the free-to-play model about a year ago. This was on the heels of Turbine's other MMO mega hit, Dungeons and Dragons Online, doing the same and seeing a drastic increase in revenue. Both games now rank among the most-played MMOs out there.
So, yes, even bigger name MMOs have been quite successful with the F2P model.
Well, World of Warcraft, the behemoth MMO of MMO-dom, is beginning the transition to the free-to-play model as well. Those brave enough to face the consequences of being branded a WoW player are able to play up to level 20 for free, which is plenty of time for them to get addicted. WoW is the video game equivalent of heroin, after all. I'm guessing WoW will lead even more people away from this thing we call "real life," so much like a virtual Pied Piper of Hamelin. (I, however, have already proven myself completely immune to the siren songs of WoW.)
Before this announcement, I was convinced the F2P model was something that could extend the life of the MMO genre considerably. F2P means you don't have to compete against WoW. People will give your game a chance because they don't have to pay an entry fee. This was a great plan for smaller games that might not have gotten the attention they deserved had they charged a monthly fee.
But now that WoW is joining the ranks of the F2P market, how do other free-to-play MMOs fare?
I'm a bit worried about the little guys. For example, publisher Perfect World Entertainment has some phenomenal F2P games in the pipeline. These range from the cel-shaded anime hack and slash Rusty Hearts to the Blade Runner-inspired FPS Blacklight: Retribution. Both these games are shaping up to be very high-quality titles, even if they're destined to remain fairly under the radar.
But with WoW entering the F2P equation, the landscape is definitely shifting. As I see it, this will impact the market in two major ways.
First of all, it gives legitimacy to the free-to-play model. For example, I have friends who refuse to play anything that's F2P because they believe the monthly subscription model brings much higher-quality games than the F2P model. These people reason that if a game is free to play, it's probably so bad that it's not even worth playing in the first place. While I must admit that you'll find a lot more weak entries into the genre in the F2P pool, there are some incredibly fantastic games swimming amongst them as well.
Now that WoW is getting the infamous F2P option, people like the aforementioned friends of mine will have to re-examine the value of F2P games. If WoW, the biggest MMO of them all, uses this model, there might be something to it after all. This could be a good thing for the F2P MMO genre as a whole.
However, the other way I think this will impact the market is a negative one. WoW is sort of like an MMO vacuum, sucking up just about anyone who's willing to even touch a fantasy-based MMO. It may very well kill off a lot of the smaller guys who were able to be successful because they had offered their product free of charge in the first place.
My prediction: The F2P MMO market is going to get a bit of a boost because of WoW's transition to this model. More people will be willing to get their feet wet in games that are free to play. However, this boon in the market will quickly be sucked up by WoW. The MMO bubble must eventually burst.
I'm a little frustrated by this. Blizzard doesn't need the extra revenue. Just about every other MMO out there actually does. WoW has the potential to completely destroy the MMO market, and I have a feeling that Blizzard is planning on taking advantage of this so they can further stock their guild banks whilst splurging on gilded towers and level 85 rings of power.
The future could be a scary place for the MMO. Until then, enjoy the lesser-known titles out there. They may not be around for much longer.
CCC Editor/Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*