It's no secret that I'm cynical about the future of the MMO as a sustainable genre. I first explained my reasoning for this in a column called "Death of the MMO," and later expanded upon my thought process to include the free-to-play business model in a column called "The Bursting of the F2P Bubble." The requisite player base for such a game is too large, and the pool of games for these players to select from keeps growing, thinning out each game's player base. I have my doubts that the model will be able to sustain itself forever.
But there have been two MMOs released in the past few months that I believe are worth keeping your eyes on if you have any interest in the long-term health of the MMO. One of these seems to suggest that the old model might be failing, while the other introduces a brand new business model.
First up is The Secret World. This Funcom MMO puts a twist on the traditional format by eschewing the old high fantasy tropes for a conflict between modern-day secret societies. Yes, this is the game that lets you join the Illuminati. Now, while the game is something of a departure from your typical MMO fare, the business model is familiar: There's an upfront cost to purchase the game ($49.99 if you buy from the game's official website, which includes a month of free game time), then a monthly fee ($14.99 per month, according to the game's forums).
Now, it's pretty clear that the monthly fee business model in general is on its way out the door, with the free-to-play model becoming hugely successful (and surprisingly profitable) these days. And $15 per month seems like a pretty high price to pay for any MMO that's not called World of Warcraft.
Now, to underscore my concerns about the sustainability of this business model, just barely a month after launch, Funcom laid off a bunch of its staff, and several of these people were working on The Secret World (a lot of them in customer service though). Because of this "restructuring," the game's second update, called "Digging Deeper," was delayed.
Now, to me, this sounds like Funcom has a huge lack of confidence in its product. MMOs live and die by their add-on content (which keeps players coming back), and cutting enough staff that these updates need to be delayed is a really bad sign that things aren't going all that well for the MMO (especially when said layoffs happen within the game's first few months.) Of course, Funcom CEO Ole Schreiner recently told Gamesindustry that the game is now profitable. However, he also mentioned that the developers have the tools in place in case they want to make this a free-to-play game.
While I'm happy to see the game turning over a profit finally, I still can't help but be skeptical about The Secret World's longevity.
But there's a new subscription model being put into place, and that's basically no subscription model. That's right, Guild Wars 2 launched with an introductory price tag, but with no monthly fee. This almost sounds too good to be true, yet ArenaNet is doing it.
And, really, this is actually a really great business model. It allows players to get into the game without having to worry about whether or not they're going to be willing to throw down money every month. Additionally, the upfront cost allows GW2 to not be as pushy with their microtransaction store as they would have to be with a free-to-play game. Is this the future of MMOs? In the short term, it definitely could be.
Also, it's been extremely successful, as the game has reportedly "sold out." (How does a digital title "sell out" when it exists independently of any physical product? Cheat Code Central's Shelby Reiches explains this in an article called "Guild Wars 2: No, You Can't Buy It!")
My prediction: I'm still cynical about the long-term health of the MMO, but, for the time being, I think Guild Wars 2 is onto something here. I can definitely get behind a one-time-fee MMO business model, even if it does come peppered with a microtransaction store. Still, the fact that ArenaNet is rethinking the business model is a pretty good sign that there's a need for this model to be rethought.
As for The Secret World, I have a feeling this game is going to ultimately be forced to switch to a free-to-play model whether Funcom wants this or not. And I have a feeling them having the "necessary tools" to do so is a sign that they've already thought about this. I wish them the best of luck in that, as I think The Secret World would make a fantastic F2P game.
Editor / News Director
Date: September 20, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*