Free 2 Play: The Final Fronteir

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Well, I’m sure many of you have heard that NCSOFT’s Wildstar is going free to play this autumn, adding yet another entry to the evergrowing list of examples that prove that the subscription model just doesn’t work anymore in the video game industry.

And it kind of sucks, too, to see such a good game fail to make what it wanted with its first choice of payment model. Unsurprising, but it still sucks. I wanted to subscribe to Wildstar when it first came out. I played the trial and really enjoyed what of the game that I experienced (admittedly just leveling content), but I had been pretty bogged down by other costs in my life to justify spending $60 on a new game plus subscription fees after the first month. But, as with The Elder Scrolls Online, I did really want to see Wildstar succeed with its subscription model. Not just because I liked the games, but because I like subscription models as a concept.

I’ve played a lot of free to play MMO’s, especially when I was a child and didn’t have a whole lot of money to throw around. Micro-payments from me were few and far between and came whenever I could justify saving up my pocket money for several weeks at a time to spend on things that didn’t really exist and that my parents wouldn’t understand. This put me at a kind of disadvantage compared to other players in a lot of games where the cash shop features weren’t quite as balanced as they should have been. I wasn’t in the minority of people, of course, who were at this disadvantage. In fact, I think that a majority of players in those games were people like me: kids, without a lot of money who picked up the game for fun, played for a few weeks or months and then gave up, either out of boredom or frustration at not being able to advance without spending a bit of money.

The subscription model is different. If you’re playing a game worth the gigabytes it takes up on your hard drive*, there wont be a cash shop, there wont be micro-transactions and, more or less, everyone will start on an even playing field, regardless of disposable income. The 11 year old kid who gets five quid a week pocket money starts out on the same level as the 40-something year old businessman who plays in his office while he’s supposed to be doing work, as long as they are both paying that monthly fee. Sure, there are still minor things separating each player, such as the free time they have to play video games, the quality of the PC they’re playing on and the speed of their internet connection, but as far as the game itself is concerned, everyone’s pretty damned even and, in a vacuum, the only thing separating these players is skill.

And that’s why I like the idea of a subscription model. I have $15 a month. When I played World of Warcraft regularly I would fit that $15 a month into my budget along with all of my other regular expenses. I could conceivably now spend that $15 a month in the cash shop of any micro-transaction based game on whatever they’re selling for real dosh that would make the game more playable. However, some guy in my guild could be spending hundreds of dollars a month to make his game even more playable, and his hundreds of dollars could be going towards making his character more formidable in PvP, or be able to deal more damage or heal more in PvE. Alternatively, someone in my guild might not be able to spend any money on the game and wont be able to get any of the PvP or PvE benefits of the micro-transaction system.

And who do you think a raid leader is going to want to take come raid night? The player whose character is reasonably augmented with cash shop swag, the player who can afford to buy himself the best of the best and whose character is so well equipped and buffed that he’s practically shitting on the very concept of game balance, or the guy who doesn’t have enough disposable income to justify spending on a game, and who’s only stuck with what money-grabbing game developers decided wasn’t good enough to put behind the pay wall. Guild politics is fucking insane. Even in games that solely run on subscriptions, the amount of cutthroat, sneaky, bastardy things that players will do to get a spot in the main raid group, or get a better spot in the one that they’re already in, or get a better chance for themselves during loot distribution is incredible. It wouldn’t be absurd to, in a ‘free 2 play’ game, end up with a situation of two or more players constantly trying to one-up each other by spending more and more money to get the better chance at getting that oh so wanted raid spot. Which just leaves the people on a budget in the dust.

A flat fee for entry, whether it be buying the game or paying a subscription, is a bit of an old fashioned system these days. And with every new subscription-based game coming out subsequently going free to play, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the subscription model just doesn’t seem to work in this industry anymore. Even World of Warcraft has been dipping their toes into the micro-transaction/f2p pool while still retaining their $15 a month subscription fee. Trial accounts are no longer time bound but can be played infinitely, but only to a maximum level of 20. Warlords of Draenor introduced a service that allowed players to pay Blizzard $60 in order to level a freshly created character to level 90 automatically. With this change, the extent of WoW’s cash shop was no longer limited to solely cosmetic items like mounts and item skins, but actual things that affected gameplay and could put one at an advantage over other players. Even the non-combat pets that used to be cosmetic items before Mists of Pandaria was released, which brought with it the pet battling mini-game, and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, cash shop pets had some pretty great stats.

tl;dr, the subscription model in online games is dying. And, honestly, I’m going to miss it.

* For reference, at the time of writing the average price of a hard disk gigabyte was $0.03. Yeah.

Header image copyright NCSOFT.