Twenty years ago, the idea of paying a subscription fee in order to continue playing a video game that you’ve already purchased wasn’t nearly as acceptable as it is today. However, a decade plus some change ago, a game called Ultima Online flipped the online gaming industry on its ear, charging a $10.00 (US) sub-fee in order for customers to play. Fast forward to 2012, and what we have to look back on is a long string of high-budget games that couldn’t uphold the subscription model successfully for more than a year or two, with many surviving less than a year before reverting to a free-to-play business model.
Let’s look again to Ultima Online. Keeping in mind the time frame in which it was released, the graphics were pretty decent for a MMORPG. However, the promise that players would be provided with frequent updates, new content, and essentially having any problems taken care of by the game devs without having to buy another game gave players a sense of complacency, at the cost of a subscription. Thus, Ultima Online’s success created a whole new genre of games for developers to look into designing.
Game producers, as most do, used UO as a reference model of sorts, taking queues from things UO did correctly, and improving on the things that weren’t so good. Everquest was later released in 1999, and held the “Most Commercially Successful MMORPG” title in the United States for five years, and was a pioneer game in the realm of accruing an audience of over one-million players during its lifetime (including expansions). With yet another successful release in late 1999, Asheron’s Call finished the triad of top MMORPGs for the late 1990s.
Skip forward a few years, after many, many semi-successful MMORPG releases, during the month of November in 2004, when Blizzard’s World of Warcraft drops into the MMO market. With their newest title, Blizzard changed the entire gaming industry in one fel-swoop. With their newest title, Blizzard managed to blur the once crisp and clear lines between the stereotypical “hardcore MMO nerd” and “casual gamers” giving both ends of the spectrum a single game in which they could be equally immersed in.
With the undeniable success that WoW received, it’s not at all a surprise that most of their playerbase panned out to be extremely casual gamers, often only playing when they had time. Since the original release, Blizzard has seen a lot of flak for “catering to casuals” by making some of their content easier, more streamlined, and essentially turning a previously hardcore-or-nothing game into a “Theme-Park MMO” where virtually any gamer could find something that tickled their fancy. This, coupled with the economic collapse in the United States, started a trend of even more casual game designs to rear their heads, such as games that had no subscription fee (Guild Wars 2) or even games that had no payment required to play at all (League of Legends).
Overall, I think that unless a studio can match the Goliath that is World of Warcraft in originality, size, quality, and overall enjoyability, I don’t foresee any more successful subscription-based games going forward. The market is shifting towards the extremely casual players, as “free time” becomes an ever-dwindling resource.
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