Is the subscription MMO finally dead?

About The Author

CNET Editor

Nic Healey can usually be found on a couch muttering about aspect ratios and 7.1 channel sound - which is helpful given that he's the home entertainment guy at CNET.

Commentary Other than World of Warcraft, can another massively multiplayer online (MMO) game manage to make a subscription model pay the bills?

The Secret World: innovative, clever, fun and not being played
(Credit: Funcom)

This week has seen Funcom reveal, via its Q2 earning report, that its MMO, The Secret World, has sold 200,000 copies. That's what business people would call "bloody depressing news". To make the inevitable comparison, World of Warcraft (WoW) has 9.1 million subscribers — and that's actually down from its peak of 10 million.

It's an unfair comparison in terms of the games — different worlds, different mechanics, different appeal — but not in terms of business models, as both the titles work on a monthly subscription model. You pay to buy the games, then you pay to play the games. (WoW is now free to play up to level 20, but that's more from the 1970s drug-lord's "the first taste is free" school of thought than any other marketing decision).

On one level, I'm really disappointed by this news. I thought The Secret World was bold, ambitious and extremely fun. It had some of the best storylines and writing I'd encountered in any game — MMO or single-player. Sure, there was still a certain level of "go kill x-number of y and come back for your reward", but there were also some superbly designed investigation missions — so well designed that I was constantly amused by how many players seemed to think they were broken, just because they couldn't solve them.

But on another level, I'm sadly unsurprised. Arguably, it's not even possible to go up against the behemoth that is World of Warcraft when it comes to winning over subscribers. Let's face facts — Star Wars: The Old Republic couldn't do it, and that's despite the legion of fans who lovingly polish the dust of their copies of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) each night, before tucking themselves into a tauntaun and heading off to sleepy bo-bos.

The fact is: gamers are increasingly time poor as they increasingly age, and they're unlikely to be willing to subscribe to multiple MMOs, just for a bit of variety in the few odd hours they get to sink into gaming. I loved The Secret World a hell of a lot, but after I'd finished reviewing it, I wasn't getting more than a couple of hours each week, at most, to play it — and that's not worth a monthly subscription fee, as far as I'm concerned.

What I would have liked — and what I think MMO publishers need to start considering — is the ability to buy blocks of game time. If I could just go in and buy four, five or six hours of game to use at my leisure, topping up when I run low or feel like it's time to settle down for an all-night session, as if I was back at uni. In this scenario, it would be a true case of "shut up and take my money", but as things stand, I feel that I have to bid a fond farewell to The Secret World. Well, maybe just one more month of play...

Are you a subscriber to multiple MMOs? Has anything other than WoW been able to attract your hard-earned cash? Let us know in the comments below.

Add Your Comment 3

Post comment as

JonathanC posted a comment   

I wouldn't say subscription methods are dead, but they're certainly on their way out, with a few possible exceptions. One example is EVE Online, where you keep training skills even when offline, as I think this would be fairly difficult to translate to a free-to-play method (plus with in-game PLEX purchases, you can play to play), and big existing MMOs like World of Warcraft can probably get away with maintaining a subscription-based system. However I think most new MMOs are going to have to go with a Free2Play system if they want to have any hope of establishing themselves.

As a uni student, I'm a big fan of Free2Play games. During the semester, my game time is uneven and limited, and I have very little free cash, so it's extremely hard to justify $15 a month for a subscription game (My EVE sub recently expired after 2 years of playing due to this), but during the holidays I'll often have a bit of money to drop on them. Two Free2Play games I am playing currently are World of Tank and Blacklight: Retribution. During the semester, I'm strictly free-only, but during the holidays I'm usually able to drop a bit of money for some Gold/Zen and Premium (WoT)/GP Boosts (BL:R) when I have more time to play them.

You'll probably find that most MMO gamers are in a similar situation as me (substitute uni for work/military deployments/whatever as needed), and a lot of people are attracted to the flexibility of Free2Play games, as well as the "try before you buy" aspect.


Rolloxan posted a comment   

ArenaNet's business model for Guild Wars has kept me coming back time and time again. One time fee for the access code with no further fees. Further spending is then discretionary - you can pay for the next expansion packs when released, and/or in-game upgrades to your account like better storage, world transfers, character redesigns, etc.

It creates really good will between the customer and the publisher.

Guild Wars 2 was just released 2 days ago. And it's incredible. I would advise everyone to head out and buy it... And then not to head out for another couple of weeks ;)


ei_samus posted a comment   

I was interested in the secret world, but upfront cost monthly subscription seems an awful strategy for a newcomer in a world full of free to play and 1 lump sum mmo's. I'm surprised WoW still gets away with it, I just returned to it recently through a scroll of resurrection but even with the promise of pandaria in a month I just couldn't justify buying more time another expansions when I have so little free time and something like Guild Wars 2 looks amazing and will let me play as much or as little as I want for a 1 time cost.

Not to mention WoW, while getting better, still makes it hard to play with your friends on the same server or team, with every little change costing over $20.

Sponsored Links

Recently Viewed Products