It's inevitable. It's the future. It's what people want.
Everywhere you turn, gaming execs and pundits have been trumpeting the shift to free-to-play by saying some variation of those statements. Games like DC Universe Online and Everquest have seen huge population bumps by going F2P, even if there's anger that comes with that shift. With all that, sure seems like subscriptions will be going extinct, right?
Not according to EA president Frank Gibeau. Even though Star Wars: The Old Republic will be going free-to-play, Gibeau says that doesn't guarantee that the publisher will be permanently doing away with subscription-based games. (The co-founders of EA's Bioware studios had previously said that their high-profile MMO would stay subscription-based..)
"I think subscription is just one way delivering content," Gibeau said, when I spoke to him this week at the New York Gaming Conference. "In the case of Battlefield Premium, we have a million-and-a-half subscribers and that's moving along nicely. At the same time, other types of products like Star Wars are probably better positioned around having a free-to-play model." When I asked Gibeau why the thinking around The Old Republic changed from subscription to F2P, he chalked it up to audience. "With Star Wars, you have a broad-based IP that pulls the widest possible audience, we can bring in a large number of people."
He admits that there was a learning process with SWTOR, too. "I think we've been fairly upfront with the fact that we course-corrected on Star Wars because we felt like we were fighting too many headwinds in the marketplace and it needed to be repositioned to fall with what customers were telling us, which is, ‘We love this experience. We want to drop in and drop out of it.'"
"Maybe there's a better way of doing it. So I never say no [when asked if susbscriptions are still relevant.] I always start with the game and why it's a fantastic experience. And then we talk about the business model. We don't say, "Hey, we need a free-to-play MMO generic project A in this time frame, go build something. It starts with, ‘Here's an idea we want to explore.' Frankly, when we made the switch [with SWTOR], one of the big things that we were concerned with was that the existing subscriber base would freak out. And say, "'Oh you guys are going to screw this up.'"
And some fans were relieved, Gibeau said. "They actually came back and said, ‘Thank God you're making the change because it means you're going to stick with it and continue to grow the service and continue to put content out.' And there will be a subscription layer. If people prefer to pay through subscriptions, they can do that."
Free-to-play games and ones that require a monthly fee aren't an either-or proposition, the exec remarked. "You know what? League of Legends is a spectacular game on PC and it works as a free-to-play game. I think both can coexist. Both will co-exist going forward. But ultimately it starts with, "Hey, let's talk about what kind of game we're building and then we'll figure out the business model."