The era of the subscription-based online game has well and truly ended in 2012.
It had a good run, really. Fifteen years is quite a long time for anything to stay static in the land of gaming.
Ultima Online introduced the idea back in 1997, when those of us who had internet access were mostly still on dial-up and got booted off of AOL whenever anyone called the house. In 1999, EverQuest came along, drawing in fans and addicts and making the idea popular. It would take another five years before World of Warcraft, launched in 2004, would take the MMORPG mainstream. When Mr. T is hawking your online game in TV commercials that even your grandparents think are kind of funny, you've hit the jackpot of cultural relevance.
World of Warcraft remains the undisputed king of the "traditional" monthly subscription MMOG, yet even its dominance is waning. Blizzard's most recently quarterly numbers put the subscriber base around the nine million mark, a significant decline from the plateau of 10-12 million they held steady at for several years.
Other games in the Western, big-budget MMO space have long since gone free-to-play. All of Sony Online Entertainment's titles, including EverQuest and its successor, EverQuest II, are now without a subscription fee. City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online haven't required a monthly charge in several years. DC Universe Online saw a 700% jump in revenue when it became free. And years before the others converted to free games, Guild Wars had already formed a devoted fan base without ever requiring a monthly fee.
Then of course there are the browser-based games: while generally still less well-regarded among American audiences, they boast participant figures that even World of Warcraft in its heyday could barely dream of. RuneScape, in its decade online, has gone well past the 200 million player mark.
So why, then, does the specter of a decade long gone still hover over otherwise-good games and prevent them from being successful?
Star Wars: The Old Republic, launched by BioWare at the end of last year, and The Secret World, brought online by Funcom this summer, both looked to be promising games. The former uses the setting from Knights of the Old Republic, which to this day is still lauded by its many fans. BioWare's story-driven, dialogue-driven style of play, as made popular in KOTOR as well as in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, was an immediate draw, and SW:TOR sold well over a million copies right out of the gate.
Unfortunately, the subscribers didn't stay. By the beginning of this summer, there were fewer than a million remaining, and BioWare Austin had been hit hard by waves of layoffs. In July, EA gave the impression of caving in, and announced that the game would go free to play this November.
The Secret World, meanwhile, hoped to be an entirely different sort of game. It dispensed entirely with common tropes like leveling or set classes, and instead hoped for a more free-form experience set in a modern-day Earth. Despite provocative storytelling and regular content updates, though, Funcom has not been able to attract the required subscribers to their venture. This week, they laid off half their staff.
Every positive post or tweet about either of those games has generally been met with a wall of, "It looks interesting, but I'll wait until it's free to play."
Players, and potential players, aren't stupid. As every previous big-budget MMORPG, with the exception of World of Warcraft, has inevitably gone to a free-to-play model, they will wait on the sidelines until their new game of choice follows suit. The audience has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: unwilling to pick up a game until it has gone free-to-play, a game must then go free-to-play to gain those players. MMORPGs are also now faced with the simple fact that competition has driven down prices. As players can dabble in so many without paying a flat fee, there are other places to go.
There will not be another license to print money like World of Warcraft was. The audience is done paying up-front for the box and continuing to pay a third as much again each month thereafter for continued access. Persistent multiplayer environments are not the novelty they once were, and the subscription model now feels like the antiquated relic of a time gone by. The Secret World is certain eventually to follow in the footsteps of SW:TOR and nearly every other MMORPG before it, and go free-to-play if it wishes its audience to grow.
The games themselves are getting better, and more varied, than ever. They aren't all traditional fantasy RPGs anymore; some are shooters, and others are exploring all kinds of environments and play. But the one thing that almost all the new online games have in common is that they will not require a monthly fee.
The subscription model is dead. Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World have both suffered for trying to eke one more year of life out of it. Let us hope they are the last to try. Because the future is here, and it's free.*
* Except for that hat. And that horse. And that house...