Editorial: The Year The Subscription Model Died

Dana Massey | 8 Jan 2008 19:00
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Warhammer Online
Warhammer Online

Still, the big Western companies refuse to admit defeat. Undaunted, two major AAA traditional subscription-based MMORPGs are headed to stores: EA Mythic's Warhammer Online, and Eidos and Funcom's Age of Conan.

EA Mythic's Warhammer Online will rely on their experience with Dark Age of Camelot, the backing of EA and another monster IP to break through. At AGDC, EA Mythic General Manager Mark Jacobs said he wants WAR to be the second largest subscription MMO available, behind WoW. Yet, in late 2007, the game had to be delayed to address many of the problems from the Beta. It should make for a more polished product, but that is really only a silver lining to the grey cloud of delay.

EA Mythic's position is not altogether unlike the spot where Turbine stood a year ago. They had a big backer in Midway, loads of experience with Asheron's Call and Dungeons and Dragons Online, and an even bigger IP to back them. I have no doubt that WAR will be a profitable game, with lots of units sold and a healthy number of subscribers, but will it reach the goals EA Mythic had for it and will it justify the millions of dollars they have pumped into it?

Funcom's position is also eerily similar to that of EA Mythic and Turbine. This time Eidos is the big publisher, Robert E. Howard's Conan novels the IP and Anarchy Online the experience.

In all three situations, the IP is likely more popular and accepted in Europe than North America, a detail that complicates things in terms of language, but also represents a major opportunity. Funcom's offering of Conan is likely to be the least like WoW of the three, which also represents a major hurdle or opportunity, depending who you ask. As an added bonus, though, Funcom has plans to follow the PC launch six months later with an Xbox 360 edition. They've designed Age of Conan to be compatible with the popular console and this could be their salvation. Like the others, moderate success seems quite likely, but nowhere near the precedent Blizzard set.

Age of Conan
Age of Conan

The other possibility though is it's not the fault of the business model, but rather of the game designers. At the dawn of the big graphical MMO wars, there were two competing schools of thought: sandboxes and directed experiences. Ultima Online represented the sandbox, while EverQuest represented the directed experience. Up until WoW, that battle was healthy, if slanted towards directed experience games. WoW changed that. Every major MMORPG to launch since has been firmly on the side of a directed experience, even Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the exception to most these observations and numbers is EVE Online, the current standard bearer of the virtual world/sandbox genre.

Depressed yet? Don't be. The evidence says the subscription model is in trouble, but the fact remains that more people play MMOs today than ever have and they spend more money in the process.

While game after game hits the market and buckles under the subscription model, the Eastern revolution quietly extends to North American shores. Completely unheralded English-language versions of MMOs like Acclaim's 2Moons, IGG's Tales of Pirates, Nexon's MapleStory and countless others have quietly carved out much larger playerbases than the majority of big studio MMOs North America has put forward. There is also the browser-based Runescape, which combines the Eastern and Western models with amazing success, as well as a whole litany of MMOs aimed at young people like Club Penguin. This, no doubt, scares the hell out of big companies with an old-fashion MMO in the pipeline, but proves the appetite for big, online worlds is alive and well, even if the desire to pay a bill each month is not.

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