Free for All: Is a subscription the new sign of trouble?

I hate to continually harp on the payment model as a source for material, but let's be honest: How a player pays for a game does affect how and whether he will play. Heck, it's obvious through my comments and emails that some people will literally avoid the coolest-looking game they have ever seen if it has a cash shop tacked on or it is using a free-to-play business model. Oddly enough -- and this is an honest observation -- I rarely hear a free-to-play fan say that he will avoid a game just because of its payment model. Perhaps the long hair and free-loving ways of the free-to-player helps to keep his mind open to payment models from all walks of life? Damn frippies.

Another common conversational theme that shows up almost every time we have this discussion is that free-to-play has done something wrong. Some seem to think that the free-to-play "movement" is equal to Walmart moving into their hometown, bringing lower-quality products and slower customer service with it. Of course, those same people might not admit to visiting Walmart for all of their needs and grabbing some batteries and chapstick from the impulse-buy section. It is often said that free-to-play is reserved for games that were in trouble, as if it were some sort of last-minute life preserver. Even in this scenario of free-to-play as the hero, the term becomes twisted into a shady businessman, swooping in on the elderly section of town after a tornado. Now, I've covered the possible racial and xenophobic connections to this hate for games and payment models from "Asia," and I would rather not rehash it now. I'm beginning to think the real explanation might be much simpler.

Click past the cut and let's discuss.

If you keep an eye on any recent internet meme, you will almost literally witness as it fades from popularity to obscurity. Remember the Slap Chop remix? No? I'm sure we all remember the Double Rainbow guy -- I know I laughed probably the loudest at the absurdity of it all. We moved on. At the time of this writing, the Friday song meme is on its last legs, and the internet waits with bated breath to be told what is funny.

In other words, humans enjoy something and move on. We grow used to the sight of things, and we want the feeling of something new again. This is a society in which people are addicted to shopping. In reality, they are addicted to the rush of hormones they feel after spending money on something new, a feeling I am sure we can all appreciate. That feeling of opening something new -- heck, it's probably the only reason MMO boxes even sell anymore. We love new stuff.

"Subscriptions are old. We have been using this same payment model for over a decade now. That's a very long time in the instant gratification universe of the internet."

Subscriptions are old. We have been using this same payment model for over a decade now. That's a very long time in the instant gratification universe of the internet. Not only that, but the price has not come down -- generally, it's gone up. I remember when 10 dollars was the norm, and now it's 15. I think that the players, the developers, and even those outsiders who write about this strange gaming movement have heard the word "subscription" for long enough, so the next new thing is primed for a takeover.

Free-to-play is the next new thing.

No, I am not suggesting that humanity's need to switch attention from one thing to another newer, shiner thing is to blame for free-to-play's recent success -- not entirely. I am suggesting that developers and players are hearing more about free-to-play, experiencing free-to-play more, and paying more attention to the market power of many free-to-play games -- enough that the payment model is beginning to make a lot more sense. It is no longer alien. This is not to suggest that free-to-play is or is not a better value, just that if enough people think so, it will be seen that way by most. The internet is very good at taking its cues from others.

Think about the statements from even the staunchest critics of free-to-play. They make statements like "The only reason that developer went free-to-play is because the game was failing." I think they are trying to say that free-to-play is only good enough for a failing product, but if the product performed better under a free-to-play model, wouldn't that make the model simply a wiser choice? Generally, these critics are talking about the handful of recent Western MMO converts, games that they have "heard about" like Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online and EverQuest II. In the cases of those games, it would benefit the argument more if we noted that free-to-play didn't rescue those dying games but instead opened the door to optional subscriptions. After all, DDO swore that subscriptions rose a great deal after the switch to free-to-play, so it's possible that the subscriptions made all the money, not the cash shop.

"Either way, subscriptions are not the overwhelming method of payment. From what I have read and heard, it seems as though subscriptions were never the predominate form of payment in the world."

Unfortunately, this whole discussion has never been that simple. Some games do better under the model because of the way the gameplay was designed. While I don't think I could point to any games that would do worse under a free-to-play model, I can say that some games do well enough while carrying a subscription, because of their design. It just depends on the game. In the case of the recent handful of converts (which are sometimes used as representatives of the entire payment model), it would be better to point out the hybrid payment model and the additional options that it brought instead.

In the rest of the world (you know, that place outside of the U.S.) free-to-play is just a way of paying for your gaming. Well, rent-a-play might be a more accurate title. Either way, subscriptions are not the overwhelming method of payment. From what I have read and heard, it seems as though subscriptions were never the predominate form of payment in the world. I would also bet good money that this is definitely true in the U.S. Besides World of Warcraft, which has the lion's share of the market, how many of the top 10 subscription games offer some form of free access?

All this is to say that pure subscriptions are the odd man out and probably always have been. This does not help their survival rates, especially if we agree that humans tend to love that which is big, new and popular. Think about the last few years and how we have gone from free-to-play's being considered the realm of the grindy, foreign game to being the choice for some of the most successful (and very Western) MMOs. Even I have noticed the heat lessen on this very column, as more and more players simply have shrugged and logged in. In other words, people are growing used to the sight of free-to-play, freemium, and optional subscriptions.

Is it possible that developers will come out of the gate with some sort of free element from now on? Will "AAA" games be forced to include some bit of free-to-play in order to keep players around? Will games like RIFT see a mass exodus after six months if they don't adapt? After all, we have so many more choices now... why should a gamer play a game with a required subscription if he can log in for free somewhere else?

These are interesting times, for sure. I will admit to being a full-on payment-model junkie now. When I first started this column, I thought the payment model would not become such an issue, especially as it became more popular. It quickly became evident that the payment model might just be the very thing that decides how a game performs.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.