The Soapbox: Launching with a subscription is still a good idea

Pictured: A sub in a sub-based game.
The massively multiplayer online game industry is constantly changing, but one thing about it never will so long as capitalism stands: MMOs have ongoing costs, and those costs are passed on to the end user. Exactly how they're passed on is one of the things that has been changing, but new methods don't mean old methods don't have their place.

New isn't good because it's new. New is good because it can provide solutions to old problems. When an old method is seen as the source of a problem actually caused by something unrelated, shoving a new method in there can just create new problems. So why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over games trying out a subscription before they move onto other models? And why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth in retaliation to this opinion?

One size can't fit all

There's no doubt in my mind that free-to-play can be a good business model. It's a great way for gamers to avoid wasting money on games they end up disliking and to invest the amount they choose in the games that tickle their fancy. It allows publishers to draw their revenue from big spenders while letting free and low-spending players flesh out the population. That doesn't mean I have any illusions about it being a perfect model suited for all MMOs at all stages of their life cycle.

Free-to-play doesn't require aggressive, anti-consumer tactics, but it does provide a strong temptation for them. When a game is already F2P and needs to drum up revenue, the only consumer-friendly way to do so is to release new content. Between content releases, when they're still spending as much money on development and maintenance, how do they keep players spending while numbers are dwindling? To a corporation, breaking even is a failure. In fact, making a modest profit is a failure. Sometimes, a developer can't afford not to gouge their most loyal players.

It's even worse when you have to recover initial development costs as F2P. A box price helps recover development costs dramatically. Yes, it does throw up a barrier to some potential players, but not cramming your servers as full as possible at launch is a good thing from a developer perspective. Server structure is a complex matter, and no amount of testing will prepare for the reality of launch congestion. Going free-to-play at launch means having no way to predict or control the number of players choking servers on launch day. It means resorting to extremely expensive founders packs to replace box sales. Packs that often offer little of value other than the opportunity to have your first experience with a game be buggier and less complete the more you pay.

All of this makes just as good an argument for launching with a buy-to-play model. I like that model too, but subscription still has some advantages over it.

Pictured: A sub in a totally sub-free game.
Look before you F2P

What do subscriptions offer that make them a good idea? Stability is a good start. Money comes in at a steady pace; player numbers may fluctuate, but developers usually have advance warning when players have decided to stop giving them money. In F2P games, there's no way to know how players are going to spend in advance of their doing so.

The stability extends to players as well. With a subscription, you know what you're getting. Even games that double-dip into micro-transactions on top of their sub price won't put any roadblocks against their subscribers playing the actual game in full if they know what's good for them.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is four months into its spectacular relaunch, subscription intact, and according to a very sincere-sounding Naoki Yoshida, staying that way forever. Not only was the relaunch successful, with FFXIV widely acclaimed as the best MMO of 2013, but the game looks to have a stable future. Server populations remain seemingly steady, discussion of the game remains active and positive apart from one dramatic blip, and complaints about the pace of content remain mild grumbles. Let's face it, no MMO has ever produced content of sufficient quality fast enough to evade complaints. In fact, it's probably impossible.

Most games don't get to start over almost entirely from scratch as FFXIV did, but a F2P conversion is an opportunity for something similar. Launching as F2P robs a game of potential to revamp its business model in a grand enough way to draw attention. We've seen precisely one F2P game add a subscription option after the fact, and to say the merits of doing so remain unproven is generous. If a game doesn't launch with a subscription, there's no real way of ever knowing whether that would have been a good model for the game, no matter what armchair pundits insist.

I don't think Star Wars: The Old Republic failed to live up to expected revenues because it launched with a subscription fee; I think it tanked because the developers were so caught up in their grand ideas for storytelling that they didn't think to provide their target audience with the content needed to keep them sated once the story ran out and because the decision-makers involved in its production overestimated its appeal. Free-to-play gave it a boost because it was a second chance, an opportunity to attract a different audience and draw back some who rejected it earlier. Even that new model is principally designed to coerce players into subscribing once they decide they like what the game has to offer.

I admit, subs can be ugly sometimes.
Fifteen bucks a month

There's still one argument against subscription, and it's the one that bugs me the most: People don't want to pay a subscription. It is absolutely factually true, but it's only part of the truth. That is, some people don't want to pay a subscription, some only want to pay a subscription, and some people are ambivalent or flexible.

Which is more logical: Launching with a subscription that snares sub-dedicated players, then switching models and retaining those who love the game enough to stick with it, while also picking up F2P fans? Or launching as F2P and never attracting players with a revulsion for the model?

People will say that even people who don't mind subscription won't want to subscribe to multiple games at the same time. To that I have to say, "You're wrong, and I'm living proof." At the moment, I am subscribed to Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft, with no intention of letting either lapse. I easily get my money's worth of entertainment from each, and I fully intend to add SOE's All Access pass soon without any concern for value being lost. Maybe I'm an anomaly -- or maybe the real anomaly is those folks who prefer one sub at a time.

There may be a natural tendency to perceive a subscription as requiring all your free time in order to be worthwhile, but there are plenty of people becoming aware of how nonsensical that perception actually is. The $15 you spend on a subscription isn't worth more because it's got a timer on it. It's worth as much as whatever satisfaction you get from the game, compared to what you'd get if you had spent it otherwise. That stubbornly unchanging $15 only gets cheaper as inflation devalues currency: The $15 of 2004 is equivalent to around $18.50 in today's economy.

Even that aside, I'm not arguing a subscription has to be a good model for the entire lifespan of a game. There's no need to compete for the subscription dollars of players long term. Starting as a subscription title with a plan to go F2P if the game can't sustain subscription numbers is a viable business plan. There's nothing dishonest or unethical about making sure there's a backup plan in case the first doesn't work out.

Subs! The wave of the Future!
Do I think The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar will stay subscription-only for their entire existence? No. I suspect WS will follow a similar path to The Secret World in going buy-to-play, and I expect ESO to tread in SWTOR's footsteps. Do I think that means they're making a mistake to launch with that model? No. There are short-term benefits, and stories of dropping the model after the launch buzz wears off are overwhelmingly positive. Not so for AAA western titles that launch that way. I like Neverwinter, but its modest success hasn't set the MMO world on fire.

If you really don't like to pay a subscription, you have plenty of options. If you really don't like the baggage of F2P and B2P, your options are running thin. Let's let publishers try to appeal to the subscription market to see if they can find a niche there if that's what they want to do. If they want to try launching as F2P, then good on them for trying to blaze a trail. That's where the real bigger risk is, the unproven and uncertain ground.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

This article was originally published on Massively.