Subscriptions and the evolving market
First of all, let's get something out of the way: Every online game in history expects you to spend money every month. Running servers costs money, developing content costs money, paying people to answer your support call about that hacker who yoinked your account costs money. Expect more on this fundamental point in a week or two; for now, let's just agree that this is the state of affairs.
Free-to-play games tend to achieve this by giving players certain roadblocks that are eased with a healthy infusion of cash. If that model is done correctly, you're inclined to spend about $15 a month on the game without noticing the actual numbers. If it's done incorrectly, you wind up being reminded on a regular basis that you need to spend money. But that also isn't the point here; once again, we can just agree that this is the state of things and move on.
WildStar is not going to free-to-play. With time spent farming money in the game it may very well wind up serving as buy-to-play a la Guild Wars 2; the differences is that someone has to keep paying that subscription even if it's not you. But this neglects the fact that its competition for gaming time is everything else in the world.
More for the money
I'll be honest here and say that I only really buy games for one of three reasons these days. The first is if it's a game I know will last me forever and I want as soon as possible (Saints Row IV). The second is if it is ridiculously cheap (most of my Steam library). And the third is for work, but that's not the point right now.
Gamers are cheap. We have every right to be; it's an expensive hobby. You're upgrading your console every few years or your computer's components slightly more frequently. New games cost serious cash money. DLC exists mostly because we declared that we wanted to be able to just keep playing one game forever and developers needed some way to keep us spending more money. (Again, more on this in a week or two.) We have accepted this as the price of doing business.
What really threw the game industry for a loop was when it became clear that a lot of people will play your game and pay money if you just remove the barrier to entry. If you tell folks that they can play games in the browsers they've already got open with no need to sign up for additional accounts or whatever, they'll show up because there's very little stopping them. It's convenient.
All this goes double for MMOs. We've got a genre that requires a big time commitment and a lot of investment on the part of the players and asks you to start off by tossing down a lot of money sight unseen.
The missed opportunity
Here we come to the crux of the point when I finally get back to WildStar fully. Because you're still dropping that $60 up front, and the biggest thing added by the new model is the promise that you can eventually play for free if you farm enough actual currency. Meaning that you won't have to be the one paying a subscription fee if you like the game enough to play it constantly.
It's a bad bargain. And it's one that I don't think needed to be put on the table because WildStar could just as easily have come out of the gate with a truly hybrid model.
City of Heroes had a model that worked overtime to make sure that everyone felt he was getting something out of the game. If you played for free, you were awash in options. If you subscribed, you got even more. And I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't hoped for similar results from WildStar before the model was actually revealed.
Seven years ago, WildStar's model would have been revolutionary. Right now, though, it feels like yet another game launching with a subscription in a market that is filled with free-to-play options because that option works. The game is launching with a surfeit of competition, which is challenging enough, but it's adding in the extra reminder that every one of its competing games is available for the initial price of nothing.
I don't doubt WildStar is going to be good. I wouldn't be writing about it if I thought it would be pointless. But I think it's going to wind up converting to the free-to-play model before too long, and the net result will be that it's seen as "oh, another failed title." It would have been really unique if the game had started off recognizing the present market and catering to that instead of subscriptions.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, as I've spent the fast few weeks being kind of critical, I'll look at all the things that still make me super excited about WildStar.
Here's how it is: The world of Nexus can be a dangerous place for a tourist or a resident. If you're going to venture into WildStar, you want to be prepared. That's why Eliot Lefebvre brings you a shiny new installment of The Nexus Telegraph every week, giving you a good idea of what to expect from both the people and the environment. Keep your eyes peeled, and we'll get you where you need to go.