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The Future of the MMO Gaming Industry

The MMO gaming industry has gone through a lot of changes over the years. Ever since World of Warcraft claimed the throne, other game developers have made attempts to imitate the successful Blizzard formula with various degrees of success. And let’s face it, when you have 10 million people paying you up to $15 a month, there’s a lot of motivation to capture some of that market.

However, a closer look at the current market suggests that PC gamers just aren’t willing to go the subscription route any more. While millions of people still maintain their WoW accounts just in case they get the craving to go raiding again, it’s getting harder and harder to convince players to pay for a subscription– especially if the game can’t prove that it has the content to keep you coming back month after month.

Despite this trend, many companies are still determined to give the pay to play model a shot. The financial numbers that WoW puts up are just too tempting to ignore. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many examples by game developers where they are forced to change their strategy in order to populate their games.

Consider a few of the most recent examples below:

The Secret World

The Secret World took a lot of chances and broke away from the standard fantasy MMO. It offered a modern urban fantasy/horror setting and no level ups or character classes. This could have been a breath of fresh air to the market, but something didn’t resonate with PC gamers. Most reviews for the game ranked it solid, if not amazing, but no one seemed willing to pay a monthly fee to try something so different.

A couple months ago, Funcom announced that they would finally capitulate and switch from the pay to play model to a buy to play strategy. This means the user only has to buy the game, and he or she can play it indefinitely, without any level caps or content restrictions. In the four weeks after the switchover, The Secret World shifted 70,000 copies – a 30% increase in total sales – and activity levels on the servers when up by over 400%. It makes them wonder why they were so determined to go the subscription route in the first place. Now, they make their money through DLC packs and special subscriptions that offer benefits and exclusives to paying members.

The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a massive multiplayer online game developed by Bioware. What could be better? It seemed like a winning formula, and it certainly started off really well. In the first six weeks of its release, Star Wars: The Old Republic sold 2 million copies (EA claimed this made it the fastest growing subscription-based MMO ever). By February, the game had nearly 1.7 million active users, but by May of the same year, it had dropped by more than 400,000.

Bioware also fought the change for a while, but in order to keep players coming back, they finally got rid of subscriptions too. Well, they also still offer a subscription option that will give different features to different levels, but in general, you can play the entire story mission for free.

Mists of Pandaria

Even the MMO king is not what it once was. World of Warcraft subscriptions topped at about 12 million a year or so ago, but it has seen a steady decline since then (losing almost a quarter of its users). When Mists of Pandaria came out, there was resurgence in subscriptions, but the expansion didn’t sell quite as well as previous installments, and there is some speculation that this increase could simply be an upward bump in a general decline. Whatever it is, the subscriber base seems to be holding steady at around 10 million at the moment.

Pathfinder Online

Despite these trends and industry experts claiming that the subscription model is dead, new companies are still determined to make it work. Consider Pathfinder Online, a recently successful Kickstarter for an MMO based on the tabletop game. (Arguably, this game has even become more popular than Dungeons & Dragons – which also had an MMO that didn’t go anywhere. Their next attempt – Neverwinter – will use a free to play model).

Pathfinder Online is unique for a few reasons. They have already had a successful Kickstarter campaign just to fund a technology demo to show other investors. It apparently worked, because they have some investors behind the project, and yet, they brought their game back to Kickstarter asking for one million dollars to speed up their schedule and put some extra features in the game. I questioned whether they would reach their goal, and up until the last day it looked like they wouldn’t. They pulled it out, though, and, as a reward, they will be giving their backers 3 to 6-months subscriptions.

Kickstarter is a great tool, not just for raising money but for gauging interest. Pathfinder Online managed to break 1 million dollars with the help of 8,732 backers. When Star Wars had trouble because 1.3 million users aren’t enough of a player ecosystem, one does have to question what the Pathfinder campaign shows about player interest.

What Does the Future Hold?

Where once a free to play MMO simply meant that it was a small indie game, or one that was trying to scrape together some profit before it completely died, more and more companies are starting to realize that the payment model that worked ten years ago just isn’t relevant in today’s industry. Major, triple “A” title games (Guild Wars 2, Neverwinter, even Dust 512 on the PS3) are choosing a different strategy. Their goal is to get players to try something new, and then convince them to stay a little longer and explore a larger experience.

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