Obviously one of the biggest bits of news to break while I was "away" was the announcement of Star Wars: The Old Republic going "freemium." (Please don't call it free-to-play. It really isn't. Freemium is a different animal altogether. See previous post on the topic.) I'm sure this subject has already been beaten to death around the blogosphere and to be honest, I haven't read any of it. What follows is my own opinion and my opinion only, and if it happens to be the same as something someone else had to say... well, so be it. I'll jump right to the climax for the "too long; didn't read" crowd.
This is the end of "Subscription Only" as a payment model for MMO's.
Frankly SW:TOR was never a good candidate for a subscription-only game in the first place. Its story driven content and heavy reliance on people creating alts was tailor made for "freemium" from the get-go. Something like the DC Universe Online model would have been perfect for SW:TOR. Charge people for content packs and "nickel and dime" them in the cash shop for Legacy perks, but offer a sub option that grants the content packs automatically and currency for the shop. Easy money. But alas, EA/Bioware was seduced by the WoW-side of the Force and was convinced they could play in the sub-only ballpark. To be fair to them however, as stated above what this really shows is that in all likelihood, "sub-only" is dead as a payment model.
Subscription MMO's also dabbling in microtransactions is nothing new. From the newly launched The Secret World to the old WoW warhorse, many sub-only games have additional things that players can buy. Heck WoW has been doing it for years, overcharging for simple conveniences like server transfers. But for such a high profile release like SW:TOR to abandon the sub-only model so quickly, the writing is on the wall for the entire concept itself in terms of MMO payment models. I can't see any other studio anywhere putting their "eggs" in the subscription basket now that a well financed, heavily hyped game like SW:TOR has failed on that model. Throw in the impending launch of Guild Wars 2 and it's "buy-to-play" model, and I think you have an even stronger argument for the death of "sub-only."
(Side note: I would be shocked to see Blizzard's Project Titan launch as sub-only. Even Blizzard has to realize that their "golden goose" was one of a kind and that ship will never sail again.)
As I said before, I am an advocate of subscriptions. Every "free-to-play" MMO I have sampled has been garbage, either because it was poorly designed or supported, or because the cash shop led to nothing but a "buy-to-win" mechanic where you could simply purchase anything you needed to power up your character and actually playing the game is impossible without making such purchases. So from that point of view, the death of "sub-only" bothers me. However, as I have also said before, "freemium" is not "free-to-play." And I think that it is "freemium" that will become the new dominant model. Some people will always prefer the convenience of subscriptions. I am one of those players. Companies would be foolish to leave that money on the table by not offering that option. Similarly, they would be foolish to go the cash shop only route as that inevitably leads to "buy-to-win" and turns off the majority of players when they realize they will be nothing but food for the "whales."
But sub-only is going the way of the do-do. SW:TOR throwing in the towel slammed the lid shut on the coffin and the GW2 launch will nail it closed. Change is inevitable in any industry and MMO's are no different. This is just another shift in the river like Ultima Online, Everquest, and WoW were before this. It is a paradigm shift, a change in the way the entire industry is going to do business. But like when a river changes direction, those caught unaware, are swept away. Anyone trying to launch a sub-only MMO in 2013 or beyond is in for a very rude awakening. And those companies still running sub-only games today need to take a hard look at their economic realities. I'm looking at you Funcom (TSW) and En Masse (TERA). If either of those games make it to the one year mark as sub-only, I will eat my shorts.
Incidentally, and in the interest of full disclosure, EA/Bioware's decision to go freemium has already earned them some extra money. After I read the announcement, I bought a 60-day game card to jump back into the game and see if it would be worth my time as a freemium/part time game. It is exactly the kind of game I could see myself playing off and on due to its design. Three quick things:
1) It feels like they really tuned the engine over the past couple months. Before I would have framerate issues in crowded zones or heavy effects... now I don't even get so much as a hiccup.
2) The group finder is just as terrible as it is in WoW and RIFT. Spent an hour in queue, finally got a group with a "gogogogo" tank, a "healer" who wasn't spec'd for it, and the other DPS just shot things randomly.
3) Server consolidations worked in terms of overall population, but the way the game is designed, you are still essentially "playing alone in a crowded room."
Tomorrow some thoughts on just how much MMO's and the people who play them have changed, and how I may have been "swept aside" myself by some of those changes.