Monthly Subscriptions are soooo 2005

Posted: August 28, 2007 by Kendricke in 38 Studios, SOE, The Gaming Industry

Interesting article in the LA Times today, with a few little gems.  The basic idea behind the article is the relatively sudden interest from big name studios into “casual games”, those little games that we play from time to time online that require little to no installation, are quite popular for quick 20 minute play sessions, and which require little to no instruction for new players.

These little gems are starting to bring in big bucks, though.  This isn’t exactly news for most of us, but some of the actual numbers are…


“Players are expected to shell out $1.2 billion in 2012 to download casual games to computers, up from more than $430 million last year, according to market research firm DFC Intelligence. When revenue from subscriptions to and advertising on casual gaming sites are tossed in, the figure is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2012 from $932 million in 2006.”

Nearly a billion dollars was generated by casual games last year.  What does this mean for the subscription based MMO-model?  Will 38 Studios be able to rely upon monthly subscriptions by that point?  Will Age of Conan?  Will any new game, really?

It’s an interesting discussion that’s been pondered before, but with more and more numbers coming out like these, I can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for the MMO’s most of us like to immerse ourselves in nightly.  After all, with SOE announcing two of it’s newest MMO’s coming out subscription-free (FreeRealms and The Agency), as well as recent news regarding NCSoft’s MMO’s on the PS3 (and NCSoft is no stranger to subscription free MMO’s), then I’m curious to see what will happen to MMO’s which do release with subscriptions in the future.

Will they be seen as anachronisms of a different time, much as hourly internet fees are generally viewed today? 

I don’t see subscriptions dropping off the face of our virtual worlds for some time to come, but a new generation of gamers is coming on down the pike, and I’ve gotta tell ya, there’s a good chance they’ll take one look at subscription models and scoff.  If new MMO’s keep releasing with free-to-play models, there’s a fairly good chance these future consumers will simply see subscriptions in a completely different light than the rest of us.

Though subscriptions are certainly the industry standard right now, that industry itself isn’t exactly an old and traditional one.  Some of the aged stalwarts are already playing around with free models.  As mentioned before, SOE and NCSoft have been testing the waters, and it’s not as if Blizzard’s never utilized free player matching, either.  Add in EA’s big “casual games” unit and an ever burgeoning Asian market which has been born and bred on cybercafes and microtransactions and you’ve got the potential booming global market reform ready to explode out in just a year or two.

Ultimately, the companies will follow the money.  If they feel a subscription model will bring in more revenue, then expect to continue seeing such a system lasting well into the next decade at least.  This is actually a likely scenario.

I don’t really see subscriptions being “replaced” per se, but I do see that the next big untapped market are those players which don’t quite grasp the whole pay-to-play mentality.  Cuppycake recently touched on this with her Talking With a Console Gamer post.  Though I still don’t think it’s an apt comparison to pit Console gamers against traditional MMO gamers, I do think there’s a different subject that bears some thought in there. 

Basically, I think the big studios are shopping around for the next big market.  But instead of creating a “WoW Killer” (as so many MMO players like to discuss) I think they’re looking for a completely new idea to drag in those players.  Why worry about out-Warcrafting Blizzard when you can just create the new big casual game and pull in a completely different type of revenue stream. 

If you can’t bring Grandma to the mountain…then bring the new, easy-to-learn, free-to-play, no-strings-attached mountain to Grandma. 

After all, there’s around a billion dollars worth of reasons to motivate a traditional studio toward this idea.  Why spend months working out new raid zones and class balance headaches for a niche customer base when you can flip the Keep It Simple, Stupid switch and bring in the least common denominator masses. 

Even if you fail, the initial investments of time and money are relatively small.  You don’t need 150 developers working for years on your multimillion dollar MMO.  You just need a room full of devs who are given the tools to play around for half a year or so who come up with the next Bejewled or Tetris or fl0w. 

And if they don’t?  Who cares?  You just blew a fraction of the effort required by a game like Vanguard or Horizons or AutoAssault.


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