MMORPGs: No longer monthly subscription material

Though I have blogged in the past about how I found it to be an encouraging sign that Dungeons and Dragons Online was going free to play, only now after I have had a chance to play it a bit do I really realize just how significant this is for me.  It really has more to do with where MMORPGs are in gamers’ lives these days.

When EverQuest was first released in 1999 (though it was not the first of its kind) it seemed incredible to be able to play in a world with thousands of other players.  However, over the years, MMORPGs became less exciting, and for many different reasons.

  • There were now a whole lot more of them, and so having thousands of players being in the same virtual world was no longer so very novel.
  • Perhaps observing World of Warcraft’s extremely unusual success (and completely misinterpreting that as simply being more casually accessible) or perhaps because development of a cutting edge MMORPG is very (very) costly, many MMORPGs have attempted to become more mainstream.  The fallout is, as if oft the case of art that has gone mainstream, they rapidly became shallow and uninspired.
  • Instancing has caught on as a popular and effective means of load balancing and content distribution, but the players know that they’re not all playing in the same world anymore, and for many (“most” is hard to prove) this meant that the sense of a true virtual space was gone.

EverQuest charged $9.89/mo.  Today, even factoring in inflation, these and other factors assure that $15/mo for a massively multiplayer online game is no longer in any way reasonable for a gamer such as myself to be expected to spend.

Furthermore, there’s a number of better alternatives:

  • Guild Wars has demonstrated that you can run a highly-instanced game servicing hundreds of thousands of players via a peer-to-peer distribution mechanic and keep a development team afloat with just the price of the box and a semi-yearly released expansion.  Guild Wars 2 is in development.
  • Imports from the wired East have been “F2P” (short for free to play) for awhile, there’s hundreds of them, a few of them (such as Runes of Magic or Atlantica Online) are easily as good as pay to play counterparts.  They entice the players to play with a free price and, once hooked, they are easily tempted to purchase things to enhance their play experience.  Even if only 10% of the players pay, if you can fish in 20 times more players, F2P can be a more profitable model.
  • Sony’s Free Realms would seem to demonstrate that these principles work just as well in the West, at least insofar as getting well over ten times as many players to try the game within the first few months of operation as were ever subscribed to EverQuest at any one time.

Dungeons and Dragons Online… enjoyable specifically because it’s F2P.

I bought Dungeons and Dragons Online back when the game was first released for full price.  I barely played it at all before I felt my self feeling as though $15/mo was more than I was willing to pay.

It was a good game, featuring novel game mechanics and a refreshingly different approach from most MMORPGS in the way it handled replenishment of health and a robust combat system that was both visceral and tactically appealing.

This, essentially, is Dungeons and Dragons Online.

However, although it was a good game, even better than the typical casually-accessible MMORPG facsimile, I couldn’t shake that this was no virtual world.  Whether it was a walk through the city, visit to the player-congregation areas (taverns) or having to repeat the same dungeons time and time again, there was a heavy reinforced feeling:

“Why should I be spending $15/mo on an experience I can already get from a free to play game?”

Alt-a-holicism set in shortly.  My time with Dungeons and Dragons Online game was up.  Until now.

Despite this history with the game, this weekend I spent $48.75 on Dungeons and Dragons Online to gain some 4000+ points.  True, the game no longer has a subscription fee anymore, but I essentially decided to repurchase the box all over again.

Why?

  1. Partly because the heavily instanced model really feels a lot more comfortable when I don’t have to pay a monthly fee.  It’s clear that (at least for me) there was a invisible dividing line of instancing between being truly massively multiplayer and non-massively multiplayer instanced, and Turbine had crossed that line just about everywhere in the game.  When Dungeons and Dragons went free to play, how instanced it was became a non-factor, and I was free to enjoy it for what it was.
  2. But there’s a deeper, more pervading reason a well.  Because (barring Turbine going out of business) that $48.75 was a much more credible investment in the future than another $15 a month down the hole with nothing to show for it but access.  There’s a much greater sense of ownership here: what I bought here feels more as though it is truly mine, an investment I could enjoy all my life.

This game demands $15/mo.  How differently does it really play from the last video?

When Champions Online was released last September, I spent $99.00 on a discounted 6-month subscription because I did not want that kind of pressure.   However, I ended up regretting that purchase because I became thoroughly burnt out from it (probably because the stingy balance killed a lot of the superheroism appeal) and several of those months went unused.

I like Cryptic Studios, I wish Jack Emmert the best from many happy hours in City of Heroes, but I’m not renewing a monthly subscription to Champions OnlineEver.  The reasons are written on the wall of text above: MMORPGs are no longer novel, they tried too hard to appeal to a casual audience, and its too instanced.   The only way I’m going to keep playing Champions Online is if they go free to play.

I’ve decided that the same will go for Star Trek Online or an MMORPG made by any other company.   MMORPGs are just not worth a monthly subscription to anymore, not given all the free-to-play alternatives out there.   At least from the perspective of this 27-year gamer, it’s a decision that heralds an end of an MMORPG era.

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