Gameplay Trumps Business Model

The conventional wisdom in discussions about the future of the subscription MMO is that the continued success of World of Warcraft proves that players are willing to pay each and every month for a quality product.  I think the quality of the product and the experience ultimately trumps the business model, which is precisely WHY I'm not buying this theory. 

What if the truth is that every MMO that has succeeded under the subscription model has done so because that game - at the time - offered a compelling experience that was not available elsewhere?  Looking at MMO history through this model, have games succeeded DESPITE the monthly fee - because players had nowhere else to go to get that particular experience - and not because of it?  What portions of the conventional wisdom survive under this alternate model for events, and which fall by the wayside?   

Survivors of the Subscription Era
According to's list of all games by business model, there simply aren't that many MMORPG's with a mandatory subscription fee left on the market.  Many are either abandoned veterans that aren't worth the money it would cost to relaunch them or newbies that have yet to prove they can last under a subscription model.  Setting aside the 9.1 million subscriber gorilla for a moment, let's look at the highlights:
  • Eve Online: Poster child for this model, whether it's space piracy, corporation scheming, hardcore PVP, or fully player-driven wars for galactic domination, Eve always has offered something that no other game on the market attempts.
  • Rift: Technically speaking, having a well-produced game that sets and meets achievable goals and therefore delivers the most consistent update schedule in the industry isn't part of the in-game experience. 

    What I'd suggest is unique - based on my experience playing the game and comparing it to the other quest-based MMO's on the market - is the focus on playing with other people.  Soloing in Rift is 100% feasible and supported, but it just feels flavorless compared to all the other solo quest MMO's.  By contrast, Trion has made it easier than any other game to join groups, and I've had more fun grouping - including while leveling and even healing PUG's - than any other recent MMO I've played. 

    (Incidentally, if I'm correct, Guild Wars 2 may be a bigger threat to Rift than WoW, since its content is closer to what Trion does well.) 
  • Darkfall: I don't know exactly what their state of financial success is, as the game is currently charging a reduced monthly fee and no price to create an account.  Again, though, the game offers hardcore sandbox PVP of a kind that "mainstream" games run screaming from.
  • FFXI: Another title where I'm not so informed about current success.  In the past, though, this game has been the rear-guard of numerous old school mechanics like harsh death penalties, lengthy travel, and grinding mobs to level, but without the PVP focus of other more sandbox-ish games.  (FFXIV is harder to gauge because it only began charging a fee recently.) 
  • Warhammer Online: At the risk of kicking a game that's down, I'd suggest that this demonstrates the flipside of the model.  Things like solo quests, group dungeons, and instanced PVP warfronts would NOT have been enough to sustain a subscription game because there were alternatives with these features on the market in 2009.  The unique portion that they did attempt to provide - RVR - proved less than compelling due to incentive and population balance issues.  
I'm not going to try and rehash this analysis for the heyday of every MMO in history, but a cursory examination looks promising.  Everquest brought the Diku MUD model into 3D.   Dark Age of Camelot did the open PVP thing correctly, with a third faction to balance populations.  LOTRO, back when it was moderately successful while charging a mandatory subscription, combined solo-accessability with a far more immersive story experience than the competition had to offer in 2007.  Games that failed to catch on often have a reason - poor execution (e.g. Vanguard) or lack of differentiation (DCUO versus similar action-based gameplay in non-subscription console games, many of which are even online these days). 

What about WoW?
All of which brings us back to WoW and the conventional wisdom.  At its launch, WoW fit the model to a T - it was the only game on the market offering the virtual world experience to players who wanted to solo or otherwise shed the inflexibility inherent in past group-oriented MMO's.  Today, though, every game that launches is derided as a "WoW Clone".  What is this dinosaur still doing if a subscription game indeed cannot endure viable competition?

I would suggest that modern WoW offers two things that its contemporaries don't:
  1. Critical Mass.  While diminished by years of attrition, Blizzard's game still has the largest playerbase.  The success of Facebook does not mean that any competing social network can succeed simply by fielding a better product because the userbase is part of the value of the product.  In some ways, Blizzard's game remains an easy consensus choice because they successfully support the major forms of gameplay - solo, group, raid, PVP - under one roof.
  2. Production Values.  No other game has the luxury of two-year expansion cycles with multiple months of non-NDA'ed public testing.  Many MMO's struggle for the resources to support all the major playstyles and ultimately end up doing one or more poorly.  It's very possible to fault Blizzard's decisions, and the game does still have the occasional bug or rough edge, but it's hard to fault Blizzard's execution in comparison to the rest of the market.
Do these things really add up to a compelling game experience not available elsewhere?  Both have their downsides - the broad playerbase makes it harder to please everyone, while the long development cycles mean lengthy droughts with no new content.  These are certainly not as big of a revolution as introducing solo play to the genre - and perhaps that's a part of the game's slow but inexorable decline.  

Back to the big picture
If the bottom line is that the game, and not the business model, defines success, how have we arrived at the era of the free to play conversion?  Entry barriers and flexibility are almost certainly part of the story - it's hard to be so worthless not to be a bargain at some reduced price.  For some games, like DDO, it's possible to have such a low profile that the free to play relaunch is actually many gamers' first chance to make a first impression.  Moreover, in the early days of the F2P switchover perhaps payment model flexibility was unique enough to be a selling point.

Today, however, many of the games that appear to have failed to compete at the price-level of the monthly fee have all made the switch.  Still charging a fee may or may not be a dealbreaker, but it's harder to spin the lack of a fee as a selling point (especially if the "optional" fee is not so optional).  In that case, the real question going forward is: When will we see a major F2P relaunch fold?  Perhaps not so soon, since many of these titles are owned by larger developers who can keep the lights on relatively indefinitely, especially propped up with a cash shop.  Still, if I'm right this question will begin to loom large in the coming years, because there just aren't that many subscription titles left to fail to sustain the subscription model.