Subscription based games are going the way of the dodo, and even Blizzard admits it. But what does this have to do with online strategy games? Well..
Blizzard recently claimed World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers have yet to reach their peak. They’ve recently lost over half a million players. You may attribute that to jaded gamers who have stuck to WoW for a long time, but to lose such a sizable chunk must include other variables, no? Gentlemen, there are elephants in the room, and we are ignoring them.
“We also changed the trial mechanism for World of Warcraft, so people trying it can now play in an unlimited way up to level 20. In the past it was time-based. Our data shows when people get to level 20 they’re more likely to stay on, as they have got over that initial learning curve. That will help us build and sustain our player base.”
Free to play until level 20. This game used to charge for a subscription right from the get-go. When will the free to play cap be increased? The wizards at Blizzard have probably calculated that once the conversion rate at level 20 drops a certain threshold, then the ‘free cap’ will be increased. That won’t happen for a while, but you can understand the pattern at play. Such a pattern is separate from the pattern of players who have been WoWed out, as it were, and will leave for a while or leave for good. Some players are already seeing WoW as they know it being gone for good, as the game has been changed to appeal more to casual gamers than to the hardcore. However, the raiding aspects are still mostly for the truly daring (ie, if you are seeking items such as the Dragonwrath).
If the free to play trend can be so powerful that it even affects a behemoth such as WoW, what’s to stop it from sweeping through the rest of the gaming world and its respective business models? We’ve already seen emerging flexibility from the likes of Starcraft II’s pricing options in other countries: reduced initial outlay (at least 50% off) with a subscription cost (China, for example, pays $3 per month subscription). The goal in WoW and SCII is similar: make it cheap to pull gamers in and keep them on some level of subscription for the long run. Are you starting to get the feeling of desperation coming from the suits up in Blizzard regarding subscription based business models? The subscription model is being gutted in a paradoxical attempt to preserve it. The pressure is coming from the breadth of content from free to play games, which include MMORPGs and MMOSGs that have recently gone free to play. Say hello to the elephants.
The question is not a matter of if but when.