SAR: The War on the Subscription

Two years ago: we’re all happily playing WoW or LotRO, set with our surcharges and pre-paid time cards. Cash shops will destroy the industry! we cried. I don’t want to be gimped because I can’t pay as much as Joe Schlub! Blogs were afire as players rallied against the first stirrings of the F2P movement. Someone mentioned that The Old Republic might be free-to-play a couple months later and many counted the game as a lost cause — shortly before completely forgetting they’d heard it in the first place. Fast forward to today, as Cryptic Studio’s Daniel Stahl hints that Star Trek Online may never see a boxed expansion because microtransactions simply make for better business. Wait a second… the death of the the boxed expansion at the hands of a cash shop? Welcome to 2010.

Why the Subscription Fee Works

We all know the subscription model works, so I won’t spent much time beating this old hat. Still, why is it that something that does work is now likely to fall by the wayside? Telephones work. Cable internet works. Even though there are other options, we don’t move on because we can.

In this case, we’ve stuck with the subscription model because it ensured three things: equality, quality, and the promise of an end never to come. That simple $15 made sure that everyone could achieve everything — if they wanted it bad enough. More than that, it made sure that the MMO could be more than a base game, it could be a true hobby. That minor investment guaranteed that you the game would give as much as you could put into it; you would never be done because, as soon as you were, there was an expansion, or dungeon, or new adventure to look forward to.

All told, it was a pretty good thing.

A Matter of Fear

But all good things do not last — at least so long as we believe they’re good. There’s always some “other” coming across the hill to challenge and compete for our hearts, minds, and wallets. In this case, the challenger came from the East and was actually dominant long before we ever saw it as a threat. When we did see the red eye of F2P approaching, we panicked. Without much intrusion into any of the games we played, we identified F2P as the great quality evil; it was, without a doubt, something to be hated and reviled.

Today, most of our hesitation has fled and many of us can play cash shop games without question; yet, long time subscription players still look at it with a slanted eye. The reason, I think, is that many of us are afraid. We’re afraid of wasting time. We’re afraid of not being on an even keel with our fellow player. We’re afraid that at any moment the rug might be pulled out from under us and levied against our bank purse.

The War Begun

Ironically enough, I think much of the current state of free-to-play’s growing popularity can be laid squarely at the feet of World of Warcraft. Every game that has come out to tackle the gorilla that is WoW has failed — or slipped into quiet flailing. Since each game entered the field with the same asking price as WoW, they were inevitably compared against it. No new game can compare to five years of development and polish — they’re getting better, lessons are being learned, but it is simply asking too much. This inability to separate new product from the impetus of their design is ultimately their death knell.

Slowly, the industry has reacted and started what has snowballed into no less than a full fledged war against the subscription fee. It started with Dungeons and Dragons Online. There, people finally realized that free-to-play did not necessarily mean bad. Then came it’s older brother, Lord of the Rings Online. And EQ2. And Global Agenda. And Alganon. The list grows by what seems like the week. The beast has awoken and is spreading its wings, announcing once and for all that the subscription fee shall reign no longer.

The Defense?

The sad part is that this thing we all once rallied around, and some still do, really has little with which to defend itself. It is the marketer’s worst dream, a thing which is unmoving, unevolving. What can the subscription game do to counter the sales and bright advertisements of the competition? Drop prices? Slander?

Perhaps, but more likely it is to point out the facts with which we used to defend it ourselves: equality, quality, and the growth inherent in perpetual development. Yet, as time goes on we’ve begun to recognize the fallacy in all that we once sustained. There is no equality so long as time goes unlimited. P2P quality – and more – has grown to become the standard of AAA F2P development. And growth… well, growth is a matter of income, and, when growth is bought by the penny, whose interests are greater in delivering exactly what the consumers want?

The biggest problem we’ve now come to face in the defense of subscriptions is this: cash shops are empowering. There is not one single offering in the subscription model that lets the player choose which investment to fund. Item malls give the player the keys and tell them “drive.” As we’ve awoken to find a brighter future in the free-to-play market, we’ve also woken to realize the dreadful assumptions subscriptions make of the player. The most basic is this: you don’t get a say. Gather 10,000 friends and attack the forums, but, you, PaladinRx do not matter.


It may surprise you to hear that I am one of the few who support the subscription model. The equality illusion, as thin as it may be, is better than the obvious tendrils a cash shop reaches out towards my wallet. I’ve spoken against F2P several times.

The truth is, though, I’ve opened my eyes. Not all F2P is bad or poor quality. Not all drive you to buy or fail. And those that do? Well, there’s nothing keeping you there. You can’t say the same for a subscription game. As much as I like paying by the month for a full buffet, piecemealing it can be alright to.

One thing is for sure: there is an absolute war against the subscription model, and right now subs are losing. Hard.


  1. Subs simply are not good value for everyone. That alone means that in a maturing market, they will not be the only option. No single price point ever stays the dominant force in a market that has to expand to survive. Subs will never go away completely because they do offer good value for some, but neither can they be the only choice if the industry (or even a single game) is to stay healthy.

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