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FAQ: Is the Subscription Dead for MMOs?

After weeks of speculation that it may be going free to play The Elder Scrolls Online announced they would be adopting a buy to play business model, doing away with the subscription model. This has once again sparked the debate, are MMO subscriptions dead? We asked a few of our writers this very question for this week’s FAQ.


Karl de Mare: No

It seems like the topic of subscription models is always being discussed, even if the reason behind the discussion has change over the years. And do I think the subscription model is dead? No, not at all, I would actually say it is thriving right now. Even if the model as we used to know it, where you buy a game and then pay for it monthly isn´t working for all games, it still working fine for some of them, even if it may seem like it is reaching new lows, it is a lot higher than it was when it was introduced. The recent surveys also show that players playing subscription based games are the most satisfied players. Even if we leave these arguments behind, we must ask ourselves what we mean when we say subscription model. If it only means having a subscription while playing a game, then it is actually going way up, seeing how games gone to free to play still have a subscription model and how those users are growing. But if we only look at games forcing on a subscription model, we might return to my previous arguments. I would argue that a subscription model inside a free to play game is as much a subscription model as in one where you are forced to play, and that is why my answer is no. The subscription model has adapted and grown even stronger.
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Nick Shively: No

The subscription model isn’t dead, but it is going to change. In the past, most games could get away with charging $15 a month with the promise that new content would be delivered on a regular basis. This was fine when there were only a handful of competitors, but now there are hundreds of options for MMORPGs. This means that in order to secure that monthly stipend from customers the product has to be good enough to warrant the cost. There are still games that are successfully using this model such as World of Warcraft, EVE Online and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Having a quality game and a steady stream of content is encouraging players to pay that monthly fee. On the other hand, there are many games that started off with a subscription and later changed to either buy-to-play or free-to-play. These games failed to utilize that model correctly because they either failed to deliver what customers wanted or they simply weren’t good enough overall. Two fine examples are The Elder Scrolls Online, which is going buy-to-play, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Both of these games were considered to be let downs by a lot of the community and they lost subscribers rather quickly.

Instead of simply throwing away subscriptions, however, there are hybrid options such as offering a premium service that provides bonuses including mounts, experience boosts, travel abilities and access to additional content. TERA: Rising and Runescape are two games that have adapted this model fairly well. There’s also the concept of allowing players to earn their subscription time in game by purchasing it from other players. EVE Online and WildStar are two games that used this model, but WildStar fell short for various other reasons. I simply don’t see subscription-based payment models going away anytime in the near future. They create a contract between players and developers where the consumers promise a steady flow of cash in exchange for consist updates and polished gameplay.


Jonathan Doyle: No

The subscription model. Once that holy bastion of Western MMO pricing, now a potentially forgotten method. Sure EVE and WoW maintain subscriptions…. But enough success in EVE can get you PLEX and free of spending real money. WoW … ultimately is WoW. Though even the golden gorilla isn’t immune to market pressure with speculation and rumours popping up every time any sort of large free trial comes along like those around Veteran Accounts. It may have turned out to be a trial method, but it never stops people from guessing.

The Elder Scrolls Online launched with one and converted to Buy to Play. The Secret World went through the same conversion. Now eyes fall on Wildstar, will it be next?

I don’t think the subscription model is dead, despite evidence to the contrary. I think WoW and EVE have shown the only way it can continue. True, honest and complete dedication from a core of fans. “Enough fans” goes without saying.

As we grow older we find new demands on our time. These pressures and the variety of gaming options out there make it harder to commit to the One True Game. Ease of progression in those various games make it so that laborious grinding is out of fashion.

Subscriptions aren’t dead. People just aren’t invested. The time we have grows short, the money we have has to go across our various interests. More options on the market, including ones you don’t have to pay for, are what have given the model its repeated knocks.

There’s a chance though. The “Next Wow” or the “Next EVE”. The next One True Game that for however many people, grabs and keeps their attention. The game that holds onto them through thick and thin.

That, people will pay for by the month.


Matthew McDanels: No

This is quite a hot button topic, and one people have been asking for quite some time. In a growing market where free to play with microtransactions are becoming the norm, it’s quite easy to think the subscription model has no place in this world. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Due to market saturation, lots of games find it necessary to utilize a free to play model to compete. Other games thrive off of a subscription model. Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft are excellent examples of titles successfully utilizing a monthly subscription. Both of these titles maintain high retention rates and the model works for them.

While I still see free to play as a growing trend, it is clear that many gamers are still willing to pay a monthly fee for high caliber titles. Evidence of this can be seen on numerous forums for specific titles. It is not uncommon to see players wishing their favorite free title was subscription based for various reasons. These should be taken with a grain of salt, as the minority tends to be the most vocal. If you’re looking for a more reliable source, GameStatistics recently ran a study that found many players still prefer a subscription model.
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Ryan Ocello: No

Did I miss the memo that Blizzard was going to bring in less than a billion dollars in WoW subscription fees this year? Has the player base suddenly plummeted from the more than ten million people that bought the Warlords of Draenor expansion a couple of months ago? Or maybe the company is thinking it would make more scratch by using The Old Republic’s business practices?

The subscription model is absolutely not dead, with most of the biggest money-makers in the industry still profiting heavily from the same fees they’ve used for years. EVE has lasted for more than a decade and grown consistently, and even when online Final Fantasy games start out weak they stay profitable long enough to improve.

The number of games that can still pull subscriptions off may be fewer, but the other models only exist for the kinds of games that can’t manage to confidently secure a large enough base quickly. And alternate ways of profiting are good for the projects that need them, but subscriptions will remain the primary choice for any game that can pull it off, at least for the time being.


Daniel Chambliss: No

Right now there are really only two subscription MMO’s that seem to be holding on, and games like Guild Wars did a great job long ago of proving that you don’t actually need a subscription to sustain an MMORPG for the long term. Now I personally think that WoW and FF14 are going to be charging their subscriptions for a good long time, but any game that comes after them is going to have trouble doing the same. It’s not that people want something for free, necessarily, it’s more like they want to try out these games before they begin to make a long term investment. Additionally, no one likes the idea of making friends in a game, and then being cut off from them simply because they couldn’t afford the fee for the next month. Still, if you’ll notice, there are still people willing to pay a ‘premium’ fee in different games just to experience higher end features. The subscription isn’t quite dead, it’s just taking a back seat, and it’s becoming less relevant.


As you can see the answer is a big, resounding no. Subscriptions may be less popular than they once were but there are still several AAA MMOs that have them and are going strong. While other options are becoming more popular the MMOs that have had subscriptions for a long time seem to be thriving. Which leaves us with another question. Can a new MMO launch with a subscription and succeed?

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About Shannon Doyle

Shannon first discovered MMOs in 1999 when she picked up the newly launched Everquest. This started a lifelong love affair with online gaming that has taken her around the world and brought her to While she still pines for the streets of Paragon, the City of Heroes, today she spends most of her gaming time walking across Tyria in Guild Wars 2, roleplaying with anyone who says hello.