Editorial: Get Your Gil for Nothing and Your Bits for Free

In the quest to dethrone World of Warcraft as king of the MMO nerdpile, many formerly ascendant MMO companies have released ambitious, exciting games like Warhammer or Age of Conan.

After an initial furious burst of physical box purchases and one-month subscriptions, however, these games died out. With die-hard subscribers trying to inject life into their flagging hopes, these games slowly dried up and died from a lack of interest, a lack of content, and a lack of money coming in, as the Blizzard juggernaut continued thundering down the Intertubes into our homes.

Now, like the death of Alexander the Great, the slowly-dying World of Warcraft is leaving behind a vacuum that cries out to be filled. But are there any worthy competitors for a monthly-subscription-based MMO in the Everquest model?

Killing orcs is expensive!
Varian Wrynn wants our money to kill orcs.

Sadly, the answer is no. Rift attempted to gather too much of that “old school” feel, forgetting that only a vocal minority of players want the old-school feel. I am sure that, eventually, when Rift adds in the convenience features that modern MMO players want (moddable UIs, cross-server group matching services, easier gear grinds, accessible raiding content) there will be the inevitable complaints of, “this game is for nothing but noob carebears now! I am quitting! Rawr!” And at that point, Rift may become the next big AAA online game if later releases like Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars do not fill that niche first.

So where does that leave the older games of yesteryear: the Age of Conans and the World of Warcrafts?

The answer is found in another model of online game: the “freemium” model, perfected by Turbine in Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. Already we see hints of what is to come with Funcom’s flagship MMO and, I project, Blizzard will not be far behind in copying this model.

Khal Drogo! What big pecs you have!
A Conan reboot? For the ladies?


The carrot that keeps people on the MMO treadmill is reward, which, as a concept, takes different forms. But they must be immediately visible; Blizzard’s “achievement” system is the right idea, but there are too few visible rewards from the system. Mounts, gear, and titles are the most common, but other types of reward are also possible, such as a player/guild housing, vanity items, and world event rewards. Mark my words: in a year, World of Warcraft will be free-to-play with a cash shop that offers experience/reputation boosting potions, leveling gear, and crafting materials, with new raids and tiers of dungeons being purchasable as one-time-fees. Funcom is going that way; EA-Mythic will go that way soon, and, if I am being totally honest, eventually so will Rift, because the changing habits of gamers simply do not support the hardcore, grind-intensive gameplay that MMOs used to require. Gamers will not continue to keep paying $15 a month (or the equivalent thereof) for the “same-old-same-old” gameplay. That is the beauty of the freemium model: it allows players to pay for the privilege of lessening the grindy, not-fun aspects of the game (which they all will, and gladly) without having to commit to a subscription.

There will be those that feel this is in error–that without the added emotional and financial incentive that comes from having (literally) invested in a game’s future, players will not feel compelled to improve the local community. But this type of thinking is also outdated. It comes from the MUD/MUSH days when communities were small and built of hobbyists. It had little to do with the idea that, “Oh, I have paid so much to play this game, I had better make it an interesting world,” and more to do with the mindset of the player. Today’s gamers might lack that sense of community because online gaming is not a novelty to them but, instead, something that is to be expected and taken for granted. Bemoan this all we wish, it will not change it.


  1. You’ve been saying WoW will switch to freemium “in a year” for more than six months! It never gets any closer, so it’s time I called poppycock! You can’t keep saying that it is a year out. –And its not true, anyway. There will be no freemium model until Titan is released, and I expect it will be unlikely even then.

    The freemium MMO has less widespread success than you represent here, and generally not with games like WoW which are aimed at a different subset of the populace. Large-scale, serious, hardcore MMOs (which WoW wants to be and attracts players of, for better or for worse) don’t use the freemium model as a rule. And to shrug off those subscription-paying players as a minority (which they assuredly are not; WoW is not built upon catering to a minority) is an act of wilful misrepresentation.

    I’ve been saying all along that WoW isn’t going freemium. I’m still saying it and it is still not there. You keep saying there will be freemium and there’s still no evidence of that whatsoever. Because it isn’t going to happen, Lane. No matter how much you want it to.

    Let’s not forget who runs this show. Call of Duty just went from an entire a’ la’ carte plan to the installation of a subscription model. Kotick likes subscriptions, and he’s the one at the top of this pyramid. I won’t argue that you have a good grasp of MMO design, but as far as the workings of the industry goes, you’re way off base.

  2. People said the same thing about Age of Conan. Read the Massively.com post I retweeted today (haha, plugging social media!) about the changing nature of MMO gamers. The subscription model is profitable, yes, but to a point, and its profitability is flagging for Blizzard. ALL MMOs, be the WoW or otherwise, are probably going to end up freemium because it simply is a more profitable long-term model for the Farmville generation.

  3. I should add that freemium models allow and encourage subscriptions for their most dedicated members (VIP memberships will be available for AoC, and already are for DDO and LOTRO), while allowing “tourism” by free accounts that can be supplemented with microtransactions. I know that if I go to try out a game like Runes of Magic, I drop a quick $20 on some microtransaction points for convenience items like XP boost potions and a mount.

    Similarly, if I could spend real money for potions, heirlooms, or other WoW convenience items, I would, and gladly at that. And I am hardly alone; apart from the old school, “MMOs are virtual worlds and creating a sense of community means more to me than playing a video game” crowd, no one really bitches overmuch about cash shops. MMOs have shifted from social networks with gaming components to multiplayer action games with social components, and eventually, the “old guard” will die off except for absolute die-hards.

  4. @Lane: As I said before, I think you’re mixing your directions up. WoW is not aimed at the ‘Farmville Generation’ in the same way that Wii titles aren’t aimed at real gamers. Consequently they are priced, marketted, advertised, and released differently.

    Blizzard isn’t going to throw away a $15/mo. subscription model that provides them with a thoroughly dependable and predictable source of massive revenue in favour of a cash shoppe which will be neither of those things. Nor will they introduce a cash shoppe which will provide for a circumvention of core gameplay mechanics (such as purchaseable levels, gear, etc.).

    What they will do is what they have been doing: they will allow people to buy aesthetic things such as mounts, and to purchase services such as character transfers, faction changes, and race changes. The reason for this is simple: they want people to play the game. The reality is that their target audience doesn’t play games without a strong social element, because the games aren’t fun enough to maintain their interest without such. (A fair complaint levelled against them. I believe Jon Blow called them ‘unethical’, and I’m tempted to agree.)

    The Farmville audience thinks differently, but the Farmville audience doesn’t–and won’t–play WoW.

  5. Also, the comparison with Age of Conan is a false analogy. Age of Conan was a failing MMO that would have gone under except for that act of desperation–a typical last-ditch effort for failed MMOs (consider our story about Hellgate in the podcast a week or two ago). WoW is not failing and has no need to resort to a last-ditch effort to keep from going bust.

  6. I agree with Lusipurr. Just because I lost interest in WoW for the second time doesn’t mean it’s failing. The game’s player base is made up of people who expect to pay $15 a month and get patch content and other types of additional content that they deem worth $15 a month. Even players themselves are unlikely to be happy with a freemium type subscription for the game because the model of patch releases would need to change in order to accommodate that. People will still have to pay to access patch content, but the players that do not subscribe will get no new content, ensuring that they will become uninterested in the game even faster. Blizzard will not get their money.

    As we all know, Blizzard wants people’s money. They will do anything to get it.

  7. I am given to understand that a wide range of online gaming experiences have met with smashing success while using the freemium model (it’s being discussed as though it were the holy grail); I really can’t see WoW using it for the time being though. Is WoW really as bad as you say?

  8. @SN The game is quite fun, for a time. I don’t have the drive to do the annoying grinding that it takes to stay current in the game, and I don’t have the time to put in either. Even when I do have the time, it’s just not fun to do all the grinding. The raiding content is quite enjoyable if you know what you’re doing and are with a group of people who also know what they are doing. The game is very well put together, and there were many things that I greatly enjoyed about it. It just failed to keep my interest after about 4 months (the second time) and a year and a half (the first time) because of the need to grind incessantly for gear. It was like having a job, and I already have a job this summer. I don’t need a job that I pay for.

  9. I meant with respect to dwindling player populations; I know the game is bad.

  10. I have no knowledge of dwindling player populations in WoW. It’s as strong as ever from what I’ve seen.

  11. I was under the impression they release an expansion, 2/3rds the playerbase comes back and starts playing again, 3-4 months go by, people finish all the casual friendly content, and it’s back to the 1/3rd of the hardcore players who grind raids while everyone else plays other stuff until another expansion comes out?

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