This is just a “Hmmmm….” post, and not an assertion or a stance, but in thinking about The Elder Scrolls Online and the upcoming Wildstar, both of which are returning to the money-lined nest of monthly subscriptions after several years of the free to play trend gathering steam, a lot of people are wondering — actually, flat out assuming — if and when these games are going to drop their subscriptions and make the switch to free to play.

That other games have made that switch in the past few years (EQ2, TSW, SWTOR, and more than I can possibly remember), coupled with the fact that very few games that have launched in the past few years have launched with a subscription makes it logical to assume that the subscription model is dead — with some caveats.

World of Warcraft still commands legions of willing subscribers who pay a monthly gatekeeper fee. The question is, why? I don’t think it’s overly complicated: Blizzard charges, and people obey. Too many people have too much tied up in WoW to just walk away, even if they make some kind of bargain with themselves that WoW will be the last and only subscription they pay. WoW charges because they can. People pay because they must.

EVE Online is another game that hasn’t made any mention of every dropping it’s sub. This one is different from WoW, though. The player base of EVE, and it’s operator CCP, are rather…let’s be kind and say “elitist”. They view their game as more highbrow, and the subscription is a barrier to keep the filthy casuals out of New Eden. There’s actually a lot to do in EVE, but so many people have tried it, heard about it, or just looked at it, and can’t see enough interesting content there to make a subscription worthwhile. The EVE players and CCP are counting on this because it keeps their game “pure”.

Can any new game make subscriptions work again? Possibly, yes. I don’t think it’s a matter of making “a great game”. There are a lot of great games that are free to play. Instead, there needs to be something about the game that either can’t be had anywhere else, or which does something in a way that no one else does, or which appeals to a very enthusiastic population that feels that this one game and this one game only is offering them something that they want, but can’t find elsewhere. Ideally, those fans will gladly pay for that singular experience.

I’m trending towards naming PvP as that thing, but it will remain to be see if TESO’s PvP population finds it compelling enough to take an EVE-like stance. TESO’s bread and butter is still PvE, which can be had in every other game, and most often for free. There’s the Elder Scrolls lineage to act as a draw, but that can be had for a one time fee of $9.99 or less when the Steam sales roll around. TESO has large-scale RvRvR/FvFvF/PvPvP or whatever we’re calling it, but so does Guild Wars 2, which also has no sub. But from what I read, TESO’s RvRvR is a lot larger, and possibly more involved than GW2’s, which might satisfy whatever percentage of PvPers who were dissatisfied with GW2’s implementation of the sport, who bemoan the loss of Warhammer Online (yes, those people exist), and who pine for the days of Dark Age of Camelot.

Would that be enough to maintain a sub and not give in to the collapse in to free to play? My feeling is that PvP is a niche compared to PvE when we’re talking about people who do nothing but one or the other. That would mean that in order for PvP to be the driving factor for a sub, the game would need to attract a massive amount of rabid PvPers. Then we’re going to have to squint into the fog while the mystics therein consult their abacuses in order to determine if maintaining the subscription is generating enough revenue compared to the projected outcome of free to play with cash shop and a potentially higher body count.

I don’t think subscription games are dead. I do think that any game that attempts them will need to not just provide a “good game”, but will need to basically force segments of the gaming population to be drawn to their product with such fervor that they will never even stop to question why they should pay a sub. So far I have run into very few people like this, personally, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As with anything, then, time will tell.

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