Massively Overthinking: Is the age of the $15 subscription coming to an end?


Massively OP’s own Justin Olivetti penned a blog post this week in which he muses on the lifespan of the $15 MMO sub fee, arguing that it’s continued to increase in value without changing much. Monetization, on the other hand, has changed dramatically, as MMO companies, many forced to drop those fees thanks to hefty competition, had to scramble to fund their games some other way. He even notes that some games with subs – most notable among them Final Fantasy XIV – actually charge less than $15, while World of Warcraft is technically granting access to two quite different MMO experiences for the cost of one sub.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I thought it would be fun to revisit the old topic of the subscription in MMOs here in 2019, whether we’re talking about the last few sub-only holdouts or those games with more hybrid experiences like Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR. How much longer do you think the $15 model will still be around? Should more MMOs be exploring cheaper subs? And will that “15” go first, or will it be the concept of subs altogether?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think Ben made some good points about at least larger MMO studios possibly going with package deals on subscriptions for multiple MMOs. Smaller games and studios may even band together to pull off similar models, especially on consoles. However, for traditional PC MMOs that aren’t made by large studios, I can’t imagine subs having a much longer lifespan due to cash shops, even without including abusive lock boxes.

I’ve noticed mobile games, or at least the AR ones, having monthly deals that cost about what I’d expect to pay for a monthly sub. While gacha is often involved, specific units, currencies, or avatar items are often the key point, at least for me. What’s nice about these as a player is that I don’t get locked out of the game if I don’t pay, and if it’s something I really like, I can buy more… which is probably what the company wants too.

With a sub, at this point, I’ll actually avoid even trying a game because being locked into a deal would threaten my social priorities. I love gaming, but I know I can’t devote as much time to niche games if I want to physically meet people, though I also admittedly have long commute times to work.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): It does seem like it’s important to game studios that we keep it at that $15 mark. There are probably a few factors at play here. First off, people aren’t as dedicated to a single MMO as they used to be, so spending $20 or $25 a month doesn’t make sense for most. Entertainment options in general have gotten less expensive over the past 20 years. A $100 cable subscription has become a $15 Netflix subscription. Whereas cable/satellite used to target a different demographic than games, the demo for streaming services is essentially the same as those who count games as a means of entertainment.

Meanwhile, much to the chagrin of some MMO players, studios have offset rising development and maintenance costs with other streams of revenue like cash shops.

I actually don’t think subs are going away. If anything, streaming music and video (not to mention physical mail subscriptions like clothing and meal prep) have conditioned us to be more accepting of monthly fees for premium services. Whether $15 is sustainable as a price point for a single game remains to be seen. Perhaps a business opportunity would be a company that provides access to a bundle of MMOs for $20-25 a month?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Justin’s piece was already demonstrating that the age of the $15 sub is already at an end, just without coming out and declaring it so. As he noted, the two biggest sub MMORPGs have already deviated from that model, with WoW offering two entirely different games and XIV still undercutting the $15. Even looking to games like Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR that keep the number $15, there’s always something else to it – ESO, for example, grants such a large currency stipend as part of the sub that you’re not really even paying all that much for the access part itself.

This doesn’t bother me whatsoever, nor do I think it’s a bad thing – I’m glad companies are working hard figuring out other ways to monetize, and they aren’t all identical (or evil). I’m also a big fan of smaller subs in the $5-$10 range because they feel like less of a commitment; likewise, I didn’t mind the idea of microtransactions when they were really micro, when we were still talking about 30 cents for a costume part instead of $300 for a house.

So I think the “15” is already bent and twisted into meaninglessness. But I don’t think subs will ever go away. Ten years ago, the very-normal-to-MMO-players idea of a subscription was anathema to the mainstream gamer, but with more and more online services (not just games) going that route, I think everyone’s becoming more inured to it. It’s steady income, and most mid-budget games can’t live long without it. It’s not going far.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s time the subscription-only model died altogether. The subscription model, no matter how much content it gives you, is only a good value if you have lots of time to play. The MMO genre’s playerbase is aging, and many people who played 30+ hours a week back in high school now have a lot more responsibility, leaving them with just a few hours per week to play. The value of World of Warcraft’s subscription is leaps and bounds more than it was 15 years ago, but it’s less appealing than ever. And when there are other games out there that are, in my opinion, just as good if not better that don’t require a subscription, it’s time to rethink the sub model.

I think the subscription model is also bad for gamers and the industry as a whole. Many proponents of the subscription model like to point out that the free-to-play model encourages developers to make games with exploitative or bait-and-switch tactics, but they ignore the fact that the subscription model encourages developers to create games with time wasting tactics to keep players from progressing too fast so they subscribe longer. Also, call it FOMO if you wish, but I’m glad that I don’t have to be tied down to a single game for a whole month; I’d rather have the ability to dabble in a variety of games if I wish without the guilt that comes from knowing that my subscription time is ticking down, unused, elsewhere.

To be fair, there was a kind of a race to the bottom when the whole free-to-play movement happened, with a lot of games seeing huge growth at the beginning, but ultimately struggling to keep the money rolling in after a few years because they were giving away too much for free. But it’s hard to say how these games would have done — or if they would even still exist — if they had all stayed subscription-only.

Personally, I think that The Elder Scrolls Online has the best business model right now. You can legitimately play for just the box price without feeling left behind, so if you’re only going to play a little here and there, it’s a perfectly fine option. You can buy DLCs piecemeal and play them at your own pace. But if you know you’re going to play a lot during a given month, you can turn on your subscription and get a nice value for it, with a little more than $15 worth of premium currency, the unlimited crafting bag, and access to all of the DLC zones and dungeons for as long as you sub.

Games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV do quite well with their subscriptions, and while they can get it, it’s a great deal for the company. I don’t think that adjusting the price — either up or down — is worth rocking the boat for those games. How long that will be viable for any of those games is anyone’s guess; I thought WoW would have been forced to change its model long ago, but players keep showing up with money in hand, so good for them.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Here’s a weird take made partly because I do so love deriving weird takes: Part of the drive to free-to-play in the first place was the number of games sporting an endgame-with-a-capital-E. I’ve written about this before, but there’s a difference between “this is the stuff you’re doing when you no longer have levels to gain” and “this is a game wherein you do one thing while leveling and a totally different thing when there are no more levels,” a model that WoW embraced with vigor and numerous games hoping to copy WoW’s success copied much like iconoclasts getting rid of Constantinople’s religious imagery to cope with the rise of Islam.

For those of you who may not have gotten that historical allusion, that didn’t really work.
Of course, we’ve now reached a point wherein “free-to-play” is the default and most developers expect to seek alternative schemes for monetization. That having been said, I don’t think that we’re ever going to see the death of the subscription because the model is alive and well in no small number of regular entertainment services. It seems more likely that we’ll get used to either big box subscriptions (here’s your Blizzard subscription; enjoy all of those online games one of which happens to be WoW, akin to Daybreak’s existing options) or just optional ones for more “elite” access. Then again, I tend to subscribe to whatever I’m playing even if it’s just for a month, so I may be an outlier.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I think the subscription model is on the way out. WoW and FFXIV are exceptions at this point, not the norm. Charging a subscription hasn’t prevented those games from having a cash shop as it is.

When I played UO, EQ, and WoW, I subscribed to each game, one at a time, and didn’t think much of it. In 2019, I subscribe to three different video streaming services and a music streaming service, with more media outlets jumping on the subscription bandwagon every day, trying to get a piece of my paycheck. I have subscription fatigue. I don’t mind buy-to-play, but paying every month or being completely locked out of the game? No thanks.

Visionary Realms seems to be betting that people will pay a sub to play Pantheon. I hope they succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, and I will probably come off the money for it myself. It is one of the very small number of games I am anticipating with any kind of excitement. I think they may be painting themselves into a corner, though; their most devoted followers won’t tolerate straying off that path, and the rest of the market is moving in the opposite direction.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I think the sub only model will return, but in a different form than straightforward buy the box and sub. It’ll probably be something similar to Braxwolf’s sub concept.

We already see something similar with Xbox Game Pass which is/was required to play Sea of Thieves. I can also easily picture Google Strata and the new Apple game pass being early examples in this direction. Aside from the giant companies, I think the hybrid approach where you can play for free but if you sub you get more loot faster being reasonable.

I’ve only once subbed for a game. It was three or six months of FFXI. Having that regular cost coming out whether I played or not was too much for me. I put it and all subs behind me and I haven’t looked back since. There are too many good games out there, online or offline, to be spending in excess of $100 for a single game per year, at least for me.

Tyler Edwards: I doubt we’ll ever see subscriptions vanish entirely, especially in a genre that’s so devoted to holding up the past as some kind of golden age, but I do think it will continue to be an increasingly niche option. Subscription games that don’t also “double dip” with microtransactions will be even rarer. They’re already virtually nonexistent. A pure subscription model just isn’t economically viable for most games these days.

I don’t think monkeying with prices would make much of a difference; the issue with subs isn’t that they’re too expensive, but rather the way the effect game design and the fact that they assume a level of loyalty to a single game most people don’t have these days.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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