The Daily Grind: Are gaming subs due for a comeback?


When I first started at Massively-that-was, over 10 years ago now, I remember it being a crash-course not in MMOs, which I knew backward and forward, but in console gaming attitudes, thanks in large part to rival networks and our own bosses over at Joystiq. The overall mainstream gamer sentiment back then was that MMOs were a joke specifically because of their subscriptions. No self-respecting console gamer would sub to a video game – that was the mantra. I had been subbing to MMOs and ignoring consoles for so long that the attitude was a jolt to my system.

Things have changed in a decade. I don’t need to remind you how many consoles have subs now, quite successful ones, and the idea that nobody but hardcore MMO geeks would pay one is utterly dead. A few weeks back, Microsoft even announced that “Xbox Game Pass members have added over 23 million friends on Xbox Live, which is a 70% growth in friendship rate.” Granted, that’s surely pandemic-influenced, but clearly, even console people are more than willing to pay for access.

Will they pay for access to one game at a time, though, MMO-style? Or are console-style, Daybreak-style All Access Passes more appealing? Are gaming subs due for a comeback?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!


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I’d be happier with sub-based games. I’m looking back (likely through tinted glasses) but it seems like I found more enjoyable games that were worth playing for longer than since the F2P trend took over.


My time machine is currently recharging, so I can’t check right now.
It was predicted 10 years ago that f2p would top after 5 years and then fade out as customers realized they were being scammed; seem like that has not quite happened. By now players have lost their frame of reference and don’t realize how much f2p have changed their games (or not willing to connect the dots).

I am sure the sub model could be modernized to make it more accessible, shorter sub periods, 10 hour punchcards / pay per hour, free trials, free box price with only sub, sub pricing difference (casual, trader, adventurer, raider). Will this happen ? no idea, logic is not how the world works.

But in any case, none of this matters if the game still has f2p shop because that fundamentally changes the game design. For sub model to matter, the game has to sell itself on being a good game; all work on the game is to make the game itself better, because that is what makes players pay; and NOT how you can create needs to buy things in a shop.

Ben Stone

Back in the day you actually used to get good value from that sub, with frequent updates and content patches. Now it takes like 3-6 months between new content, and I think for a lot of players that feels like a rip off, given all the other games offering online experiences for free.

That being said, the MMO response was to nickel and dime people instead. Which is equally unappealing. Only GW2 and to a much lesser extent ESO has taken a true console style payment model.

I think if a game is pumping out larger updates every 3 to 6 months, just sell them as DLC. If the game is doing monthly or bi-monthly updates have a sub.

If you look at the most successful games financially (outside of the Asian mobile market), they all have reasonable monetisation models. The trick is to firstly make a good game, then sell cool things that don’t make others want to stop playing.

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So many great discussions in this space.

Yes, I’m all in for better subscription based games. I wish more sites would really dig into the economics of it. The cost of building and running a game doesn’t magically change based on the revenue model. You don’t suddenly make the game cost less because you chose F2P.

Someone always pays the bill. And I think if there were more sub-based games, that would encourage better investment because the revenue streams would be far more predictable. The people with the money don’t give two dollars about how many people play the game. The only reason that’s an even moderately interesting topic is because there are dollars behind those people. And fewer people on a predictable sub model would be a better bet for just about any investor.

I could go on at length about the problems the games industry has around the licensed tech stacks and why its an industry that eats its own in that regard. We’re finally seeing some shifts there as Amazon and Microsoft shift to compute consumption models. But try building a 3d game on free rendering software. It ain’t easy. We need some thought leadership in this space around how to build better stacks that don’t eat your budget like that plant from Little Shop of Horrors.

The alternative to subs is that you go for a hyperscaling model. Which is what we’ve seen. Lot of hype, lots of marketing, and lots of money poured into the funnel in order to eke out the right numbers so they can fund the next round of people into the funnel. It is a debt ouroboros – your only escape being eventual collapse or absorption.

But to get to the MMO ideal? That magical Koster-land of true community and immersion? It has lots and lots of cash. Cash that can be spent on people, and people who may try things that fail, and fail, and fail some more until hitting on something that works.

And that’s where it becomes a sustainable industry again instead of the land of the last unicorn.

That’s just my opinion, it’s worth the digital ink it has been printed with. :)

Jo Watt

I get where a lot of people are saying… but Game pass = tons of games that I can play!

You forget that most of those games are single player and these days the majority of them have about 1 maybe 2 days worth of game play then its over. Once you are done with the game you move on. Perhaps a couple months later you are finished with what you wanted out of the game pass. Now what?

Some MMOs release content fairly regularly or have some sort of events that happen. At $15 dollars that means you are paying just $0.50 a day for at least 1-2+ hours of entertainment. It’s generally rough on the average player to keep up with more than 1 MMO anyways due to work and real life.

F2P sounded great in the beginning but game companies don’t run on free. We ended up with cash grab after cash grab always starting out with the promise, “We won’t end up pay to win like that last game you played!”

B2P sounds awesome until they shove:
inventory slots,
weight limits,
character slots,
crafting bags,
parts of the games story
or pretty much anything that actually looks cool into the cash shop to make money.

I’d rather have 1 sub mmo that gives me content regularly it can have a cash shop that isn’t overbearing + use gamepass here and there to play a few random games. Than having to cycle through several F2P or B2P mmos that get content once or twice a year that you end up finishing in a couple weeks.


A game with a subscription model has an incredibly high bar for me. First, I have to be motivated enough to buy the game, and feel I’ll play it enough over time to justify the monthly expense. With all the other options out there, that’s not easy to do.

Then, the company has to convince me that I won’t be spending even more money on the game above and beyond the subscription for the things I want to enjoy in the game. That the value of the monthly fee I pay them in terms of what I get is real, not just a way to squeeze even more money out of me by charging for other things in the cash shop. That’s another high bar, as I just don’t see companies forgoing the cash shop additional revenue stream.

There’s darn few publishers I’d trust with the latter, and darn few games that would pull me away from what I play now to justify the former.

It’s not *impossible*, but it feels really unlikely. And I doubt I’m alone.

If I was more into the lore and world of Final Fantasy, that might count – I get the impression that the people who’re playing it and enjoy it feel like they’re getting their money’s worth from their subscription.

But that one founders on the first criteria, and the limitation on “you can’t start a team as a free player” means there’s no way for me and a friend to try it out and see if we’ll like it despite not having a pre-attachment to the IP.

Otherwise? I can’t think of a game that’s out or on the horizon that I know I’m looking forward to subscribing to.

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I personally don’t mind subscriptions, and I actually prefer them to a F2p micro-transaction driven model, but I’m not sure that individual game subscriptions will ever be a viable business model again like they were in the past. It is one of the things that worries me about Camelot Unchained, with them planning to charge for subscriptions. Are enough people still willing to pay monthly for a single MMO in order to sustain the game?

Jim Bergevin Jr

Dang it, you stole my next question for the MOP podcast! This is something I’ve been pondering over since subscription services as a general thing seem to be on an uptick – from things like Netflix and Disney+ to monthly boxes arriving on your doorstep for your dog or your feet. Like others have mentioned below, however, having a “generic” subscription like Netflix or XBox Game Pass that opens the door to hundreds of movies/shows and games is vastly different than paying a monthly rental fee for one single game.

I think we also need to rid ourselves of the misconception that the sub model did in fact go away – it really didn’t. It just mutated with the rising popularity of Free to Play (which has been in existence as long as the subscription model has for MMOs). Personally, I’m glad for this mutation, otherwise my gaming habit would be very different from what it is now.

I currently have more than 35 MMOs installed on my gaming rig. I have played them all at least once. That would simply be impossible if it were not for the subscription based model becoming an optional thing instead of a mandatory one for access to MMOs. I have subbed to a few of those games at one point or another. I have also spent a heck of a lot more on other games than I would have for the cost of that sub. So, for me, no I do not believe the mandatory sub model will make a comeback in any significant way – nor should it. I personally think we have hit the sweet spot for online gaming with Buy to Play/Free to Play for immediate access and an optional Sub/Season Pass for additional benefits.


The only scenario where I see subs coming back is if:

– A group of publishers launch an alliance that charges you $15 (or less) for a whole buffet of MMOs, with the money divided among those games according to how much time the players spend on each one.
– Those MMOs in the alliance refrain from mixing other payment models in, so you don’t need to pay for the base game, expansions, or micro-transactions when you are already paying that sub.

Otherwise, services like XBox Game Pass might be the nail in the coffin of individual MMO subscriptions. After all, why should I pay $15 to subscribe to a single game when I could be paying $10 to have access to dozens, if not hundreds, of games, including some AAA games being made available for subscribers at (or before) their releases?

In other words, while services like XBox Game Pass are showing that console players do accept paying a subscription, they also show that in order to be accepted this subscription needs to offer more (VASTLY more) value than a regular MMO subscription ever could.


“Due for a comeback”…, business models aren’t owed anything, they come and go at a whim.

Will they make a comeback?

Sure, when devs start making games worth playing for the long term. A subscription only makes sense if you can keep the players coming back month after month. That’s tough to do, and requires really great features: depth of systems, emergent gameplay, a community focus etc. MMO devs gave up on that approach, shifting to shallower, more accessible features and thus becoming reliant on short term churn.

I haven’t really seen any evidence that devs are starting to design for the long term again.