Can a big-budget subscription MMOG survive in 2014?
The key to understanding the challenge facing a new subscription MMOG is the difference in size between a game’s effective audience and the crowd it will attract at launch. There are longtime MMOG players who accept a subscription fee as part of their hobby, and who are forgiving, even expectant, of lengthy levelling curves. This audience is sensitive enough to the vagaries of the genre that even small innovations can feel like substantial new features that justify the asking price. These are the players who will get the most out of The Elder Scrolls Online at launch, and who will form the foundation of the game’s subscriber base for as long as it upholds the monthly payment model.
It’s unfair to second-guess these fans’ enthusiasm for the genre, but the problem is that players like this do not exist in sufficient numbers to yield the kind of money the producers of licence-driven MMOGs are looking for. More so than any other type of game, the quality of an MMOG is directly affected by its financial success.
The aggressive marketing for The Elder Scrolls Online is aimed at hardened MMOG players, series fans, and – in the case of the console versions – players who may not have played an MMOG before. Many are players who do not have the requisite experience to understand why TESO is limited in the ways it is, why it looks worse than its predecessor, and why it demands so much time and money. They’re the players who will be the least forgiving of the fact that those expensivelooking CGI trailers have very little to do with the playable game, and yet they’re being leaned on to ensure that TESO is successful in the longterm.
It’s a remarkably similar situation to the one faced by BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic in 2011. When that game started to bleed subscribers in the first few months, it was the MMOG hardcore who were left behind – those who were attracted by the idea of a new Star Wars game were the first in and the first out. It seems logical to expect the same of TESO, a game whose rumoured budget far exceeds that of the famously expensive Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The first announced update for TESO paints a worrying picture. A new zone called Craglorn promises new dungeons, larger raids – here called Trials – as well as daily quests and new armour sets to collect. All of this should be familiar to MMOG veterans: it’s holding-pattern content, the maintenance of a status quo tuned to prolong subscriptions.
When the honeymoon period ends for that initial rush of early adopters, it’s the MMOG faithful who will suffer. If the game transitions to a free model, then these are the players who will be paying a premium for it in the interim. If update plans are dialled back to account for a shrinking audience, it’s them who will see a diminishing return on their investment. If the game isn’t built to scale with the size of the audience that it’s likely to get, then it’s difficult to paint an optimistic picture of its future, just as it’s unfair to expect the most dedicated fans of a genre to shoulder the consequences of a business plan that hasn’t yielded success of any great magnitude for almost a decade.
The monthly subscription is dead. It was arguably anachronistic ten years ago, when World Of Warcraft proved that MMOG content could be produced in a way that didn’t require constant maintenance by a team of developers. The next big success in this genre will not have a subscription fee, and the games most likely to achieve that success are the ones that are liberating their designers from the task of constantly serving content to an audience that is as likely as not to move on to the next game within a few months. MMOGs of TESO’s ilk will continue to exist for the players that want them, but the future is player-generated content, not player-subsidised content farms.