Carbine Studios caused ripples last month when they finally announced the payment model for their upcoming sci-fi MMO, WildStar. Gaming pundits and prophets alike were caught off guard by the revelation that the game would require a monthly subscription rather than being free-to-play.
Few things are as divisive among gamers as payment models. Some advocate downloadable content and online passes as necessary to keep the PC platform healthy; others decry these models as simply corporate greed. Oddly, one of the few points of consensus in this vitriolic debate is that the subscription-based model for MMOs is more or less dead.
World of Warcraft is the only game that can still get away with it, largely due to the Faustian pact Blizzard made in the primordial age of gaming. So why would Carbine Studios cling to this supposedly archaic model?
For one, subscription MMOs foster much healthier communities than freemium titles. Naturally, a lot of this has to do with the barrier a hard fee creates in keeping out griefers and trolls. But it also has to do with permanence.
A subscription fee encourages monogamy – playing one MMO at a time rather than dabbling in many. Subscribers tend to settle into a routine of play, clocking a regular number of hours each week at regular intervals. Because of the stability of the player base, subscription games tend to foster the growth of larger guilds and more coordinated dungeon crawling and raiding.
If subscription players are monogamous, then freemium players are swingers. In titles such as Guild Wars 2 and Age of Conan, players are encouraged to play in short sporadic bursts. The lack of monetary investment erases any obligation for a player to log in regularly. Guilds tend to be loose coalitions of pick-up player rather than close-knit groups of friends – mirroring Starcraft 2 and DOTA 2 clans rather than traditional MMO guilds.
There are exceptions, of course, but the focus of freemium MMOs as of late has largely been solo content. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t even require players to mobilize into parties to complete group quests and objectives.
However, the subscription model is inherently exclusive. The same pay barrier that wards off griefers and trolls discourages casual players from dipping their toes into the water. Many players have been burned after preordering overly hyped disasters such as Shadowbane, Age of Conan, or The Old Republic and are terrified of any sort of blind commitment.
(This is why a robust free trial is a non-negotiable requirement for any subscription-based MMO. Hint hint, Carbine Studios.)
And without a steady influx of new players, subscription-based games can stagnate. Veteran players form into hardened cliques, creating a toxic gap between the new and old.
The C.R.E.D.D. system in WildStar is presented as frugal alternative to a subscription fee for casual players. Players can buy the virtual currency from the game’s website, which can then be bought and sold in game. A pile of C.R.E.D.D. can be swapped for game time, meaning a keen player can use currency earned within the game to cover their monthly fee.
But if a player is farming enough gold to afford the requisite offering of C.R.E.D.D. to appease the subscription gods, they are probably investing enough time in the game to rationalize paying ten dollars a month. It’s also more or less a sneaky way of selling gold, a tactic I can never endorse.
With their game’s release delayed to Spring 2014, Carbine Studios has left a hefty chunk of time for prospective players to ruminate on this decision. Some may abandon the game out of perceived greed, while others may champion the notion of a tightly cultivated player base.
The only certainty is that the choice of payment model will affect the composition of WildStar‘s player base just as steeply as any hallmark game mechanic or catchy marketing campaign the developers can concoct – maybe even more.