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Will The Next Generation of MMOs Be Free to Play?

Guild Wars 2 logo

About a year ago this question wouldn’t have caused much debate, it seemed like it was basically already settled. Games developers had moved away from “subscription MMO systems” like those used by Blizzard’s ever-popular World of Wacraft or Bioware’s failed-and-gone-free-to-play-like-everyone-else-did Star War and were exploring free to play as the new future of the genre. Guild Wars 2 was fresh on the shelves and was doing great – and if they could build a game as (arguably) great as that without needing a monthly injection of revenue, so could everyone else right?

Right?!

Well twelve months later, and this question still stands unanswered. Guild Wars 2, while enjoying “honeymoon popularity” and rave reviews declaring its success – was by no means a WoW-killer, and as far as I know has dropped well below its competitor’s number of concurrent players. Of course, because it was never a subscription MMO in the first place we can’t say it failed like we did with The Old Republic – but it instead it just sort of fades into obscurity, which almost as bad as a giant SimCity explosion of bad press if you ask me.

Anyway since we can’t look at Guild Wars 2 as a paragon of MMO economics leading us into a golden future of microtransaction gaming – the fact is that the next generation of MMORPGs is looking more and more like it will be funded the same way this one was.

The clearest example being my two “MMOs in development to watch” – WildStar and The Elder Scrolls: Online.

Whereas the former takes a more cartoonish approach to time-tested World of Warcraft style dungeons and raids, with a more galactic focus thrown in to keep things fresh, the latter is almost directly building on the success of Elder Scroll V: Skyrim in order to transition the popular Elder Scrolls series from RPG to MMO.

And frankly both look good for different reasons. WildStar looks like a playful romp on one hand, who is seriously trying to reinvigorate the style of mmo-gaming that WoW made famous on the other. The Elder Scrolls: Online is basically a large Elder Scrolls multiplayer battle continent with the single player questing content that people love so much tacked on for good measure. Both look like interesting games – who knows if either of them can make a dent in WoW’s (still declining) numbers long enough to get the recognition they (I assume) deserve.

But the most interesting part (at least in terms of relevancy to this article) is that both of these games recently came out and committed to the subscription payment system – with no free to play or buy to play options available.

This means that instead of attempting that big leap forward that Guild Wars 2 awkwardly tried to lead the genre into doing – both of these big contenders for the MMO crown have decided to play it safe, at least for the next few years or so.

Does this mean that free to play is dead as a concept for large mmos (I mean, I do hate “cash shops” and their horrible campaigns to get you to buy an experience boost, or the new turkey hat or whatever)? No probably not, but it is an interesting reminder of where the games developers (and their marketing teams) feelings lie in terms of free to play vs. the often demonized subscription systems.

I mean, sure one of them gets a bit of bad press for forcing people to splash out their precious dollars every month, and yes the other one gets great press because people thinking they are playing while paying Ned Flanders style (nothing at all) – but obviously on their end, one of these systems makes money and the other one simply doesn’t.

News from the front lines people, apparently more money means more games. And for now while we look at the future of MMO gaming, that will have to be our answer.

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