To the surprise of absolutely no one, WildStar is going to have to make money somehow. You don’t make an MMO as a charity, after all. But the big and understandable question is how it’s going to make money because it’s launching into a period when that is, in fact, a viable question.
This is a new development, and not one that everyone is entirely happy with. Back in the day, there was no question about how your MMO would make money; it would charge a subscription fee and that was the end of it. Now there are at least three major potential models, all of which are viable over long periods by all indications. And that means there’s some question about what WildStar will do.
So today I want to examine possibilities. Rather than assume that any given model works, I want to look at all three possible launch models and try to forecast reasonable scenarios. So let’s start with the most obvious one, suggested by the current environment and the publisher.
Many moons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and gas stations paid you to fuel up your car, I was reading an article about upcoming MMOs in a gaming magazine while eating some fried trilobite. At this point even World of Warcraft was yet to release, but one of the games previewed was a little title called Guild Wars. One of its major selling points was the fact that unlike any other MMO, you would be able to buy it and then play for free. Can you imagine?
Of course, it’s not free, just free to log in once you’ve bought the game. But that in and of itself was quite novel, and it’s an approach that Guild Wars 2 has also used with apparent success. It’s also an approach that hasn’t been tried all that often, with The Secret World being the only other AAA MMORPG I can think of that’s using something similar. (Obviously, it’s a lot more common outside the realm of MMORPGs.)
So what awaits if WildStar goes this route? It’s certainly going to appeal to the crowd that doesn’t want a purely free-to-play game but still enjoys not spending money on a subscription. Unfortunately, this would almost certainly necessitate some sort of cash shop or at least regular DLC-style packages for the game to actually make money. For people who feel that free-to-play models are transparent cash grabs, this may not be an appealing prospect.
Still, buy-to-play has worked well for the games that have tried it, especially with an optional subscription model. I think this is a distinct possibility, especially with NCsoft’s having been the first MMO company to try a buy-to-play model in the first place.
There are two approaches to free-to-play, but in this case I’m using the Lineage II model: You pay no money to start and aren’t able to opt in with a subscription. This is not nearly common as the more frequently seen alternative, but I’ll get around to that.
Fully free-to-play definitely has its advantages, starting with the fact that it encourages everyone to come in without any need to pay a dime. It’s also an accepted part of the industry standard at this point. The downside, of course, is that it means that the game is almost by necessity designed to separate you from your cash as fast as realistically possible. It’s also a dicey launch prospect, since you could much more easily launch to rave reviews and wonderful numbers with zero sales.
If WildStar heads down this road, expect some built-in roadblocks, probably related to transport or leveling speed. That doesn’t seem in keeping with the game’s overall philosophy, but it could be made to work with a little wrestling. Honestly, though, I think this is the least likely option for the business model. It’s something most frequently found in imported games, and most western games that launch or convert to free-to-play opt for a hybrid model.
The standard hybrid model can be found, well, everywhere now. It’s quickly becoming the model of choice for games, partly since many of them started out as subscription games that mostly added additional options. If you want to play for free, you can, or you can subscribe and get some of the otherwise paid benefits for free along with a small stipend of cash-shop currency.
Those who loathe cash shops loathe this model as well. Those who enjoy having cosmetic options frequently enjoy it. For my money, it’s probably my favorite option, even though I inevitably wind up subscribing as a matter of course. And it’s not something usually touted on launch, instead generally being the result of a game losing early subscribers and thus broadening its horizons.
This would certainly be a way for WildStar to distinguish itself, although I find myself wondering how many people would treat it as a free title from the start without the roadblocks you might find in purely free games. It’d be a novel launch but possibly not an entirely successful one, and there would be some definite rocky patches to be hammered out.
Yes, I saved this for last. It’s a dying breed, and as I’ve argued before, launching into the modern MMO environment as a subscription game is a bit like launching a new game for the Super Nintendo at the $60 price point. It’s something you can do, but you’re competing in a market that has largely moved on to other options.
Still, it’s also the most common launch model for new games developed on this side of the pond. And since WildStar has been in development for a while, I can’t help but think that this is the most likely model for when the game launches.
Honestly? Expect a conversion if this is how WildStar launches. Probably about a year after launch, but it’ll still happen. There’s just too much riding on the game trying to get market traction, and a subscription creates a barrier in the modern environment that might be too much to overcome. That’s something I’m sure the team is aware of, but there’s a lot of pressure to be the next big subscription success at the same time.
So how will it actually launch? I don’t know. But I don’t see a subscription lasting, and I don’t see a purely free-to-play launch as being likely. That leaves a narrow range of options.