Yesterday's news about The Old Republic means that this morning we see a wave of editorials suggesting that subscription-based games are over, and that "free" is the only way MMOs can survive. This, of course, is because "MMO" essentially translates to "quest-based online RPG" (99% of the industry can't see any other way to do it) and that tired old road is having to find new ways to keep people coming. There is another path, however, a less travelled one that might sustain the subscription model. The MMO which epitomises this is EVE Online. A sandbox model, where player-interaction is the content.
But will we continue to want to pay subscriptions for that? Or is it just a matter of time until that is made free?
The answer to this question isn't clear. EVE is the only real success in the sandbox space. Others - Darkfall, Mortal, Wurm, Perpetuum - have tried, and none has really succeeded to get the kind of numbers that make waves in the wider industry. Perhaps more importantly, none of them have generated the astounding stories of player-interaction that gave EVE its wealth of media attention. EVE could even be a singularity, but I suspect not.
The truth isn't that Eve is some unique snowflake, but that developers and publishers generally don't understand what a sandbox MMO is, or how to make one. Over the years I've repeatedly spoken to MMO developers who have not played Eve, and don't understand how it works. They have played Everquest, World Of Warcraft, perhaps a few others. They know how those work, and they have made games that are remarkably similar. Funny that.
The flipside to that is that EVE is simply a better game than the other sandbox MMOs I listed. When someone finds the inspiration and ability to make a good sandbox MMO, then EVE will not be alone.
But will we want to pay for it? Could EVE's subscription army be nothing more than a legacy?
Possibly. Probably. Possibly not.
The easiest argument against sandbox games supporting the subscription model is that it's basically counter-intuitive. Sandbox games have less content, so there's, well, /less to pay for/. The point of them is that players, though interaction with the world, and each other, end up generating the content. We should, give the abundance of actual hand-made content in traditional MMOs, see them as being worth more. And yet in terms of what players are willing to pay for, the opposite seems to be true. Sure, EVE's 400k subs might be less than half that of TOR's current population, but EVE has been steady for a long time, and it is fast approaching its tenth year. People stay. People pay.
This has many factors: the system it has created has no level cap, has no endgame, and never runs out of quests. There's another aspect to this, too, unrelated to "content" in a direct sense, which is when a game is based on human interaction, as Eve is, then the ability and will to pay for a subscription becomes a token of your commitment. You are there because you want to be there, not because it was free and you had nothing else better to do. This kind of gatekeeping is going to become increasingly important to online communities, and I suspect it's a critical psychological aspect of the success of EVE.
And so perhaps what we want to pay for is something we find a specific sort of value in. We want to pay for something that rewards us not with more quests, or more numbers, but with fresh modes of interaction. And, perhaps because of the surplus of quest-based MMO experiences out there, we value the rare and special service that the sandbox provides.
The fundamental truth must be this: we will pay a subscription if we judge it worth our while.
Perhaps the true lesson of EVE, as I suspect I've drummed many times before, is that it delivers a unique experience. (This echoes what I was saying about Zynga.) What you pay for is unlike what others play for. Not just in the sense of being a singular game design, but in the sense that your EVE experience is yours. In TOR your Jedi experience is basically the same as tens of thousands of others before, alongside, and after you. The stories are the same. And sure they might blur a bit in the multiplayer groupings and the PvP arenas, but the truth is that you've probably even had an experience like this before. In Everquest, in World Of Warcraft. The sandbox MMO, allowing you to choose your interactions, your route, your quests, creates a story that you can own.
It's an accepted truth of our industry that players generally don't want new and different games. They want basically the same thing again and again, although perhaps a little shinier this year than last. I'm sure that's true. But I also suspect that they also come to resent paying for that same thing over and over. Personally I want to pay for things that add to the sum of my experiences, whether that's in going somewhere different on holiday, or in what I log onto of an evening. For the games industry to grow means exploring quite different ways of doing things. As ever, F2P is not the whole story. It is not the "end" of subscriptions as a mode of making money. It could be the end of a certain type of over-explored game design, and that's probably a good thing.
"MMO" is a technology, not a fantasy RPG. If game companies explore variety in MMO designs, then perhaps variety in payment models will follow.