When I ask Wildstar’s [official site] Chad Moore and Mike Donatelli why on earth NCSOFT would release a subscription-based MMO at a time when most other MMOs had gone free-to-play, their answer is accompanied by one particularly important factoid: Wildstar is also going free-to-play.
I found out why NCSOFT are making the switch now, and what happens next.
But let’s jog your memory first. Wildstar is Carbine Studios' wondrous, primary-coloured, frontier-themed sci-fi MMO – which our Pip described in true Michael Herr-styled in-the-trenches detail right here. It takes place on this newly discovered planet called Nexus, inhabited by two neatly categorized groups. There's The Dominion, an intergalactic empire forged by a mysterious load of jingoistic alien guys, and The Exiles, who've all been driven from their respective homelands by The Dominion and have joined forces to fight them.
As Pip said at launch, the game's a good time. But the situation has been bad in terms of business. Last year NCSOFT made public just how rough things were for Wildstar: The game had a decline of $25.5 million in revenue to $5 million by the end of the financial year. A heck of a drop.
So why exactly did it take this long to go free-to-play? Well, says Moore, three years ago the climate for MMOs was totally different.
“We started building [Wildstar] at a time when there were plenty of subscription MMOs,” he tells me.
First announced in 2011, Wildstar’s development spans a period in which the subscription-based MMO economy was still in decent health. BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic would launch by winter with a monthly fee; So would Trion Worlds' Rift.
Wildstar’s subscription model was progressive by comparison: A hybrid, offering a monthly subscription of $14.99 alongside a "play-to-pay" option that uses an in-game item called "C.R.E.D.D." to gain a month of game time.
But as the duo tells me, between Wildstar’s initial development and its eventual launch emerged a major change to game economics.
“It’s just a barrier to entry for players now,” says Moore. “Not launching free-to-play shut out, potentially, millions. The window for subscription games is very small now.”
Donatelli pipes in to clarify: “It’s gone.”
Wildstar is the last in NCsoft’s collection of MMOs to make the transition – It’s the end of an era, a final death knell for subscription models in the West. Like a failing Honda, the old model has seized up. And out of those smoking remains is this: a now-optional subscription model accompanied by what Carbine is calling “a smart, well proven” free-to-play model.
Here’s how it will work:
Subscriptions to Wildstar will be made optional starting this Fall. The team tells me it’s rewarding new subscribers, as well as anyone that has been a continued subscriber since the game’s launch, with in-game “Loyalty Store” items, which they’ll be talking about in more detail later in the year.
Likewise, the studio has yet to announce what subscription prices will look like once the game is playable for free – That’s assuming Carbine decides to change its current model which, at its least costly rate, is $10.99 per month for a year.
Moore tells me that Wildstar’s free-to-play model won’t be drastically different to what we’ve seen introduced to MMOs before. The game will feature an in-game store in which currency can be paid for in cash; However, the team also plans something called “omnibits” which is a kind of sweat currency, a way of earning spendable coin simply by playing the game.
“What sort of numbers are you expecting this fall?” I ask. “It’s potentially millions of new players,” says Moore.
It’s a hell of an influx of players. As Moore tells me, the decision to go free-to-play was made for qualitative reasons as much as economic. “Having lots of players around makes the MMO better,” he says.
In anticipation of the droves of n00bs, Carbine has “years of content already ready and planned for post-free-to-play release.” The studio will be introducing an improved tutorial and early game, as part of a major update releasing alongside the subscription-drop. Also incoming in Fall is new dungeon content, placed evenly through levels 0-to-50. All of this will be available on Wildstar’s Player Test Servers for those who have access, in preparation for launch.
You'll still need to wait a few months before experiencing those F2P benefits, but as Moore promises: “It’s a better game today that it was at launch.”