World of Warcraft has "sucked the oxygen" from the subscription market: that's why the tide is turning towards free-to-play. And the only game with enough clout to compete is BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic.
"You're skating up hill if you don't offer a free-to-play option," Cryptic Studios head Jack Emmert told Eurogamer. "You're skating up against World of Warcraft and theoretically SWTOR. That's your competition. And unless you think your games are as good or better than those - because you also have to overcome their reputation - it's going to be highly unlikely a large number of people, meaning 200,000-plus, are going to be willing to subscribe to your game. And a lot of companies are making $50-60-70 million bets, and I just don't see that there's a market for their products."
He added: "I don't foresee anything toppling those [WOW and SWTOR] at the moment. You either build-big or go home; you have to spend at least $50 million on your product, and even then it's a basic proposition. When you come out, you've got to not only beat World of Warcraft as it was when it launched, you've got to beat all the developments it has had since then. That's really, really hard."
That's why Jack Emmert has followed Turbine's envious lead and decided to make Champions Online a free-to-play experience as of early next year.
"I don't believe that subscriptions are dead," Emmert expanded, "because there are 10 million or so people subscribing to WOW that beg to differ. What I think is there are simply not as many people willing to pay another subscription in addition to WOW, in addition to their Xbox Gold membership.
"As a result, they'll pay, but only for games that are worth it. They reserve judgement. They're not going to go into a store and buy an MMO off the shelf and start committing to a subscription month in month out unless they're 100 per cent sure that game matches their expectations, and so often times they don't even try it.
"What free-to-play does is say, 'Go ahead and try it, there's nothing at risk here.' There isn't this sense that you're adding a charge onto your monthly Visa bill or what have you; you're just sampling it, giving it a shot, seeing if it works. If it doesn't, no harm no foul - you don't play.
"World of Warcraft has pretty much sucked the oxygen out of the subscription market and kind of devoured it itself," he added, "and those games that are currently subscription-based are battling for a very, very small market of people who either don't like WOW or are willing to pay a second subscription."
Emmert launched City of Heroes in April 2007 (US) to a world that hadn't played World of Warcraft. The genre might have been unproven, he said, but it was sky that was the limit.
"I would say that the potential MMO consumer market... You are fighting for a smaller number of people than when I launched City of Heroes," Emmert declared.
"There had been EverQuest, which had gone through more than a million different people, but a lot of people were waiting for the next great thing and were constantly jumping from game to game.
That's how Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot attracted 250,000 subscribers, Emmert explained - a number City of Heroes was "not far behind".
World of Warcraft announced 12 million monthly subscribers recently. A large chunk of those are in China and pay a different amount to Westerners. But still the numbers are massive.
Can, as Emmert suggested, BioWare really be the WOW-toppler we've so desperately wanted to label every MMO since 2006 as? Taking EA's alleged $300m investment as gospel would suggest it has the scope to be.
"If I'm a consumer and I walk into a store and I look at it, I have to be 100 per cent sure that that subscription game is going to deliver an experience equal to or better than World of Warcraft. That's my benchmark. If they can do that..." he pondered.
"Now, here's the thing: BioWare and the team and certainly with the money they've spent on it, there's every reason for the consumer to believe that the quality level will be equal. From their point of view, they can probably attract that attention - they can still get the benefit of the doubt. It's BioWare, right? We all know BioWare makes great games. They'll buy it.
"But then it's will the game be good enough?" Emmert asked. "I'm not here to judge."