Why subs-based MMOs have a future

Mythic founder senses shift away from F2P.

An F2P-only future for the MMO genre is anything but a foregone conclusion, reckons Mythic founder and former CEO Mark Jacobs.

Jacobs, who was lead designer on Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online before he left Mythic in 2009, admitted to Eurogamer that the traditional subs-based MMO industry "is in the worst shape ever" with free-to-play clearly in the ascendancy.

However, he speculated that some players are slowly starting to turn against the system, due to the low quality of many of the titles on offer.

"I think we're starting to see a shift," he said.

"I think that shift is not going to happen over night but you can start to hear it in forums and among the players, that part of the problem with free-to-play is that a lot of time the games are crap. Just like free mobile games are.

"Publishers are just throwing something out and want to make some money off RMT, but in order to do that they've had to keep the production costs way down.

"I think some players are starting to get tired of it. They're willing to pay a little bit more. Are they willing to pay $5 a month? $10 a month? $20 a month? I don't know yet but I think we will see a shift from free-to-play back to a model where it isn't one size fits all."

Another reason why we might see a swing back to a more traditional payment model, Jacobs argued, is that more dedicated gamers don't want to have to put up with the mischief inflicted by interlopers checking out a game by virtue of the non-existent barrier for entry.

"I think there is a good percentage of people who are willing to pay for quality and are willing pay for a good experience," he explained.

"You go into these games and you see a lot of the same crap you've seen for decades. There has always been ways of enticing people to play - hey, it's free until level 20, you get 20 days free, and so on - and you're seeing people running around cursing and being silly, because there's no penalty.

"There are a lot of people who don't enjoy that and are willing to pay to have good servers and not to have to deal with some of the nonsense you have to deal with."

That said, Jacobs added that any MMO that does launch with a subscription model will have to step out of World of Warcraft's shadow and try something different if it's going to have any chance of success.

"If you look at the MMOs that have come out since WOW, how many have tried to be different? How many have just been clones?" he asked.

"If you have a game that is just a WOW 1.5, it's going to be a really tough sell on a subscription basis. People are going to say 'why should I pay you $20 a month to play the same game I played in WOW but I have to start all over again and I don't have my friends?'

"People would like something different. That's one of the things we tried to do with Warhammer. Obviously there were some things in it that were very much like WOW, but we tried with some things to be different.

"And it's hard. Innovation is difficult and sometimes innovation doesn't work. But to come into this space now with a very high-priced WOW game would just be tough. I think the industry needs to shift itself a little bit. We need to be willing to go out there and take some risks."

So, what of Star Wars: The Old Republic, EA's big-budget subs-based MMO due out in December? Jacobs argued that if that does well, we could see other publishers giving subscriptions another chance.

"When people come out and say something is dead I laugh my arse off. Come on! Everything is cyclical. Change is part of the human condition. We're born, we change, we die, we change.

"I look at subs the same way. Right now they're not that hot, they're not that interesting. But then look at The Old Republic. Let's say it makes the numbers that EA has said publicly. If they make their numbers as John [Riccitiello] has said in his earnings calls, in their words 'that's a good business to be in'.

"If he's proven right, the games industry will react. They'll react by doing the same thing that the movie industry does. You've seen it. One type of film does well and the opposition runs out a clone. If EA is right and it's successful then other publishers or developers will look at the space and go 'see, you can make money selling subscriptions'.

"And if it doesn't do well, that would be an argument for saying that free-to-play really is dominant. It will be an interesting few months."

As reported earlier this week, Jacobs has just set up a new studio, City State Entertainment, which will focus on social and mobile games.

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