The Changed State of Subscriptions in Online Games

The subscription model of MMOs that popularized the last decade has changed thanks to the rise in popularity of F2P design and today means something else for designers to consider.

The last decade was popularized by MMOs thanks to the breakout success of World of Warcraft and the numerous titles all aimed at knocking it from the number one spot. And a major element of MMO design was the subscription based model of charging players both for the retail use and monthly access to the game.


Today's market however paints a different picture with the majority of MMOs either cancelled or moved to a F2P format. This in turn has also meant a change in what a subscription option means either removing it out right or changing the benefits and is required reading for people working on either F2P or MMOs today.

The MMO Decade:

While MMOs did exist before World of Warcraft, it was still the game that became synonymous with the market and became Blizzard's best selling and most profitable title. Blizzard's monetary model consisted of both expansion packs that had to be purchased with new content and the continual monthly fee of $15; this was eventually expanded with micro purchases from their store. Trying to calculate how much Blizzard has made off of WoW would be impossible at this point, considering they've had over ten million subscribers and earned $15 a month from each of them for a long time.

Subscriptions were where the majority of MMOs either succeeded or failed and this was a major consideration in their designs. Many MMOs were created and continually expanded with new end game content: Raids, PvP. legendary gear and so on. This was meant to increase the amount of play time in the game and keep people playing/paying the subscription fee.

Subscriptions now are less about locking the player out and more with providing bonuses to retain them.

Retention in MMOs is a huge deal just like in Social and F2P titles because not only do you have the cost of development but the cost of maintaining and continuing to support them to consider.  The Elder Scrolls Online was rumored to cost around 200 million to create and no one knows the exact cost of how much to maintain it.

But as the market grew with mobile and social games offering content for far cheaper and free, many people saw that the F2P model blew away the traditional subscription model for several reasons.

F2P vs. Subscription:

There are two big draws to F2P that made it more popular than subscription models and MMOs. First was the lack of a barrier to entry thanks to not having to spend money upfront. Every retail MMO required both the initial purchase and the subscription one month later which quickly drove up the cost of playing.

Second is that micro transactions offer more control to the player in terms of spending money. Microtransactions are preferred by people as it avoids them spending a flat rate every month on a title. While they may spend more overtime due to microtransactions, the purchases are in their control and that means that the game is worth as much or as little for each player, as opposed to everyone spending the same amount.

Combining all their MMO subscriptions into one cost was a smart move by SOE to get people to subscribe.

With these changes to the consumer market, many MMO designers were left to scramble for ways to retain a profit and user base without relying on subscriptions as their sole means of revenue. And the F2P transition has managed to save several developers and games such as Turbine with The Lord of the Rings Online and DC Universe Online from SOE.

But what's interesting is that despite those titles being F2P, they still have a subscription option and show the evolution of the model.

Doing More with Subscriptions:

Before, subscriptions were merely the gatekeepers to the game: No monthly fee meant that you weren't playing. But what F2P and MMO developers have found is that by offering more to sweeten the deal with the subscription, that they are actually creating something of value to the player.

SOE made a smart move with their subscription model and now has tied the $14.99 a month to not just access one of their games but all of them.  And each game has unique benefits tied to the subscription that the player has access to for as long as they subscribe. With DC Universe Online for instance, players get more inventory spaces, hold more money and all DLC packs that a F2P player would have to buy are included in the subscription along with other benefits.

The point is that the subscription which was once used as a way of locking out players now offers cumulative value to the player for each month they're subscribed. Instead of only having to decide between playing and not playing; now a subscriber must decide whether or not they want to have all their extra benefits which is a much harder choice.

Sony won over fans by expanding their console subscription service with more benefits than just being able to play online.

We can see the same situation with Sony's PSN+ program for their online store on the Playstation 3, 4, PSP and Vita. Just like with the SOE variant, the monthly subscription provides ongoing benefits to consumers but here in the form of discounts on buying games and select games that become free for as long as you have the subscription.

The Value of Purchases:

Value is the name of the game in today's MMO and F2P world and as a designer you can't just have transactions that offer nothing back to the player.  If your game isn't providing value per purchase, there are dozens of other games waiting in the wings to take that customer and their money from you.

(Reprinted from the Blog)

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