Blizzard Entertainment made waves in the gaming industry this past week by announcing a free-to-play “Starter Edition” of World of Warcraft, the company’s digital mint. The Starter Edition allows players to play WoW on a trial basis indefinitely, so long as they don’t exceed level 20. After that, Blizzard requires a box purchase and a subscription fee to continue exploring Azeroth. World of Warcarft certainly isn’t the first to implement a free-to-play system - plenty of games are fully free-to-play these days - but the change is a company first, and it raises some interesting questions about the future of Blizzard’s MMO and the subscription model as a whole.
First, it’s important to understand how and why the free-to-play model works. When a game goes free-to-play, as Turbine’s “Lord of the Rings: Online” did not so long ago, the developer is making a bit of a gamble. The hope is that more players will flock to the game, making incremental purchases on items, experience boosts, and character customization.
In the case of LotRO, the shift was a big success. The game picked up quite a few players and increased revenues along the way. This isn’t just an MMO thing, either. League of Legends, which I write about daily at www.fearlessgamer.com, is another completely free game with purchase options for additional features. Its developer, Riot Games, has been hugely successful with the model and continues to grow.
One of the biggest demographics that F2P games tap is young gamers. A $15/month subscription fee is a lot for a nine year-old to shoulder, but he can do chores to earn the occasional Abe Lincoln to spend on a new vanity pet. The F2P model also opens the game up to a larger number of global customers, increasing the potential pool for those microtransactions to really spark some revenue.
It’s entirely possible, though, that World of Warcraft could lose a lot of money by going free-to-play. As it stands, WoW remains at the top of the subscription gaming world. Blizzard reached the 12 million subscriber mark last year, which translates to $180 million a month. It would take a staggering number of microtransactions to make up for that revenue, which is likely why Blizzard is limiting the new Starter Edition to level 20. I see Starter Edition as a testbed, a way for Blizzard to determine just how many people will play past level 10 if their accounts don’t disappear after ten days. If free-to-play numbers can’t theoretically come close to WoW’s current subscription revenue, it’s pretty obvious that we won’t see a fully free-to-play World of Warcraft any time soon.
That’s not to say it won’t happen. I think F2P WoW is inevitable, especially with several big-name MMOs on the horizon. BioWare’s “Star Wars: The Old Republic” is looming in the distance. Even if it’s just another WoW-clone, it’s a new WoW-clone, and it’s going to steal some subscribers, as will “Guild Wars 2.” Blizzard has its own next-gen MMO - Titan - in development as well. Will players really want to pay two subscription fees when that game arrives?
The answer, of course, is no, but I think it’s important to remember that players are willing to pay for one subscription. Free-to-play developers have stated on several occasions that their model works because WoW exists, not in spite of it. When WoW steps out of the subscription spotlight, another game will surely step in to replace it. If that game is Titan, it’s going to be a long while before we see WoW go free to play.