Want to see something weird? Take a look at Star Wars: The Old Republic, one of only a few modern MMOs to release with a subscription fee. Not even a year later, and developer Bioware (and EA) has opted to turn the ailing game into a a free-to-play experience with a subscription option. Now, go ahead and look at the Facebook game poster child, FarmVille.
Thanks to a move by Facebook, Zynga's cash cow now offers a $10 monthly subscription for a constant flow of Farm Cash that the most dedicated of digital farmers will surely sign up for. Wait, weren't Facebook games founded upon the concept of free-to-play, giving players a choice of what to pay for and when? And weren't MMOs built on the idea of paying a steady fee in exchange for solid customer service and a constant stream of content? Weird indeed.
Facebook games, the influence of Asian MMOs like MapleStory and mobile gaming went and ruined the subscription fee model for almost any Western MMO that wasn't World of Warcraft. As a result, the MMO world turned the to free-to-play model almost wholesale--giving players the option to subscribe, of course--and has seen great success. Almost inversely, Facebook game revenues for companies like Zynga have slumped, so some have turned to the model they once abandoned. Why?
The greatest economic downturn since The Great Depression is a great place to start. The truth is, there are more reasons than I would care to count. What matters is that, either game fans' entertainment budgets have shrank considerably, or they simply would rather not pay as much as they used to even as little as five years ago. Players are more cognizant of the cost-to-benefit ratio than ever. So, you have the once-expensive MMOs pandering to a supposedly cash-strapped audience, while Facebook games look to offer even more opportunities for the "whales" to keep swimming near their shores.
When you can buy an entire game (albeit a small one) for a fraction of the price of one month within Azeroth, it's tough to justify the cost. What does that leave us with? MMOs that look like flashier, more action-packed Facebook games and Facebook games that are starting to look like the first graphics-based MMOs. The same goes for a few bucks spent on Farm Cash. And since game makers have to make money too, we're left as the guinea pigs in a series of experiments.
Unlike most guinea pigs, I say, "Bring it on!" After all, with retail game sales consistently in the tubes, this is the only foreseeable way for the online gaming industry to, well, stay in the game. So, let's see a full-blown MMO built natively for social networks. Let's see (appropriate) Facebook games thrown onto Xbox Live and Steam.
Hell, let's see an MMO that exists on social networks, consoles, PCs and mobile, offering unique roles and features to each destination designed for the platform's target audience. Now we're onto something.
Are you excited about or concerned for the future of MMOs and social games? Is this kind of experimentation the future? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
Joe Osborne is associate editor at Games.com News. Weekly in Social Space, Joe shares opinions and observations on the intersection of social gaming and traditional games. Follow him on Twitter here.