With the news that Bioware's The Old Republic MMO might be pushed back into 2012, it seems that the industry itself is all too aware of the market reaching saturation point. Games that once thrived on subscription-based revenue are looking for other, more effective methods of prizing the cash from our wallets. Lord of the Rings Online is a prime example of dwindling subscriptions forcing developers to cut their losses, opening their game to the majority and aiming to claw back some revenue through microtransactions.
But who is to blame for the MMORPG's sudden fall from grace? Is it Blizzard's time-squandering behemoth World of Warcraft, which has seen a rapid decrease in new subscribers itself? Is it Facebook games that thrive on said microtransactions, offering players a fully-fledged (and free) experience, with extra incentives thrown in for those willing to part with a little currency? Or is it because we, as gamers, just aren't that interested in the tired staples of the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game experience anymore?
Runic Games of Torchlight fame certainly seem to hold Blizzard responsible for the hardships that have befallen any developer trying to break into the subscription-based game market, stating fairly bluntly that there's no room for subscription models anymore. The sequel to their excellent Diablo homage will therefore be running on a free-to-play basis, relying on product sales to secure revenue with Torchlight 2.
Bioware however, clearly see worth in the model, and have invested a lot of development time in The Old Republic. There's no doubt that the first two iterations in the franchise are on many gamers' 'top five' lists, and our hands-on preview sees the third entry in the series shaping up to be fantastic. Sooner or later though, the issue of subscription fees will have to be addressed, and I would wager a £10/month charge is on the cards.
EA CEO John Riccitiello, speaking at a conference in February, claimed that at half a million subscribers, The Old Republic would be 'substantially profitable', but 'nothing to write home about'. With World of Warcraft sitting pretty at 12 million subscribers, Riccitiello's comments seem to indicate that rather than trying to take a chunk out of Blizzard's market share, EA will be content for The Old Republic to exist alongside its hugely profitable peer; a realistic, if uncharacteristically humble approach.
Perhaps Bioware learnt a valuable lesson when they branched out with Dragon Age Legends, a flash game app for Facebook. The social networking site has seen a number of game companies flourish within its walls, and 'Farmville' is perhaps the most successful product so far, seeing over 60 millions players and a number of big-name companies paying for space and goods on the virtual farming landscape. Zynga, the developers behind the game, are now rumoured to be worth billions of dollars. Dragon Age Legends saw nothing like the number of active players Farmville enjoys, despite tempting users with unlockable items in Dragon Age 2, and with The Old Republic aimed firmly at long-term fans of the franchise (as well it should be), it is hard to see how a broader market could be pandered to.
Would the microtransaction model work in a game like The Old Republic? Quite simply put: no. For a game that is going to rely so heavily on balance, allowing users to purchase weapons and the like before the allotted time would prove disastrous. Would retailing the game at forty, maybe even fifty pounds cover the costs involved in running The Old Republic on a day-to-day basis? Highly unlikely. While it could be argued that Blizzard's astronomical profits from World of Warcraft are seeing them overcharge consumers every month, maintaining servers is an expensive business, particularly when they're expected to be available 24/7. It seems then, that sometimes subscription models are the only way to cover costs, and if that means pitting yourself against the biggest names in the business, so be it.
The question we really need to ask however, is whether we want another MMO. Despite the falling profits the genre has seen as of late, it hasn't stopped a slew of young upstarts trying to steal the limelight from Warcraft. DC Universe Online released to moderate critical acclaim, but (Sony Online problems notwithstanding) has also seen a player slump as of late. The aforementioned Lord of the Rings MMO tells much the same story. The important thing to remember however, is that while a number of these new online RPG's have been good, some of them even great, Warcraft is outstanding at what it does. It condenses the MMO experience into its most accessible form, without compromising depth, and it offers enough new content to keep players coming back for more.
At the end of the day, this fact alone will decide The Old Republic's fatre. Bioware are a highly respected name in the gaming world themselves, and if they can make The Old Republic as good a final product as it promises to be, gamers will pay for the pleasure of diving into the Star Wars universe again in droves. Who knows how much longer Blizzard will sit atop the MMO throne and indeed, who cares? As long as games are being developed with the care and attention to quality consumers demand, there will always be space for a new contender.