Is The Traditional MMORPG Business Model Dying?

The MMO simply isn’t the powerhouse that it used to be. When it released back in 2004, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft effectively took the industry by storm, gathering millions of subscribers in a matter of months and transforming them into one of the most instantly recognizable gaming organizations in the world (though, to be fair, they’d kind of already managed that with Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo.) WoW’s had a good, long run, crushing virtually every competitor that attempted to step up and challenge them, but for over a year now, even they’ve been losing subscribers by the millions.

It would appear that it’s time for a change.

The traditional business model simply doesn’t work any longer. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the end result is that subscription based services are becoming less and less viable as time goes on. The first, most obvious reason involves cash. See, back when World of Warcraft first came out, $15.00 a month didn’t really seem all that expensive. After all, you were getting a constantly evolving game-play experience, a massive, rich world to explore, and literally hundreds of quests and side-quests with which you could pass your time. Plus, a huge community of like-minded players to mingle with, as well.

A Matter of Money

This stuff.

It made sense at the time. I think.

Then, a new challenger appeared on the horizon. A new breed of game where you could simply pick it up and start playing so long as you had the time and your computer had the chops. I’m speaking, of course, about Free to Play (which technically isn’t free, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment). Supported primarily by micro-transactions, F2P games quickly took the market by storm. MMORPGS that were unable to compete with the titan that was WoW adopted it as a business model. Games like TF2 and League of Legends quickly caught on. And suddenly, almost overnight…

Monthly subscriptions didn’t seem like such a grand idea anymore.

I’m not saying subscription fees should be axed entirely, of course. There are still people who pay a monthly fee for WoW, ToR, Rifts…you get the idea. There’s always going to be a few. You’re always going to find a camp of hardcore players who’ve got both the pocket change and the motivation to keep paying to play; a demographic who loves the community and stands ready with their wallets at the beginning of each month.

Trouble is, that core demographic seems to be getting smaller, as many of the original subscribers start to move forward in life and have either less time (more on that in a moment) or less disposable income, and consequently less of an inclination to play. The fact that we’re not exactly living in economically sound times doesn’t really help matters, either. There simply aren’t as many people willing to pay fifteen bucks a month as there used to be- and the number of people who still are is in steady decline, showing no signs of stopping.

An Issue of Conditioning

Also, hats.

I’ve a confession to make: I used to play World of Warcraft. I was an 80th level human rogue, with mostly purple gear, working my way up to start running heroics when I finally dropped my subscription. If you’re expecting some inspiring, beautiful tale about how I realized the game was destroying me, and, with tears in my eyes, swore I would become a better person and overcome my addiction…

Sorry, none of that here.

The truth is, I simply stopped playing, without dramatics or fanfare. Towards the end of my WoW career, I fell into the same routine, day in and day out. Get home from work, log in, do daily quests, run heroics, pvp, log out. It was the same thing, over and over, with no end in sight. One day, it dawned on me that the game simply…didn’t have much to offer me anymore. I was no longer drawn to the sense of achievement, no longer pulled in by the “skinner box” gameplay.

In a word, I got bored and quit.

I played other MMOs along the way as well. Warhammer Online. Age of Conan. The Old Republic. Every time, it was the same thing. I’d play for a while, happily shelling out the monthly subscription, then I’d realize that at the end of the day, it was the same core – the same boring, repetitive mechanics. I’d move on to the next one, hoping it would deliver something different, but it didn’t. Everything I picked up either felt like World of Warcraft or felt like it was trying too hard not to be. (I might come back to TOR at some point, if only to experience the rest of the story . At the moment, I simply don’t have the time to play).

I’m sure this story probably strikes a chord with at least a few of you. You’re probably in the same boat I am, right?

Mechanical Failure

Believe it or not, you can probably relate.

We’ve been seeing so many unique, creative, and undeniably entertaining games surfacing lately, it’s no wonder people have started to stray from WoW and it’s ilk. At their core, most MMORPGs are about one thing, and one thing only- grinding for digital rewards and the sense of accomplishment that comes with them. Strip off every other layer, and that’s what you’re left with. Players are trained…no, that’s not the right word. Players are conditioned to pursue the next level, the next quest, the next piece of gear.

It’s called Operant conditioning, and I’ll be talking about it in my second post today.

Doesn’t what I’ve just described sound familiar? Can you think of another genre of game that pulls players in and drags them along with a carrot in front of their nose? I’ll give you a hint: it’s very popular on Facebook.

The difference between social games and MMORPGs is that social games usually pick up the F2P business model. They’re simpler, easier, and less time-consuming (theoretically) than a traditional MMO, and as a result, achievement junkies can just as easily get their fix from the social sphere as they can from the MMO sphere.

Not only that, we’ve been treated to 8+ years of the same. Bloody. Mechanics. I’ve seen maybe two or three MMORPGs that deviated in any significant, considerable fashion from the battle system which WoW standardized. Every other game has, in spite of anything else that made it unique, utilized essentially the same formula, which is most assuredly getting stale at this point.

Someone needs to mix up the mechanics a bit, because they’re getting bloody boring.

Time Trials

Some kids don’t do “time management.”

As I’ve already hinted several times, MMORPGs are designed to be timesinks. They scarf down hours like a glutton devours food. The kind of conditioning inherent in their mechanics forces people to feel obligated to play, to feel like they have to whittle away the hours in front of a computer screen. Guild raids. PVP events. Respawn Timers. They’re all components of that metaphorical carrot on a stick which keeps people glued to their screen.

Unfortunately, plenty of folks are starting to shut off the computer and snap the stick. Plenty of folks are realizing that they can’t juggle MMORPGs with their other commitments, Plenty of folks have given up on the MMO, and decided to get their gaming fix somewhere else- somewhere that doesn’t require countless hours of gameplay simply to progress.  Once again, the Free to Play genre looks mighty fine in comparison.

Maybe it’s a side effect of a culture of instant gratification. We expect everything to be delivered to us right out the door, and can’t be bothered to work for it. I don’t truthfully known- and to explore the question at this point would be to veer wildly off topic.

All I can say is that something needs to change.

The Final Say

I should explain myself a little better, lest I come across like an uneducated, opinionated putz. The MMORPG business model is far from dead yet, and it’s still very, very profitable. It would be foolish to assume that it’ll always draw in cash like it’s water, and even more ignorant to believe that any game, even WoW, can last forever.

Eventually, things will have to change. People will be less willing to spend less time grinding for their rewards, less willing to spend money on a monthly subscription. Even now, addictive core mechanics of the MMO are better delivered in the form of social games(which, by the way, are abhorrently profitable), and the Blizzardized combat system that’s appearing in many competitors is getting very, very stale.

Of course, the fact that Blizzard’s idea for a new expansion involves Chinese Pandas probably doesn’t help matters.

Either way, there’s likely a change on the horizon for MMOs, though it’s too early to predict what that change might be.  I’ve rambled on enough. Perhaps I’ll revisit this topic at a later date. Perhaps not. I’m tired.

What do you folks think? Is there something fundamentally flawed about the MMORPG business model, or do the arguments I’ve made here simply hold no water? Is it about time for Blizzard to surrender the MMO crown to someone else, or might there still be some life left in the old bones of WoW? Give me a shout in the comments below- I always love to hear from you.

Image Credits: [torwars] [Obsolete Gamer] [ImageShack] [Deviant Art] [ImageShack] [Paperkraft]

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One response to “Is The Traditional MMORPG Business Model Dying?

  1. I really enjoyed your post ! . I was very inspiring for any casual MMO gamer. Well, lets se how will work the GW2 Formulae (one time payment).

    I love your blog!!!!, keep on writting and see ya ^-^

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