WoW! Thoughts! — On Could WoW Go Free-To-Play

Thoughts on Tom Chilton's comments on what could happen to WoW's subscription model.


Last week Tom Chilton (Game Director for Blizzard) made a comment in an interview with NowGamer that World of Warcraft “could go free-to-play.”  Despite then defending the subscription model, effectively ensuring that WoW’s status quo subscription will continue, this news was heralded as all but an official proclamation that WoW‘s $15-a-month fee was in its death throes.  Part of this is due to NowGamer’s sensationalist headline — of course the article (and the re-link from WoW Insider) lead with the free-to-play quote.  But the articles could just as easily (and more accurately) been titled “Tom Chilton Defends Subscription Model for MMO’s,” although if so then the article never gains traction.

Yet the larger question of whether World of Warcraft should go free-to-play is valid. There’s a drive within the player base to see this happen, that mostly stems from the simple desire to lose the financial requirements of the game.  But Chilton defends the existence of the subscription.  As Chilton points out in his interview, “If you think about how much time players typically spend in a game like World of Warcraft, whether it’s 20 hours a month, or in some cases 40, or 60, or 80, and you evaluate that against other forms of entertainment and what you’re getting out of it, it makes a lot of sense.”  That logic holds when you compare $15 a month vs. the $40 – $60 that can be spent on major releases.

Not that a game like BioShock Infinite isn’t worth it (it totally is!), but why spend twelve hours in Columbia for $60 when you can spend more time in Azeroth for a quarter of that price.  In that direct dollar-to-hour ratio, WoW retains its value well.  The problem is that this ratio falters when the recent influx of indie games comes into play.  If I can spend a month playing The Swapper for $15, then aren’t I getting the same value from both games?  And if I can find a different game each month for $15 or less to occupy my time, then WoW‘s value becomes tenuous.  Games like Rogue Legacy or FTL offer endless hours of replayability, all for prices at a fraction of WoW‘s cost.  And that doesn’t even account for Steam sales where AAA games can be had for a minimal expenditure.

Blizzard knows this, and Chilton asserts that to justify a monthly fee, subscription MMO’s will need to keep players engaged.  “…[w]ithin that month time span it feels like new events and new episodes happen to keep it fresh.”  Blizzard has generally been fairly consistent about releasing an expansion (with loads of new content), then a follow up raid every six months, but the problem is the dead time between patches.  WoW has seen their numbers drop off (although excitement is building for Patch 5.4), and part of that is due to the fact that significant new content hasn’t come out since March.

While the last WoW patch released on May 21, the Patch 5.3: Escalation content has been nothing but a stopgap.  Given that the only limit on the new content is that radical mojo can be acquired once per week as a quest reward, and that there are only nine uses for it (seven items upgrades, Gahz’rooki, and the Raptorhide Boxing Gloves), Battlefield: Barrens was born with a shelf-life shorter than the sixteen weeks it will have been available.  Even the introduction to the patch was minimal, featuring two scenarios and a handful of quests which can be completed in an evening, regardless of how exciting they were.  LFR compounds the problem, because while guilds may be progressing through the Throne of Thunder, anyone with a modicum of interest in raiding has already had nineteen LFR-lockout periods to kill Lei Shen since its April release.

Blizzard has been successful in increasing the rate at which content is released for Mists of Pandaria, but even so, it has not been fast enough.  A savvy player could subscribe just for each patch release, conserving their money during the dead months when content is stale.  Especially after 5.4, there is going to be a long wait until the next expansion.  Blizzard is prepared for this, cautioning investors back in May that the drop in subscriptions will continue.  The solution it seems is that Blizzard needs more developers rolling out more content more often.  But if over ten million $15 monthly subscriptions can only yield a new raid every six months, the issue isn’t money.  The issue is time, and it would seem that no subscription price, be it free or $100, is going to help Blizzard release content faster.

The Elder Scrolls Online recently announced it will charge subscribers $15 a month at launch, and this was met with the typical eye-rolling and utterances that it will be free-to-play within a year. We’ve seen that trend before with The Secret World, DC Universe Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.  And while all three found great success after going free-to-play, this trend has established that no MMO (outside of WoW and EVE Online) can justify a $15 per month price tag.  DCU and TOR had the problem of having to convert from a subscription model to free-to-play, as a free-to-play model requires an infrastructure for in-game purchases (as well as a ready market of goods to buy on that store), and usually some currency that can only be purchased in bulk as a means of obscuring the true price of objects.

TOR also gates content behind paywalls, so while the bulk of the game experience is free, there are locations only accessible by paying for them.  TESO has mentioned that there will be a store in place for microtransactions (so they might just be looking to milk the early adopters before going free-to-play once that well dries up.  TSW had an online store at launch and seemed prepared for the transition as well) and that is generating much of the expectation that the subscription model won’t last.  WoW‘s recent development of an in-game store and the addition of cosmetic items available for purchase encourages the suspicion that they are bracing for the free-to-play transition themselves.

The problem with a free-to-play model is that while playing is free, enjoying all the content is not.  If we’re lucky we’ll only see cosmetic items gated behind a paywall, but there are many strategies for enticing players to open their wallets.  Right now, high-end raiding is a skill game, but the trick for free-to-play games is to change from a skill game to a pay game, and never let the players realize it.  Imagine if you could purchase buffs from the in-game store for real money.  Every top-end raider would have to do this to ensure that they were pulling their weight.  Early bosses might be easy enough that you don’t need the buffs, but at some point its possible that a boss is implemented that requires use of the buffs.  However, since players are used to buying buffs on the easier bosses, they won’t realize that the difficulty ramped up in such a way.  Blizzard would continue to make money, but the game of World of Warcraft as we know it would be destroyed.

If anything, Chilton’s words are comforting to me.  “At some point its possible that World of Warcraft could end up being free-to-play.”  Emphasis added to highlight just how non-committal this statement is.  Without having access to the full exchange between Chilton and NowGamer’s Paul Walker, it’s not clear how forced this line of questioning was.  Note that Chilton is not announcing that WoW will go free-to-play, nor is he claiming that the subscription model is in trouble.  WoW has been hemorrhaging players, and while the player base may desire the game to go free-to-play, that may not be the solution.  In a similar interview with Polygon, Chilton echoed his “at some point” sentiments regarding free-to-play, but added that Blizzard is cautious regarding the change.

“You hear stories about developers going free-to-play and getting double the number of players, but you don’t always know it works out that way and how long it stays that way. We really don’t know what the rate is before people drop off and lose interest.”  Polygon at least had the class to couch Chilton’s quotes in an article about Blizzard targeting casual players.  Other sites again banged the free-to-play drum (shacknews).  All in all, the reaction to Chilton’s words is much ado about nothing, and NowGamer and others only deserve credit for drawing attention to interviews that yielded so little.

WoW! Blurbs!

Blizzard kills the WoW TCG.  Its like they kept the TCG around until they found something better and could throw away or trade the old one.

New character models are maybe 25% done.  We know they’ve done work on orcs (see Garrosh) and trolls (see the Zandalari).  That’s two of the eight original races, which… hey, math!!!

The Cinder Kitten pet is 25% off this week.  I’m guessing to celebrate how much work they’ve done on the new models.

The Bloodsworn graphic novel is now available.  Lets learn all about these proud Horde warriors before we kill their leader and destroy everything they fought for in patch 5.4.

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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