[Column] The Death Of Out-Of-Genre Subscriptions

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I casually refer to the 2009 – 2010 time span as the Suicidal Subscription Pact, where business logic in gaming decreed that subscription fees must be tacked on to genres that had previously been available for just the cost of the game. The time marks one of the last eras of businesses unsuccessfully copying functions from World of Warcraft without even the most basic understanding of why they worked, in this case taking the subscription fee with no idea on why World of Warcraft justified a continuing payment.

Now MMOs are no stranger to subscription fees, even if only a small minority manage to hold on without going free to play or shutting down, but the years I’m referring to point toward a number of developers who decided to branch out the concept of monthly tithes into other genres, and were rewarded with deep financial ruin and often bankruptcy as a result. And while any business must take risks in order to innovate, it doesn’t take a marketing genius to know that these games never had a prayer of succeeding, sadly with little relation to the actual game quality.

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Monte Cristo is actually the first business I contacted as a junior MMO reporter, to voice my concerns that their plan to include a subscription fee in Cities XL would be a disastrous idea. The idea behind the subscription was to fund the servers, naturally, but the company also believed that the lack of competition would allow them the space to do as they please. With SimCity still four years away, the number of AAA city building games with online components could essentially be counted on a single, finger-less hand, with the only alternative being the wealth of Farmville-style free-to-play browser titles that gamers were increasingly growing sick of.

As I predicted, Cities XL released and consumers responded to the mandatory subscription for online play with a definitive “nah.” Even with the market cornered, Monte Cristo couldn’t get players on board and shut the service down less than a year later due to a lack of subscribers. Given the option of Cities XL or nothing, the market chose nothing, and Monte Cristo went bankrupt a couple of months later.

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All Points Bulletin, Global Agenda, and Hellgate: London mark three attempts to bring the subscription fee into the shooter realm, with all three failing miserably but only two of the three companies going under because of it.

With All Points Bulletin, Realtime Worlds had the idea to sell an online shooter at full price and then charge hourly for access (with the option of unlimited monthly subscriptions). While functionally different from its competition, APB essentially started the race at a disadvantage, having to convince gamers that an online shooter would be worth not just a subscription fee in a genre where it didn’t exist, but an hourly subscription fee.

It didn’t matter that Realtime Worlds was offering an unlimited play time option, it didn’t change the fact that they thought APB was deserving of an hourly fee, for a premium priced game in a genre that hadn’t yet been touched by cash shops in the west. Perception is a big deal, and in many minds the simple presence of an hourly subscription (that really only existed to make the unlimited version seem more enticing) showed a bravado that they weren’t willing to do business with.

And it didn’t help that APB was an underwhelming game, from the numerous bugs and gameplay issues to a lack of diverse content, the fact that it was a driving/shooting game that failed to deliver on either the driving or shooting, the kerfuffle over Realtime Worlds attempting to embargo reviews. Perhaps as a sign of how poorly managed the game was, players didn’t even get the luxury of knowing when the servers were turning off until the day of.

To add insult to insult and top complaints of unnecessary monetization, the company even introduced advertisements into its voice chat service that could be removed with, you guessed it, another subscription.

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For all of its gloating and taunting the competition, Global Agenda was not a success, in fact it’s a case study I’ve used when talking about market failures.

Like Cities XL and APB, Hi-Rez Studios offered gamers something that they couldn’t specifically get anywhere else, the ability to fight for territory control in a hub-based first person shooter. And like the other titles on this list, consumers opted out when presented with a subscription fee. While Global Agenda is still running on free to play, updates came to a halt years ago.

It’s important to note how crucial player perception was in the inevitable marketing failures that were the games on this list. Essentially the developers were pushing the game to two types of consumers, neither of whom really wanted anything to do with them. MMO gamers had the free to play revolution around that time offering them far more content heavy games for free, and for subscription, while shooter fans already had the entire genre to play without paying monthly.

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And finally we have Hellgate: London, the game that coined the phrase “flagshipped.” While billing itself as a first person shooter on a level with Diablo, Hellgate: London also demanded a $10 monthly subscription to access subscriber-only loot, hardcore mode, special pvp arenas, more storage space, the ability to create guilds, and access to customer service.

While a novel idea, Hellgate once again found itself competing in an arena where similar games (dungeon crawlers) were already offering their games for no additional charge. None of them were first person shooters, mind you, but as we’ve learned from this list, you can’t slap on a few changes to the base and demand more money.

Flagship Studios later went bankrupt, providing up to fifteen months of “lifetime membership” to the people who ponied up the $150, also cementing the eternal grudge that some gamers will bear against Bill Roper.

As far as trends go, the implementation of subscription fees into pseudo-MMOs was one that the gaming community soundly rejected and a major pitfall that, in my personal opinion, should have been obvious from the start. The games I mentioned above aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap, but they are the most notable.

What’s interesting is that every game on this list, with the exception of Global Agenda, was eventually picked up and run under a different studio with Cities XL seeing successful sequels rather than a straight free to play spinoff, in a way proving that the issue lay heavily with the monetization strategy and the subsequent perception of the company as greedy and selling a not-so-premium product for premium prices.

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