Subscription-Based MMOs: A Relic of the Past?


I’ve always enjoyed MMORPGs. The idea of taking a massive number of players and putting them all in one shared world always felt ambitious, regardless of how well a game would actually turn out in the end. And while today we’re used to MMORPGs being free-to-play or requiring a one-time “entry fee”, there was a time when for many of them you needed an active monthly subscription. 

Ultima OnlineEverQuestAsheron’s Call and other big early MMOs were all exclusively subscription-based, which was understandable at the time due to technical limitations and high upkeep costs. However, at some point studios realized that having a pay-to-play barrier only decreased the game’s potential audience, and so free-to-play and buy-to-play MMOs began to spring up like mushrooms after the rain.

This of course meant that we started seeing more and more microtransactions in these games, and while some offered only cosmetics, others didn’t shy away from selling XP boosts or even power bonuses and pay-to-win items. This shift in the genre, among other factors, led to its slow decline in popularity (at least in the west, as MMORPGs are still widely popular in Asia).

The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar were the latest big-budget MMORPGs developed in the west. Both came out almost 4 years ago and both dropped the subscription model not too long after premiering. There’s been quite a few smaller, interesting projects, but none successful enough to shake up the scene. 

World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV are currently the two major MMO games that still require a regular subscription to play, and even those have a fair amount of bonus features and cosmetic items to purchase for real money. These particular microtransactions don’t impact gameplay too much, but it’s still annoying when another mount that otherwise could’ve been a reward for defeating a boss or completing an achievement lands in the cash shop.

Speaking of WoW, even the “king of MMOs” allows you to bypass paying a subscription these days, as it introduced a way to buy game time with gold a couple of years ago. However, the price of this option has increased tenfold since its introduction and it’s a sum that’s quite difficult to obtain for new and more casual players.  

So why are people still willing to regularly pay for WoW, even though it has limited microtransactions and there are so many free alternatives? I’d be willing to bet that if Blizzard announced the game was going free-to-play tomorrow, the community would split right in half on the issue and the forums would collapse under the weight of all the complaints. For one, some would fear an influx of less mature players, probably even more than a distaste for potential pay-to-win features.

While subscription-based games are definitely on the decline, in the recent years we’ve seen attempts of bringing back subscriptions in a different way. Microsoft, EA and Sony have all launched Netflix-like services that give players access to a selection of games for a monthly fee, and though Sony’s service is only available for PS4 users, Xbox Game Pass lets you play some of Microsoft’s releases on Windows 10 thanks to the “Play Anywhere” feature. Origin Access has a fairly large library too, as long as you enjoy EA games.

MMORPGs definitely aren’t for everyone – they’re often grindy, don’t avoid pay-to-win mechanics and many have awful, pointlessly complex interfaces. It’s also not too great that we get an actually decent MMORPG maybe once every 5-8 years. But for me, they’ve always been less about the gameplay, and more about the community. The guilds, the roleplayers, the friendships you’ve made on the road.

What’s your opinion on MMORPGs, and would you say that paying for a game every month is better if it means fewer microtransactions, or even none at all?

Paweł Horbanowicz
Just another fantasy & sci-fi geek from Poland. When he's not busy studying or writing about World of Warcraft, he spends most on his time catching up on TV shows he should've watched ages ago. A fan of everything Blizzard-related, loves long winters and games with good stories.