While most MMORPG's now employ a free-to-play business model, World of Warcraft has remained the notable exception. This weekend Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime discussed the possibility of WoW shedding its monthly subscriptions.
One of the arguments in favor of making WoW free-to-play is that it would make it even easier for new or returning players to jump in. Morhaime says that dropping subscriptions isn't the best way to accomplish that objective, though. For starters, it would be a very time-intensive process to switch the MMO to F2P.
“I think that changing it into a free-to-play game is not necessarily very trivial considering the types of things we’d have to change," Morhaime told IGN. "I think the focus should be on accessibility, providing a free onramp to the game. But if you really want to play WoW for any length of time, I think we’ll stick with subscriptions.”
Blizzard's been adding plenty of "onramps" to WoW in recent history. You can create a game account and advance a character up to level 20 without paying a cent. If you invite a friend back to the game, they'll get 7 days of free play. If they decide to resubscribe, they get a free level 80 character so they can jump into high-level content right away. If you recruit a friend who never played before, you'll both level at three times the normal speed while playing together. A new Proving Grounds feature teaches players how to perform the key character roles such as healing and tanking.
The most striking example of accessibility, though, is coming with new expansion pack Warlords of Draenor. Everyone who buys Draenor will be able to instantly upgrade one character to level 90. They'll also get a set of level-appropriate gear. MorhaIme says that features like this are important to bring players into the community.
“I think it’s really up to us to continue looking at ways to keep the gameplay feeling fresh and new. Adding new things to the game. Making the game more accessible for not only new players, but also players that played WoW at one point in time, and want to come back. I think maybe an unintended consequence of adding all of this content is that when you layer in complexity and add new things, the people who aren’t keeping up with all of that feel like they’re getting further and further behind.”
Morhaime's comments aside, there have been signs that Blizzard's at least considering a free-to-play business model for WoW. Game director Tom Chilton said in August that it was possible. Earlier this year, Blizzard aroused suspicions by adding an in-game cash shop to the MMO. Free-to-play games generally make their money by selling in-game items or services for real-world cash.
Still, it can't be repeated enough that WoW is still extremely successful with its subscriber-only structure. During their last earnings report, Activision Blizzard said that the game has 7.6 million active subscribers. That's well below their peak of 12 million in late 2010 but it's still a huge player base. Plus, the new microtransactions allow Blizzard to tap their players for even more revenue. If this approach is making enough money for Blizzard, they don't have much incentive to switch to free-to-play.