World of Warcraft, the biggest subscription-based MMORPG in the world, could eventually shed its monthly fees. Game director Tom Chilton said in a new interview that the game might be free-to-play someday.
"I definitely think that free-to-play MMOs will be around for a very long time," Chilton said in a chat with NowGamer. "At some point it's possible that World of Warcraft could end up being free-to-play, but I do think there’s always room for there to be subscription games."
Chilton added that a monthly subscription can be a good value for some MMO's. A gamer could play WoW for dozens of hours in a month. When you consider the amount of time spent in-game, the $15 monthly subscription doesn't seem so unreasonable.
What happens when players aren't spending dozens of hour a month in your game, though? What happens when they finish all the quests or raids? The onus is in the developers to keep creating new content to keep these subscribers. Chilton says that developers of subscriber-based MMO's like WoW will have to release new content on a steadier basis to keep the monthly fees palatable to gamers.
"I do think that as time goes on subscription MMOs might evolve toward becoming a little bit more dynamic and making sure that within that month time span it feels like new events and new episodes happen to keep it fresh," Chilton said.
Yesterday, ZeniMax Online Studios confirmed that their upcoming MMO Elder Scrolls Online will require a monthly subscription. Their plan is pretty much what Chilton suggests: release new content every 4-6 weeks. We'll see if they can stick to that pace and whether it will be enough to keep players paying the monthly fee after their first 30 days are up.
WoW is rapidly approaching a crossroads. The eight-year-old game has dropped from around 10 million to 7.7 since expansion pack Mists of Pandaria's launch in September. It's not Pandaria's fault; the game lost about 2 million subscribers during previous expansion Cataclysm as well. Blizzard seems to be preparing for a free-to-play future by creating an in-game store that lets you spend real-world money.
Still, WoW's free-to-play phase could still be a ways away. Though it's well short of the game's peak of 12 million, 7.7 million is still a lot. Leading rival MMO's only have a fraction of that playerbase. It's possible that Blizzard could ride out the subscription-only model for much longer and still make a healthy profit.
In the meantime, Blizzard's trying to keep their player base engaged with new content. Their latest patch, Siege of Orgrimmar, will launch on September 10th.