What if the MMO Item Mall Was Never Invented?
If you look around, you'll notice most MMOs today are being launched on F2P models with some kind of revenue source. The age of the subscription based game is almost officially over - sure, the big names in the industry can still demand a fee based on branding alone, but statistics show that their numbers are falling. You simply can't launch a pay-to-play model in the industry today. While gamers are spoiled by the latest in graphics and engine technology, they've also become spoiled by free games that have little to no entry barrier, beyond minimum requirements of PC hardware.
Where Did the Item Mall Start?
In 1997, Matt Mihaly was looking at revenue options for the newly launched Achaea. While other online games at the time had a subscription-based model, Matt wanted his game accessible to all. After testing the waters with several successful in-game auctions, Achaea launched the first item mall in an MMO, thus pioneering virtual goods and letting Achaea focus on the player experience without worrying about overhead.
Matt Mihaly once said in an interview that Achaea originally planned to charge by the hour. Sounds crazy, but that was normal for online games back then! I can't help but wonder, what if Achaea and the other Iron Realms games had been launched with a subscription fee? What would the game industry look like today?
For one, gamers would be stuck with what they're given. Without any free-to-play alternatives, major publishers would have a total monopoly on the PC market, like they do on consoles. Console gamers are used to it - shelling out $60 for a new title, beating it and putting it on the shelf, or trading it in for 1/3rd of the value. Fanboys might even defend publishers, arguing "they had to rush the product early due to demand!". Fortunately, PC gamers aren't as delusional.
Developing a Free MMO is Hard!
One major concern in the industry today is that developers put millions of dollars into designing a game and lose money not just due to piracy, but from players jumping to the free alternatives. Indie developers are becoming a fearsome competitor in the market. While some major companies are trying to bottle this energy, like when EA acquired Popcap Games, gamers are ultimately realizing that buggy console ports have become the accepted standard.
Consider recent popular title Dead Island - it quickly went from most anticipated game of the year to one of the biggest ragefests, despite months of hype. The PC version of the game initially received many harsh reviews from magazines and websites. The reason? A bug-filled developer's version of the game was accidentally released on launch day. The official forums were flooded with "DO NOT BUY" topics. A patch was released within a few days and it's now considered a fun game, but the damage had been done. Just one simple example of the expectations of the PC gaming community.
Most free MMORPGs today are either WoW clones or Korean grindfests. They either license an existing engine, which limits their revenue, or develop in-house which can be cost effective but laborious. It's not cheap to develop a fully-fledged MMO, and small scale developers hope by jumping on the pay-for-perks or item mall bandwagon, they can release half a game today and then invest money into polishing it as the revenue streams in. Of course, they're shooting themselves in the foot. As I mentioned earlier, PC gamers want a fully finished product, meeting their every expectation on release day.
Had Iron Realms launched with a subscription fee, they clearly wouldn't have been in business as long as they have. Or attracted nearly half as many players. As one player put it, Iron Realms succeeds because the pay-for-perks model is the only one that works. That wasn't the case in 1997 though, and while today's developers are only getting it half-right by releasing unfinished products, hoping to attract enough revenue to polish it up later, Iron Realms invented the idea of releasing a polished product and letting players get as much out of the game as they put in. While I don't expect the PC community to suddenly become fed up with the industry and make a mass exodus for Achaea, proper respect should be given to the pioneers of the industry.
Editor: Tony Celentano