Free-to-play (and its cousin buy-to-play) are undeniably the hot payment methods right now for games. Subscription MMOs are becoming the minority and yet RIFT and Trion seem to be holding firm in their support of the subscription model. Is this a good decision for the game and its players? I would argue despite the current trend that yes, subscriptions certainly suit RIFT and F2P would actually detract from the game’s charms.
MMOs Are a Service
It’s tempting to think of an MMO as a piece of software, but that’s ignoring its most important element: the persistent world. The software you install is merely a beginning — players also expect regular content updates, which makes it more of a service.
RIFT of course is pretty infamous for its aggressive update schedule, even amongst folks who have never visited Telara. While I’m certain that in part Trion just likes making cool things, it’s also relevant that their business model relies on regular, sustained subscribers. We pay our subscription each month, and in return we get regular content. Releasing large frequent updates makes the players happy and supports the game’s payment model.
With F2P games, the company generates its income from cash store purchases. Suddenly, large frequent content patches no longer support the business model and instead the company would be better served by creating eye-catching store items. That’s not to say that RIFT would totally abandon the update schedule that made their name in the MMO marketplace, but if we’re no longer paying for a service I wouldn’t blame them for no longer being entirely focused on giving us one.
Subscriptions Help with Group Content
One of the neat aspects of F2P games is that they require less commitment. You can show up and play for a bit and then wander away for a month and not feel obligated to get value out of your subscription. That’s great, but it’s also nice to have games like RIFT that might support a different playstyle.
RIFT was made from old school game DNA, and I would argue that it’s a lot more like WoW’s The Burning Crusade expansion than, say, newcomer Guild Wars 2. It has a heavy emphasis on group content at level cap (dungeons or raids) and some of the most challenging bleeding edge raid content available right now in any game. This content that requires a coordinated group is best taken on by people who play together regularly and who possibly have some communication structures outside of the game, like guild forums or a Mumble server.
While it’s great that F2P encourages a more flexible playstyle, that flexibility hurts the chances of making a stable, committed team to tackle content. (And you can ask any guild leader — recruitment is a pain in the butt under the best of circumstances.) A subscription game, on the other hand, encourages a more consistent player base and more commitment to a title, two things that suit RIFT’s high level content extremely well.
Signs of the Future?
Despite these things, RIFT’s future payment model is not set in stone.
An eagle-eyed player spotted an in-game shopping cart icon on the screen during one of the PAX livestreams. Rumors of imminent F2P madness hit the official forums, but Scott Hartsman himself explained that the new button would just be used to buy things like the expansion from inside the game. That’s all well and good, and I’m certainly not saying that there are more nefarious plans in the works, but adding a shopping cart icon and an in-game way to buy things seems useful infrastructure should Trion wish to offer a free-to-play option in the future.
The addition of dimensions is also possibly a sign of the future. Before Storm Legion, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with small items that RIFT could sell consistently in a cash shop. Dimensions are certainly a new awesome feature for players, but they also really open up the potential for an in-game store — would I buy a new skin for a table or a flowering plant? It depends, but I can’t say it wouldn’t be tempting. Again, after the launch of Storm Legion RIFT will possibly be in a good place to try other payment models.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with free-to-play and buy-to-play and similar systems, and in fact they can introduce some neat diversity to the MMO market. In my opinion, though, a subscription model best suits RIFT’s amazing patch schedule and focus on group content at level cap, and I hope a year from now when my annual subscription runs out I’ll have the option to renew.