Colin Johanson, Lead Content Developer for Guild Wars 2, asked this question on the ArenaNet Blog:
If the success of a subscription-based MMO is measured by the number of people paying a monthly fee, how does that impact game design decisions?
He goes on to say many things that I agree with about the subscription model. Subscription games are all about keeping people playing. There’s nothing wrong with giving players a reason to keep playing — that’s what anyone wants in a game — but there’s a point where the mechanics and quality of the game diminish with the effort to keep packing in content. Unnecessary filler content and redundant gameplay like gear treadmills become a very tempting source of content.
However, the same reasoning can be applied to games that are free to play or have a cash shop, and this has been at the forefront of my argument against the F2P model for years. Just like developers in a subscription based model have to keep people playing, developers relying on a cash shop for their revenue must keep players buying from that cash shop. Mechanics, content, and all areas of design can be impacted to achieve that goal.
Guild Wars 2′s content team says they’re focusing on creating “fun” content, and they’re judging the content on a “fun” metric. I won’t knock them for saying that, or attempting to do that, because that is what I would do in their place. That doesn’t mean the other teams aren’t hard at work coming up with ways to get you into that cash shop or earn money. Business is competitive, and there’s no such thing as a ‘nice business decision’. ArenaNet isn’t being nice by saying “we focus on the fun!” and you get to play our fun game for just $60. ArenaNet has to come up with a way to earn revenue equal to or greater than that of a subscription service. We already see the cash shop, and if they keep to their usual operations we can expect expansion packs. They won’t leave money on the table.
My point is that every business model, subscription or free to play, has at its core a way to make money. As much as we wish developers would spend millions of dollars to make fun games just because they love making games, that’s not how the world works. ArenaNet can put down the subscription model all they want, but don’t for a second believe that there isn’t a business model at work impacting design decisions. Oh, and it isn’t whether or not things are “fun.”
In my experience with MMO’s, the subscription model allows developers to create fun content and minimize the impact of their business model on gameplay far better than any cash shop or microtransaction model. We’ll see how Guild Wars 2 does with their hybrid approach.