Since the AMA takes place in the Planetside2 subreddit, most of the questions naturally focus on that game, so a lot of it may not be all that interesting or relevant to anyone who isn't currently playing PS2. If the headline quote pulled by MassivelyOP and echoed by Healing The Masses is to be believed, that means almost everyone.
While it's extremely unusual to hear a senior executive comment so freely and frankly on the poor health of an MMO under his authority, it was another of Jens' open, honest and revealing replies that really caught my attention. In answer to a question asking whether one response to the dearth of PS2 players might be to improve Membership benefits, Jens had this to say:
You know what is funny? No matter how many things we heap into membership on all of our games, it makes no difference in the appeal of membership to non members. This is something we saw on DCUO for sure. The amount of benefits to DCUO membership is staggering, but people don't take advantage of it. It's just not a really good strategy for us to keep trying to lead horses to water that do not want to drink. And the fact is, current members already get huge benefits from the monthly fee they already pay.
That really gets to the nub of the F2P versus Subscription issue in my opinion. There is a fundamental divide between those players who are willing to pay a regular, ongoing fee to access an online video game and those who aren't. Whether it's down to age or disposable income or available leisure time is unclear but somewhere along the line there is a clear split between the committed and the uncommitted that is not directly influenced by value alone.
Tobold was speculating yesterday about an old idea: the premium subscription. He found himself paying $10 a day to play League of Angels, a game I'd never heard of and which, from a quick glance at the website, appears to be the kind of competetive PvP affair I'd have expected Tobold to avoid like the plague. The experience led him to wonder whether there might be a market for "luxury niche MMORPGs with a $300 a month subscription fee".
Jens Andersen's insight suggests not, as does a much older experiment from the company formerly known as SOE. Way back in 2002, when EverQuest was the big dog of western MMOs, John "Smed" Smedly imagined a Velvet Rope experience might bring in even more cash. He was wrong.
The Legends server was launched with a flurry of hype that makes for hubristic reading more than a decade on. As far as I recall Smed's ambitious claims that Legends would provide "a tabletop RPG experience" in which players would "feel like they are part of a world that's changing at a much more rapid pace" came to nothing. If anyone on Legends ever did get a sword named after them that went on to become a drop on regular EQ servers then they kept pretty quiet about it, even if, as this thread suggests, it happened all the time on the Stormhammer server itself.
Although plenty of nostalgists in that thread confirm the $40 a month was money well spent, they also tell a tale of ever-declining numbers. There never was a second Legends server and by 2006 there weren't enough high-rollers left to keep the lights on any more. The experiment has not been repeated.
Here's the problem: an online game has to provide a minimum level of content and service to function at all. Getting that up and running and keeping it that way is the baseline without which you just don't have a game that anyone much is going to play, even for free. But simply by reaching that level of competence you have already satisfied the needs of most of your potential audience. If you're lucky you might sell them a few trinkets and toys before they wander off to the next game down the line.
Tobold (yes, him again) opined today that rather than being addicted to MMOs most of us are merely fascinated by them, and that it's a fascination that can easily be broken or redirected elsewhere. I don't wholly go along with the premise but it certainly applies to the wider mass market for online entertainment. When so much is available for free, and mostly at a relatively high level of quality, who would pay just to have access to one particular example among many and how much better than the competition would that example need to be?
As the world adjusts to the unending tsunami of free entertainment let loose by the transition to digital media and the growth of uninterrupted, immediate global online accessibility, "content providers" have to learn how to swim in these treacherous waters. Some are managing to keep their heads above the water; some are drowning.
ANet, on the other hand, have sidestepped in the other direction. In a neat body-swerve they've opened the doors to let the F2P world inside, only to jink back, moving almost the entirety of the company's onward development focus to the commercial higher ground, locked behind the paywall of a Heart of Thorns purchase. You can play a GW2 for free; just not the GW2.
I logged into WildStar:Reloaded for the first time last night and spent an hour sorting out the perks and freebies from my single month of membership that came with the box. Then I spent a while browsing the cash shop on which the game's future in great part rests. I couldn't find anything to buy and I couldn't find much enthusiasm to play either. Whether Carbine will sink or swim is too early to tell but they must be eyeing FunCom's predicament with grim foreboding.
Sadly, while in this new, digital world nothing is ever truly gone, plenty falls out of reach. MMORPGs, with their infrastructure and population density requirements, are especially vulnerable. J3w3l, fearing for the future of Tera, wonders about the wisdom of putting "time and effort into and mmo that won’t last too long. Or that my friends won’t play much either". It's a conundrum alright.
As Telwyn from GamingSF observes, this is a problem almost unique to online entertainment. Stick to the offline world or better yet the printed word and your sense of security increases a hundredfold. Wilhelm just received his fresh Kickstarted copy of Tunnels and Trolls. Now he can "read through it and imagine all the great campaigns one could run without ever actually playing" just like I could do with my favorite forgotten system, Swordbearer, whose three Denis Loubet illustrated volumes sit on a shelf behind me as I write.
In the end though, unlike those free to play hordes who can't be led to the subscription waters they have no interest in drinking, we come to online entertainment willingly, because the range of choice is vast, the ease of access unparalleled. If the price is impermanence then it's a price we will just have to go on paying. As the Legends experiment proved, we only rent our time in these worlds. Open your wallet wide as you will, more money won't buy security of tenure.