Standing on the bones of many, many failed massively multiplayer role-playing games, the age of the subscription-based game seems to be well and truly over. In 2012, four major MMOs opened for business in the US and of them, only Guild Wars 2 is holding onto its original business model. Star Wars: The Old Republic, TERA Online: The Exiled Realm of Arborea, and The Secret World, meanwhile, all had to transition from subscriptions to free-to-play. The writing for subscriptions is on the wall, but some publishers are pushing forward. Square-Enix is keeping subscriptions for its MMOs, including the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
“With the free-to-play model, you’ll get huge income one month, but the next month it depletes,” Naoki Yoshida, A Realm Reborn’s director, told The Penny Arcade Report on Friday, “Most MMOs have investors in the background, and the company uses the profit and splits the profit with the investors. But, if the game’s not successful, and it doesn’t reach the target, then they have to switch to free-to-play to try and get just a little profit from it. Among the MMOs in the market, only Blizzard and Square-Enix are making money without investors in the background.”
Yoshida goes on to say that he doesn’t think it was subscriptions that hurt The Old Republic and The Secret World but the quality of the games themselves. Final Fantasy XI is an argument in Square-Enix’s favor. In the decade since the game came out, Square-Enix has earned on average around $48 million per year from the game, a tidy profit for a game whose expansions have been less frequent and less costly than those for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
Even as Final Fantasy XI continues to serve a devoted audience though, the future of Square’s subscription model is not guaranteed. First, the failure of Final Fantasy XIV’s initial release in 2010 may have shattered any mass appeal for the game. The MMO flopped so spectacularly that it was cited as the main reason for Square’s $150 million loss for fiscal 2011.
Meanwhile, Square’s other recently released MMO is struggling to find players. The subscription-based Dragon Quest X for Nintendo Wii has sold around just 634,000 copies since its August release. The game costs around $13 per month to play. Compared to past Dragon Quest releases, this is a poor showing. Dragon Quest IX for Nintendo DS, another online role-playing game, sold 4.3 million copies in its first six months on shelves.