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Is the subscription MMO finally dead?

Other than World of Warcraft, can another MMO manage to make a subscription model pay the bills?

Commentary Other than World of Warcraft, can another massively multiplayer online (MMO) game manage to make a subscription model pay the bills?

The Secret World: innovative, clever, fun and not being played (Credit: Funcom)

This week has seen Funcom reveal, via its Q2 earning report, that its MMO, The Secret World, has sold 200,000 copies. That's what business people would call "bloody depressing news". To make the inevitable comparison, World of Warcraft (WoW) has 9.1 million subscribers — and that's actually down from its peak of 10 million.

It's an unfair comparison in terms of the games — different worlds, different mechanics, different appeal — but not in terms of business models, as both the titles work on a monthly subscription model. You pay to buy the games, then you pay to play the games. (WoW is now free to play up to level 20, but that's more from the 1970s drug-lord's "the first taste is free" school of thought than any other marketing decision).

On one level, I'm really disappointed by this news. I thought The Secret World was bold, ambitious and extremely fun. It had some of the best storylines and writing I'd encountered in any game — MMO or single-player. Sure, there was still a certain level of "go kill x-number of y and come back for your reward", but there were also some superbly designed investigation missions — so well designed that I was constantly amused by how many players seemed to think they were broken, just because they couldn't solve them.

But on another level, I'm sadly unsurprised. Arguably, it's not even possible to go up against the behemoth that is World of Warcraft when it comes to winning over subscribers. Let's face facts — Star Wars: The Old Republic couldn't do it, and that's despite the legion of fans who lovingly polish the dust of their copies of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) each night, before tucking themselves into a tauntaun and heading off to sleepy bo-bos.

The fact is: gamers are increasingly time poor as they increasingly age, and they're unlikely to be willing to subscribe to multiple MMOs, just for a bit of variety in the few odd hours they get to sink into gaming. I loved The Secret World a hell of a lot, but after I'd finished reviewing it, I wasn't getting more than a couple of hours each week, at most, to play it — and that's not worth a monthly subscription fee, as far as I'm concerned.

What I would have liked — and what I think MMO publishers need to start considering — is the ability to buy blocks of game time. If I could just go in and buy four, five or six hours of game to use at my leisure, topping up when I run low or feel like it's time to settle down for an all-night session, as if I was back at uni. In this scenario, it would be a true case of "shut up and take my money", but as things stand, I feel that I have to bid a fond farewell to The Secret World. Well, maybe just one more month of play...

Are you a subscriber to multiple MMOs? Has anything other than WoW been able to attract your hard-earned cash? Let us know in the comments below.