According to Cryptic Studios head Jack Emmert, going free-to-play is a matter of survival.
Cryptic Studios' superhero-themed Champions Online is the latest big name MMO to shed the subscription model and go free-to-play. It follows the lead of games like Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online, which has reported significant increases in revenue since the change. But Emmert says that increased revenues are only part of the reason for making an MMO free-to-play. The other part, he says, is that trying to beat World of Warcraft at its own game is a fool's errand.
Emmert doesn't think that subscriptions are dead, but said that in order to make it work, a game has to be able to rival the monolithic WoW. That's a feat that he believes only the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic has a chance of accomplishing, and even then, it's not a sure thing. "[BioWare] can probably attract that attention," he said. "They can still get the benefit of the doubt. It's BioWare, right? We all know BioWare makes great games. They'll buy it. But then it's will the game be good enough?"
"You're skating uphill if you don't offer a free-to-play option," he added. "World of Warcraft has pretty much sucked the oxygen out of the subscription market and kind of devoured it itself."
Interestingly, in a recent interview with The Escapist, Blizzard's Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street expressed a similar sentiment, although he credited the enthusiasm of World of Warcraft players as the reason the game was still running and able to charge a fee, rather than necessarily the game itself. "Certainly the business model is something that's working for us and it's not something we're going to mess around with," he said. "It's amazing, it's remarkable to me that players still care this much ... how can [they] care this much about a game that's this old? There's so many other games that have come and gone in that time."
The beta tests for the free-to-play version of Champions Online begin this month, with plans for the service to go live early next year.