There are two approaches to free-to-play, but in this case I’m using the Lineage II model: You pay no money to start and aren’t able to opt in with a subscription. This is not nearly common as the more frequently seen alternative, but I’ll get around to that.
Fully free-to-play definitely has its advantages, starting with the fact that it encourages everyone to come in without any need to pay a dime. It’s also an accepted part of the industry standard at this point. The downside, of course, is that it means that the game is almost by necessity designed to separate you from your cash as fast as realistically possible. It’s also a dicey launch prospect, since you could much more easily launch to rave reviews and wonderful numbers with zero sales.
If WildStar heads down this road, expect some built-in roadblocks, probably related to transport or leveling speed. That doesn’t seem in keeping with the game’s overall philosophy, but it could be made to work with a little wrestling. Honestly, though, I think this is the least likely option for the business model. It’s something most frequently found in imported games, and most western games that launch or convert to free-to-play opt for a hybrid model.
The standard hybrid model can be found, well, everywhere now. It’s quickly becoming the model of choice for games, partly since many of them started out as subscription games that mostly added additional options. If you want to play for free, you can, or you can subscribe and get some of the otherwise paid benefits for free along with a small stipend of cash-shop currency.
Those who loathe cash shops loathe this model as well. Those who enjoy having cosmetic options frequently enjoy it. For my money, it’s probably my favorite option, even though I inevitably wind up subscribing as a matter of course. And it’s not something usually touted on launch, instead generally being the result of a game losing early subscribers and thus broadening its horizons.
This would certainly be a way for WildStar to distinguish itself, although I find myself wondering how many people would treat it as a free title from the start without the roadblocks you might find in purely free games. It’d be a novel launch but possibly not an entirely successful one, and there would be some definite rocky patches to be hammered out.
Yes, I saved this for last. It’s a dying breed, and as I’ve argued before, launching into the modern MMO environment as a subscription game is a bit like launching a new game for the Super Nintendo at the $60 price point. It’s something you can do, but you’re competing in a market that has largely moved on to other options.
Still, it’s also the most common launch model for new games developed on this side of the pond. And since WildStar has been in development for a while, I can’t help but think that this is the most likely model for when the game launches.
Honestly? Expect a conversion if this is how WildStar launches. Probably about a year after launch, but it’ll still happen. There’s just too much riding on the game trying to get market traction, and a subscription creates a barrier in the modern environment that might be too much to overcome. That’s something I’m sure the team is aware of, but there’s a lot of pressure to be the next big subscription success at the same time.
So how will it actually launch? I don’t know. But I don’t see a subscription lasting, and I don’t see a purely free-to-play launch as being likely. That leaves a narrow range of options.