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In the past five years the MMORPG genre has undergone a dramatic shift away from the subscription model. The World of Warcraft's and EVE Online's of the world have seen a drop in player count as free-to-play games have surged in popularity and financial feasibility.
From the perspective of the average gamer, it's appeared as if the genre is in decline. In reality, there are more people playing MMORPGs today than ever before, it's just that most of them are playing the usually less talked about free-to-play based options.
The common misconception is that free-to-play is a bad thing for a game, and that it inherently means a game foregoes a simple structure for segmented content and intrusive microtransactions. It's not the fault of gamers to think that way. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Neverwinter have led them to believe that the only way a free-to-play MMORPG can succeed is by bombarding the player with requests to spend real-life money on the game, and/or severely restrict the game experience for those who don't pay.
After just over a year of being subscription-based, WildStar is entering a new chapter of its life where it'll cost no money to download and play the game from level one up to and through endgame. That alone has earned it attention across the board, but it's how its free-to-play model has been structured that's earning it a reputation for being a consumer-friendly maverick in the industry.
Developer Carbine Studios is composed of team members who are MMORPG fans themselves, and they knew exactly what they didn't want when it was decided that the game would forego a mandatory subscription. Instead of punishing players who want to play the game at no cost, they retain the same leveling speed, currency, and reputation rates as before. Similarly, everyone has access to the game's growing library of dungeons and raids.
There are minor inconveniences imposed on free-to-play accounts, but to most players they'll go unnoticed. For example, those who haven't bought the game have access to a maximum of two character slots and 10 active Auction House bids, a small price to pay for enjoying a game without any investment.
This begs the question as to how the game will be more financially viable now than when it was subscription-based. The answer to that is actually quite simple. WildStar is a great game. Some gamers— including myself—would argue that it's the best MMORPG since World of Warcraft. It's a game that's easy to become immersed in, and when the free-to-play doors open this week there's every reason to believe that a massive amount of gamers will come pouring in. Many of them will play for free and enjoy it for a long time, while some will turn away. For those that stick around, there will always be that impulse to spend a few dollars to receive the perks of an optional box purchase and/or subscription, which Carbine Studios calls "Signature".
An extra 25% XP gain, priority queue access, and having access to invite players to a guild might not seem like compelling money makers, but to the average MMORPG player who falls in love with the game they are sure to be enough to put some money down.
WildStar is going to set an important precedent in the industry if everything goes according to plan. It'll show that investing in a great game and creating a model that is able to deliver without being intrusive can be lucrative. Making non-payers feel second-rate might not be the best way to run a free-to-play MMORPG, after all.
This all couldn't have come at a better time. The MMORPG genre is hurting right now, and needs good examples to follow.
In the case that you haven't played WildStar, you can sign up for a free account on the official site now and begin playing once the game is installed. Once you try it out you can see why MMORPG fans are rallying behind Carbine Studios.