Rift Goes Free-To-Play: The End Of An Era
Trion gave the MMO world a one-two punch these past few weeks. First, there was news that Trion reduced their staff by up to 70 percent, with a majority of the laid-off employees coming from the Defiance team. Shortly afterward, Trion announced that Rift, their flagship MMO and World of Warcraft‘s closest direct rival, is going free to play soon.
On the surface, these two moves may seem like evidence that Trion is in trouble. Yes, the laying off of 70 percent of Trion’s staff is a big deal, but it’s not catastrophic. Lay-offs for an MMO developer post-launch are extremely common, as the operating team does not need to be nearly as large as the original development team. Trion’s staff reduction is more an indication of Defiance’s lack of success than of troubles with Trion. Defiance had a poor critical reception, and supposedly only sold around 500k units. The bright side to this is that it follows the Guild Wars 2 revenue model – albeit ineffectively – so existing players will be able to play the game for free for a while to come. Despite this, Rift is still going strong, and Defiance is unlikely to seriously derail Trion going forward.
As for Rift’s conversion to free-to-play, it’s the end of an era. It also may be the most important announcement Trion has made in the company’s lifespan. The subscription MMO is dying, and it’s time to move forward and try new revenue models.
What This Means For Trion
Rift is the last of the serious World of Warcraft competitors still left with the subscription-only model, and by most estimates it is sitting comfortable at around 600k subscribers. Only one other subscription-only game – EVE Online – approaches those sort of numbers. Most other subscription MMOs sit in the 100k range. While moving free-to-play will lose a few subscribers, it will open the field for new players to jump into Trion’s MMO masterpiece and spend money, either through microtransactions or premium subscriptions.
Rift’s move to free-to-play means two things. First, it’s almost undoubtedly going to be a huge boost in revenue for Trion. The most oft-quoted estimate for revenue increase from a free-to-play conversion is Champions Online, which saw a 1000 percent increase in revenue after going from subscription-only to free-to-play. Champions Online was not a heavyweight MMO before its conversion either; Rift is. If the conversion is handled properly, Trion is going to be inundated with money, much of which will likely be funneled into keeping other projects – such as Defiance – alive and kicking while their issues are worked out.
Second, it means that Trion can provide more content with a smaller team. Free-to-play players don’t demand big expansions like subscribers do. Rather, they expect regular content updates – either free or paid – that provide smaller chunks of gameplay and features. This change to the free-to-play model will allow Trion to specialize development teams into individual features instead of having large teams for expansions. One team can work on player housing, the next can work on PvP content, and so on. Greater modularity can be a good thing, as Cryptic and Turbine have shown with their free-to-play MMO offerings.