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.

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4 Comments on Rift Goes Free-To-Play: The End Of An Era

lol

On May 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm

I’m hoping Defiance will be a late bloomer, every update they add changes something in the game that makes it slightly more enjoyable, adding names to locations on the maps, increasing frame rate, tweaking the instancing system.

But Defiance is pretty much a direct rip off of Tabula Rasa, and TR was actually really good ad way more in depth so who knows.

Show is still awesome though.

stifflips

On May 31, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Subscription based mmo’s are a dying breed. How long will it take till thats said about the free to play model. Maybe when people get tired of mmo’s in general?

Adam

On May 31, 2013 at 1:18 pm

With even WoW having lost close to 4 million subs in recent times, I really hope Blizzard is really thinking things over for Titan…

Chris Swiedler

On June 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm

As the engineering development director for Rift, I appreciate your article on our free-to-play transition. We’re super excited and we think that it will be a great thing for our players and our game.

But please, stop saying that Trion laid off 70% of its staff. That’s just crazy untrue. We didn’t even lay off 70% of the Defiance team, much less the entire company. The Rift team was completely unaffected–in fact, we’re _hiring_ engineers. Defiance still has a good team behind it (although a smaller one) and lots of good things ahead. This is just how the game industry works–for big projects, live teams are going to be smaller than development teams.

Thanks, and again–good article otherwise.