Is clinging to RIFT's subscription worth it? When even Star Wars: The Old Republic flinched and buckled to F2P, what chance does RIFT have to stay its course? Is Trion hurting or helping this game by holding fast to the business model?
It's a tricky question that's made trickier by the scarcity of facts. Trion's expressed strong confidence in the way it's steered RIFT so far, and I wonder whether that's a genuine confidence based on numbers that I don't see or a brave front for a duck that's paddling furiously under the calm pond surface.
So is RIFT really so good that it justifies a monthly subscription, and if so, what makes it OK to stay above the F2P waters on that tiny island?
So the logic goes something like this: If Trion is holding fast to the sub-only model, then it must have enough subscribers to keep trucking without worry. But what's the line? The problem is that we have absolutely no solid idea as to RIFT's numbers.
In June 2011, David Reid stated that the game had sold about one million copies and hinted at the possibility that RIFT was responsible for a good percentage of the then-recent 600,000 subscriber loss in World of Warcraft. In November 2011, Scott Hartsman said that the game's subscriber base was "growing" and that taking RIFT to F2P would be a "large net negative" for the company. In January 2012, Trion announced that it made $100 million in revenue. In February 2012, RIFT announced deals to enter the Chinese market and other parts of Asia. In May, the news that an expansion for the title was on the way broke out.
To me, that all seems like a fairly positive trend, although it's not like the studio is really going to announce significant subscriber drops, either. Some have interpreted Trion's aggressive marketing campaign as a desperate attempt to stem massive subscriber loss, while others see it as a sensible approach for a company in a highly competitive field. The site MMOData.net places RIFT's 2012 subscriber numbers around a quarter of a million, although its source for that is questionable. Since Trion is a private company, it doesn't release its financials the way that, say, EA does.
Until I see substantial proof otherwise, I feel comfortable assuming that the title is profitable -- and perhaps very much so -- for Trion and that there's no undo push from within to switch to a F2P model.
Like any other RIFT player, I pay my subscription out of my own pocket. And like many players, I suspect, I wrestle with whether that sub is justified.
Don't get me wrong; I love RIFT. It's a great game. And for reasons I'll go into in a bit, I think it is certainly worth a subscription fee. But when it comes to budgeting, monthly subscriptions to anything are always considered strongly in comparison to one-time purchases. I know that by subscribing, I'm giving an OK for another regular drain on my bank account. I'm also putting myself in a position in which spending less time in RIFT in a given month means getting less bang for my buck, so there's some pressure to keep playing. I'm not a huge fan of that pressure.
There's also the fact that RIFT does not exist by itself as the only MMO out there. No matter how good an MMO it is, there's plenty of competition all around, and much of it is free (or at least more free). You can get a huge amount of gaming entertainment these days for no money down, as long as you keep some discipline in your spending. And there are other titles, like Guild Wars 2, that ask for one lump sum of money up front and then nary a subscription afterward.
The execs at Trion aren't stupid; they know all of this. They know that whether or not you'd spend more money on subscriptions or microtransactions doesn't matter -- it's the perception of what "costs" more. So they devised a three-prong strategy that's been fairly consistent so far in justifying why the studio is sticking to its guns on the sub model.
The first prong is to simply deliver a superior service. Not everyone likes or admires RIFT, of course, but it's garnered a heck of a positive reputation from what I've seen in the gaming community for its polish, ease of access, and general delivery of fun. On top of that, the team has been pumping out updates at a crazy-fast pace, causing even those who have never picked up RIFT to praise how it's being treated.
The second prong is to go after those subscriptions doggedly. There's no reason to be meek and hope that players come to the game. Trion took the offensive on seeking out its playerbase from the get-go and hasn't let up. Welcome back weekends, the refer-a-friend program, special events, free client giveaways, special pricing, and the recent annual rate offer are all designed to call back veterans and establish new regulars.
The third prong is to adapt to a strongly F2P market and offer something for free. A while back, Trion came out with RIFT Lite, an unlimited trial for the game that allows anyone to level to 20 without a fee. On top of that, there have been free play weeks and weekends, and there's a free mobile app as well.
All this isn't enough for the future, which is why Trion needs to keep adjusting its course while maintaining its vision.
Why it's justified for me
Like most Massively staffers and many of you, I've played a whole lot of MMOs. I've seen plenty that were disagreeable or worse and a handful that delighted and entertained me. But in my career, I've seen only a handful of titles that hit enough sweet spots on my checklist to be given my permanent high-five. RIFT is one of those elite few.
It may not be perfect, but it's so dang close that I don't care. I love the art, the ability to create my own builds on a daily basis, the dynamic events, the ease of grouping, the fluff, and the numerous features that have been introduced with the past nine updates. I'm completely excited for the expansion and the game's future, and I'm willing to put my money where my excitement is. Trion earns my money every month by delivering a wonderful experience, and the studio deserves to succeed for what it's done right.
Maybe it will go free-to-play; maybe it won't. I'm not particularly bothered either way because I'll be voting with my wallet. Regardless of the business model, this is a game worth playing.
Whether they're keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan and Justin Olivetti save Telara on a weekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, their column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen and Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.