I'm concerned that MMO Gamer Chick and Tobold are correct in their suspicions about this week's business model announcements. Two of the highest profile upcoming MMO releases - Wildstar and Elder Scrolls - plan to launch with a mandatory box purchase and mandatory subscription fee despite nearly nine-years' worth of post-WoW MMO launches that have failed to sustain that model. Both bloggers note that it would be borderline irresponsible for a business launching a subscription MMO NOT to have a back-up F2P plan - indeed, it appears that both titles may be setting the groundwork, with Wildstar's implementation of in-game time card items seen in other MMO's (including the F2P relaunches of EQ2 and Rift) and the cash shop that Elder Scrolls apparently confirmed in a German interview.
Unfortunately, the same financial incentives dictate that launching with a subscription is an opportunity to extract $60 for the retail box (with $150 or higher price tags widely accepted for collector's editions) and some subscription revenue in the interim - especially if there's a chance to sell people on "discounted" pre-paid six-month subscriptions before they've had the chance to play the game.
The problem isn't the subscription fee itself, the entry barrier created by the initial box price, the bad press often generated as games visibly fail to live up to their original promises (Elder Scrolls is already making the same promises that they plan to update every 4-6 weeks that so many studios have failed to sustain), or whether the final business model when the dust settles is in any way sensible. My main concern isn't even that this model puts MMO studios in the business of exploiting hype and vague, misleading information to make a quick buck. As Bhagpuss points out, these things ultimately have limited impact on the merits of the actual gameplay.
The real casualty of these cash and burn tactics is the community. When the dust settles, the tourists have come, overpaid, and gone. The jaded veterans like myself have waited for the inevitable re-launch and gotten a high quality product at a fire sale price. The cost is that the community is shattered as the majority of servers shut down, the majority of your friends leave for games that are looking more promising, and the folks who do return do so for brief periods as the content release schedule permits. This may not change the gameplay - especially as more titles are offering more ways to play and win with limited time and commitment - but it definitely changes the experience of playing these games and experiencing these worlds.
If this is the solution to the problem of how to finance MMO development, it's a sad day.