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In Defense of SWTOR's Subscription Launch
by Simon Ludgate on 08/07/12 11:16:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When I played the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta, I thought to myself that the game was fun, but that I would never pay a subscription for it. It lacked the key element of MMORPGs: players playing together in a persistent, mutable world. While it had nice graphics, decent gameplay, interesting storylines, and an amusing group story participation dynamic, it had no strong foundation as a “massively” multiplayer game. At best, a one-time box purchase with private multiplayer, kinda like Borderlands; but certainly no justification for a subscription.

Still, it seemed interesting enough to play and write about. I asked my EA PR contact for a review copy and never got a response. I shrugged and scratched SWTOR off the list of games worth covering on my MMORPG review site and moved on to other titles more worthy of the category. The game launched to all sorts of media fanfare and box sales, but I wasn’t among those playing the game at that point. EA apparently didn’t want to hear what I had to say about the game, and life went on.

Now, EA has announced SWTOR is going to re-launch with a new free-to-play-slash-hybrid-freemium model, as has been the popular thing to do in North America lately. The internet is abuzz with criticisms like this one, trying to figure out what went wrong with the game, while others argue that the game should have originally launched F2P.

So it might seem odd that someone like me would come out in defense of SWTOR’s original subscription launch.

I think there are two very different issues at hand here: could Star Wars: The Old Republic have been designed to be a good game worthy of a subscription, and is the version of SWTOR that actually exists worthy of a subscription. I’m not going to tackle the first issue in this article: I’m not going to talk about game design flaws or how things might have been. Instead, I’m going to take a marketing viewpoint: if this is the product I have in my hands, how do I make the most money from it?

Launching as a subscription game means selling lots of boxes and profit-boosting collector’s editions and it means 100% monetization rate in terms of required subscription fees. That is to say that everyone playing the game is giving you some money; and arguably pretty decent money at that. Even if people are just curious and want to try out the game, you’re getting that boxed game sale or digital download edition, which is more than a month’s subscription.

On the one hand, you could see people buying the game and not continuing to subscribe as a big negative. On the other hand, you could see this as a positive: “at least we got the game sale.”

So what would the landscape have looked like if the game had launched F2P? All those hundreds of thousands of people who bought the game and never subscribed wouldn’t have bought the game and never subscribed. In other words, the subscription launch monetized people who probably wouldn’t have been monetized in any way from a F2P launch.

I’d also be willing to argue that a lot of those million-plus people who did subscribe wouldn’t have in the hybrid-freemium F2P model currently proposed for SWTOR.

Launching as a paid-box-and-subscription game means a lot of extra income up front, followed by potentially dwindling revenue as people figure out whether or not your game is worth paying a subscription to play. So here’s the kicker: if you already know your game isn’t going to be worth paying a subscription and you already know you’ll have to switch to a F2P life support system, you may still be better off launching as a subscription game.

The trick is whether or not you have a license people will buy. And SWTOR has that.

I’m reminded of a discussion I had on the Star Trek Online Priority One Podcast, where we discussed the seemingly outrageous price being charged to players for the privilege of captaining the new official Enterprise in the game. During the discussion, the hosts revealed the ship wasn’t really any different from existing star cruisers in the game from a game balance point, but, hey, this was THE ENTERPRISE! Of course they all had to get it and captain it, because being the captain of the Enterprise is what being a Trekkie is all about!

It was around the point where they mentioned spending hundreds of dollars traveling to Star Trek Fan Expos that I suggested that maybe Cryptic shouldn’t be selling the Odyssey for only $50. The point here is that they’re not just selling some ship in a game, some bit of extra content, but that they’re selling something directly to a very specific and very willing to spend niche audience. Any video game player would look at the bonuses gained from captaining an Odyssey and think it wasn’t worth spending any money on; but a Trekkie sees it as a must-have-at-any-cost status symbol.

They had bought the Odyssey bundle at $50, after all.

When Star Wars: The Old Republic launched, it wasn’t selling a good MMORPG: it was selling the dream of the Star Wars experience. It didn’t face the challenge of reaching a new audience the way an original IP game like Rift does. So where a game like Rift had to rely on creating a high quality game experience (and continues to both deliver on that experience and reap the rewards in terms of continued subscription-based operations), SWTOR was relying on the brand to move copies.

I don’t think SWTOR could have sold one percent the copies it did had it launched set in an original sci-fi setting.

So I don’t think analyzing SWTOR as an MMORPG makes any sense, really. Bioware didn’t build a strong, quality MMORPG; they built a vessel for experiencing an IP. In that sense, they actually produced a pretty good product: the personalized storylines and companion characters are very good at making the player feel like they’re part of the Star Wars experience. A box-and-sub launch followed by a F2P transition makes perfect sense in that context. You make as much money as you can up front from the fans of the IP, then turn it around to F2P and re-monetize those same fans again with in-game purchases, not the least bit unlike Star Trek Online’s $50 Odyssey bundle.

Some people are surprised that SWTOR made a switch to F2P in less than a year. Others are surprised it took that long. But me? I think it was right on schedule, and I thoroughly question whether EA could have made more money doing it any other way.

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Bob Olmstead
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The latest bean counter version is that 40% of their exit interviews (which I took one, very poorly designed) say the monthly fee was the issue. In less then one year, EA and TOR's senior management continue the spin machines and sadly, the media continues to buy it, unchallenged, hook-line- and sinker. The issues are absolutely NOT that they over reached on the use of the SW brand but rather, they did not leverage the SW brand anywhere near what the could have and should have, given their lead up marketing. The issues are not around some quick turn monetization model, the latest of which is F2P. Im sure some MMO F2P types will save this brand on a basic level. But there is a VAST difference between saving your butt financially and an MMO truly becoming all it could be. And although your article makes some good points, monthly content updates alone will not even remotely come close to this game becoming all that it COULD have become.

The bottom line, EA just doesnt get it on a multitude of levels and I see no sign that will ever change. If I had more time, I would take the recent interview that Ohlen (TOR) gave and rip it to shreds piece by piece. Why? Because he stated they always wanted to be an MMO first. Really? Is that why about 60-70% of the assumptions a player can make about what they will experience as "standard" among all MMO's is still nowhere to be found? And, frankly, I blame Lucas Arts who twice now, has surrendered the Star Wars MMO licensing to firms that that are notorious for horrible service; SOE and EA. Bioware was a great call, but for whatever reasons, that was not enough.

Article after article in support of BEAN COUNTERS cite stat after stat, or make the issues about things that never address the CORE GAME MECHANICS and the GLOBAL ATTITUDE which better define the real truths behind the massive failure of this MMO. I cant imagine what all these hard working (many of them now laid off) devs and visionary managers must feel like to have something they cared so much about, shattered into pieces after years of work. So lets look at just SOME of those bottom line issues, randomly presented, as I did not have time to prepare for this article.

#1- The current mentality is to INVENT Star Wars content versus truly giving players/fans the Star Wars we know. When you constantly invent outside of a powerfully established context, you’re asking people to learn about and embrace your version of the cannon versus offering players the ability to enjoy fully, the SW experiences they want to play. The story arcs that Ive played, three in total, are very good and very iconic. Some of the side quests score decently well, in this regard. But for the most part, this game is KOTOR on steroids and not even close to an MMO experience. Once you make it to 50 to include end game content, the game just falls flat on its face in terms of it being a SW license and as an MMO. And slapping up some typical MMO end game raid, one that has all the huge monsters they swore they would not delve into, makes no sense.

A very good example of this mentality is what appears to be an invented planet that they are choosing to launch, which is being marketing as an all PvP planet. They are obviously playing to the quick fix, heavy PvP crowd from which F2P will bode well with (for minimal cost), which has nothing to do with truly offering the Opus of Star Wars experiences. Put another way, they way they have chosen to "fix" the game is a TOTAL FAILURE TO TRULY DOUBLE DOWN ON OFFERING A SUSTAINABLE STAR WARS EXPERIENCE that keeps a core base coming back for more. Had they launched Endor or Dathomir as planets, well known and mysterious, highly desirable locations to explore and to “experience iconic Star Wars moments”- that alone, just launching one of those planets, would have immediately resulted in more players and more revenue. Typical of EA, they've made all this about the statistics of MMO trends and very poorly structured exit surveys. They say 40% wanted F2P, essentially, As I know a lot about this area, how to mine this data, that means the real number is more like 30%, assuming we have clean data at all. That means that there is 70% of their base (or former base) that felt another way. Again, Ive taken several of these so called surveys and they simply were not structured in a way to get to the REAL issues. Rather, they were structured very superficially around how to quickly monetize. Like I said, they just dont get it.

#2- If Im a Bounty Hunter and Im a level 50, I want to Bounty Hunt. Not gonna happen in TOR. If I am a Level 50 Smuggler, I want to smuggle, a Jedi Master- I want to work with the Jedi Council to go on important missions. NONE OF THIS IS AVAILABLE once your turn 50 in TOR, which is a HUGE oversight and has resulted in TOR leaving a ton of money on the table. A moment ago, I stated that had they launched a more iconic planet and opened up the gameplay framework, to allow for more exploration, they would have had a boon in return customers. Now lets add to that, Level 50's that can Bounty Hunt, be Spys, run missions for the Jedi Council, so on and so forth- and that number of people, the core TOR population rises yet again. IS EA IN TOUCH WITH THESE TRUTH ON ANY LEVEL? The answer as evidenced by all of their actions, is no.

You have a game that does a great job of drawing you in through their story arcs and BAM, your reward for turning 50 is ALL OF THAT goes away. Your companions have nothing else to say to you, at least the ones you’ve maxed out, thats it- your relationship with the NPC is, for all practical purposes, done. TOR wants you to (in fact, forces you too if you want to enjoy companion perks) max out all your companion XP. So if you had a blast with Kira, ALL THIS BUILD UP with her, you're gonna get married, you secretly broke Jedi rules and then level 50 hits or whenever you max out her storyline, then nothing. Your reward us that from that point on, she will only give you route, basic responses; basically, you have a talking test dummy.

How did this happen? How do you make those kinds of decisions? How do create a game so built around key story lines and companions and then abandon all of that once a person hits 50? Again, this is a failure to NOT LEVERAGE THE BRAND ENOUGH versus leveraging it too much. This has nothing to do with the crap statistics Ohlen and others are feeding us. If they truly wanted to fix this game, they would be passionately dealing with these issues, instead we get more KOTOR (HK whatever assassin droid), a PvP planet and F2P.

#3- Its friggin’ Star Wars! I want to explore and fully experience this cool world. Not going to happen in TOR. Ohlen stated in his article that they never meant to change the MMO experience, only to add story. Every MMO Ive played and I’ve played all the big ones to include Galaxies - WoW - LOTR - Rift and others, let you truly explore the world you’re in. Rift even has a solid reward system for such desires with some fun perks. TOR greatly limits this to almost nothing. The zones, with a very few exceptions, are vanilla, small and full of restrictions as to where I can and cannot explore. For example, I can't just fly out to my Republic Tattoine outpost and just walk out into the desert to explore. There are no really unique areas that blew my mind that I could also explore. I thought Nar Shadda was rather impressive, but you can't interact with anything and as stated, nothing to explore.

A buddy and I were talking about the old days of early Galaxies. I shared a story about one day when I was zooming along, minding my own business as a high level toon riding my speeder on the high level planet (it TRULY felt like a planet) of Endor, on the shoreline of some remote lake, when out of the blue I get knocked off my bike- which then blows up and I hear Stormtroopers telling me to halt. I look behind me and see two ships full of stormies unloading and coming after me. I popped up my chat for my guild and said, "you won't believe this". Seconds later, I was in a fight for my life. Folks, this was a random encounter that made my experience feel rather over the top real! I was on a SW high for days. No exploring. No iconic Star Wars world events. Nothing meaningfully Star Wars after 50. Very narrow control on skill trees, Next to no interaction with our Star Wars environments. But sure, the real issue is people having to pay a monthly fee. NOT!!!

#4-Rhakghouls- seriously? Fine, its a call back to KOTOR, so a little bit here and there. But to make that such a huge deal throughout? In operations? In my starting zone? In other zones? HOTH and TATT felt decently SW, Korriban and Hutts space too, but rhalghouls all over the place? In your one world event? Do you people even understand what the attraction of Star Wars is all about- because it aint Rhakghouls. And although KOTOR has some great merits, people didn't sign up for a KOTOR MMO NOR WAS IT MARKETED AS SUCH, they signed up for a SW experience! Give me a world event where Sith Masters or Jedi Masters suddenly appear on the opposing factions Capital Ships. Have a Call To Arms world event where I see twenty of my fellow players called back to the Jedi temple because its under attack. Give me iconic breathtaking and wide open SW worlds to not just fight in, but also to explore. THATS Star Wars!

#5- The general perception that Bioware and EA could care less has been a huge issue, regardless of all their press saying otherwise. They launched an economy that was utterly ridiculous in terms of all the costs for healing, repairs, transaction fees, etc.. They added and still have crazy costs for getting Legacy perks. So I have a Legacy XP bar for perks I need to buy, but somehow that is supposed to feel like something I earned? If you bought the Collectors Edition, you really felt a deep sense of betrayal, of Bait and Switch. Sure, the shipped items with the CE were nice, but VERY CLEARLY STATED IN THE RAMP UP is that we would get a vendor that would be updated regularly with new items and content. Never happened. The in game benefit to having a security key was dramatically better then having bought the CE. When this was brought up endlessly, we kept on hearing the same, tired response. Yes, we realize this but its low down on the list in terms of our priorities. In other words, we already nailed you for all that extra money so deal with it. That was a very dumb, short sighted business move.

I could go on and on. Side quests, once Ive level to 50, I still have waste my time on all the dialog when Im leveling a toon? I get that for your new toon's core quests, but the side ones? So leveling 3 toons MANDATES dredging through the same side content again? STOP spitting out statistics and STOP throwing quick fixes that will create a more superficial, less Star Wars experience. Give us the experience we paid for, the SW experience you marketed; give is Dathomir and bounties to hunt, things to smuggle, Jedi council meetings to attend that spark great adventures; give us back the companions WE WANT TO PLAY versus forcing us to level companions we could care less about. And in spite of what the so called data says- the game will turnaround.

I enjoyed your article but I just really dont see the media TRULY taking on EA, truly challenging them on all their spin, so that the real issues can be discussed. Even Forbes magazine has documented that going from a high of almost 1.8M to under a 1M is a huge failure, that happened for MANY VALID REASONS beyond its model to monetize and beyond merely getting more content monthly.

They had a very captive audience that they threw away by not keeping their promises and by not offering that which they heavily marketed for years. Shame on EA and shame of Lucas Arts for allowing that to happen.

Eric Schwarz
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Just want to say that I agree with everything you've written here. SWTOR is not a horrible game by any stretch, but by adhering so closely to the established MMO standards and simply being "KoTOR on steroids" it doesn't do anything to advance the genre or truly take advantage of the Star Wars brand. To me, Star Wars is about high adventure, thrilling space battles, daring escapes, lightsabre duels, etc. There's none of that in SWTOR, only fighting trash mobs and running fetch quests. All the story in the world can't make up for that.

Ardney Carter
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"You have a game that does a great job of drawing you in through their story arcs and BAM, your reward for turning 50 is ALL OF THAT goes away"

This right here, man. I was having a friggin BLAST playing my Imperial Agent and once I was 50 there was really nothing else to do. Sure, I could PvP grind for hours on end but...why? And raiding required getting into large groups of players which I didn't feel inclined to do. I joined to play with my brother and 1 or 2 friends, nothing more.

So I roll some alts and hey, the stories are alright but I've seen a lot of this content already now and through it all in the back of my mind I'm thinking 'man, I'd rather be playing my AGENT'. But there's nothing left to do with him so why bother? Frustrating.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Bob I really appreciate the forethought and passion that went into your comments here. I agree that any and all monetization changes would have required major design changes, and this just shows that the two processes were never integrated at any stage in development.

Jeremy Reaban
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What hurts SWTOR from a F2P perspective, I think, is that being set in the Old Republic era, you don't have a lot of recognizable IP. I mean, sure, it's still Star Wars and you have light sabers and Jedi.

But no stormtroopers. No Tie Fighters or X-wings. No Millennium Falcons or Corellian Corvettes.

So why they could (and likely will) sell uber-ships and gear in the item mall, it's not going to have as much of a cool factor, I think.

Simon Ludgate
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That's a very good point, one I hadn't really considered in my post. It's true that the most iconic things are going to be difficult to sell in the store, unless they throw canon to the wind in the name of the all mighty dollar. I'm even more interested to see what they offer now, and how they'll try to tie it in to classical Star Wars memorabilia.

Adam Rebika
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Except this is Star Wars, and the real dark emperor reigning on this universe the the Lord Pay-patine. So you can have my bet that, before long, we will see some of these iconic ships, without any justifications or anything. Hell, they even already made Leïa's bikini outfit a pre-order bonus or something like that.

Eric Schwarz
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Considering that bar bands in SWTOR play music that's still popular thousands of years later, I'm not so sure anyone really cares about lore consistency. In fact I'd say 99% of the imagery in SWTOR is just slightly modified copies of iconic locations, ships, weapons, characters, etc. from the films. It doesn't feel "old" at all. I always felt that The Old Republic should have a greater degree of mysticism and religion to it... but in BioWare's version the Force just seems... well, boring.

Aaron Fowler
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There's no way EA would have originally gone f2p in the beginning with the amount of money that was dumped into making it. It made perfect sense for it to be subscription based. Most people don't have a problem with the subscription method with SWTOR, had the game grabbed their attention longer than 2 months. SWTOR, like so many other MMO's was cool at first, but then it just got old real fast, and players moved on.

MMO's are all about player retention. If a MMO cannot retain their player base, the game itself, will always flop by the very nature of the MMO design.

I think it's a smart move by EA to shift to a f2p model this early. There's a real danger in waiting too long to implement this switch. It's much easier to save a dying game, then to try and bring a dead game back to life. They are going to try and inject the game with a new fusion of players.

F2P is the global donor, since anybody can try it for free.

Will it save the game? That is yet to be seen, but it's worth a shot.

Nicholas Lovell
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You make excellent points. The heart of free-to-play is not that is free, or that it is expensive, but that it allows players to spend exactly what they want all along the demand curve, so those who the game is so-so will spend little or nothing, while those who love it will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The corollary: that if you have an expensive licence, you can go for a premium price upfront, makes sense. The danger is that you end up not allowing those who love what you do to move up the demand curve beyond $15 per month. Going F2P (or paymium) solves that.

Thanks for the analysis.

Eric Schwarz
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I do think you make a lot of good points here. It is certainly better to make some money than no money at all.

The problem is that now EA have a bunch of disgruntled fans who have left and even F2P won't bring back, due to hostility over the microtransaction model and perceptions that the game is going to decline as a result. Many of those people played maybe six months - let's assume EA got about $100-150 out of those people. Fair, yes... but their goal was to make a WoW-killer, an MMO that people would play and remember for years and years. That is not going to happen when most of your player base now thinks the game is dead, and nothing has been done to bring them back.

The fact is, it's too late. SWTOR's F2P model is life support. Sure, it might eventually turn a profit, but they missed their chance. They spent $200+ million and years of work on an inferior WoW clone, instead of something that was truly Star Wars. All the story stuff in the world doesn't matter, and in fact, once it runs out, those players who are sticking around for it are liable to leave. If the game had cost $50-100 million instead of $200, chances are nobody would be regarding it as a failure right now.

Simon Ludgate
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"but their goal was to make a WoW-killer, an MMO that people would play and remember for years and years."

But remember that I'm not discussing the DESIGN of the game. "If they had made a better game, then...." That's beyond the scope of my point here.

My point is: given that the game is the way it is (IE: not a successful WoW-Killer) then what is the best way to sell it? I argue that a two-staged subscription-then-F2P model is the best way to profit from that kind of game.

I suppose it's actually much more of a theoretical discussion than a practical analysis of SWTOR, but I still think it's relevant to temper both the "it should stay subscription" and "it should have started F2P" arguments.

jin choung
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kind of a pointless examination dontcha think?

once the conclusion is that sooner or later, the game is going to switch to f2p, the jig is up. you've lost money. you've failed. whatever victory you get in initial box sales is a pyrrhic victory at best akin to moving deck chairs on the titanic to the highest point on the ship... ok fine... you bought yourself an extra minute of dry ankles... but you're still dead.

Simon Ludgate
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Wouldn't it be more like delaying the sinking of the ship long enough to get twice as many passengers onto life rafts? If the jig is up and you've lost money, shouldn't you be thinking about how you can lose the least amount of money?

Ramin Shokrizade
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Simon I am in general agreement with the spirit of your article, and it does not seem to conflict with what I proposed in mine. I am in agreement that they should have sold the game as a retail purchase (which they did) with some additional charges after that. The question is what those additional charges should have been. The greatest weakness of the Subscription model as we are discussing it is not the lack of multiple price points as Nicholas points out (though his point IS well taken), it is the lack of time controls on the content that make this into an "all you can eat" buffet that almost forces the consumer to bloat themselves then walk away.

The net effect is a very short life span on your existing content, and nothing to show for it. If they had placed some of the cooler content that was optional to advancement (like the space combat minigame) behind payment gates, this would have worked better than what they did here. That would have provided continuing revenue through content provision and allowed for lucrative expansion material without the game becoming "pay to win". Once you use F2P and start selling game advantages and objectives you get a negative feedback loop as described in my "How 'Pay to Win" Works" paper: