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After less than a year,  The Old Republic  is going free to play
After less than a year, The Old Republic is going free to play
July 31, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

July 31, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
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    43 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Over the past few years, we've seen plenty of subscription MMOs adopt free to play business models, but few have done so as quickly as EA and BioWare Austin's Star Wars: the Old Republic. The game launched less than a year ago, and is already set to go free to play this fall.

In November, Electronic Arts plans to add a new free-to-play option on top of the existing subscription service, allowing users to play any character class up until level 50, albeit with a few restrictions on accessing new content and other game features.

To facilitate this change, the game will also introduce Cartel Coins, a new virtual currency that players can purchase and redeem to unlock additional features and in-game items.

Subscribing players, meanwhile, will have unrestricted access to the game's content for $14.99 per month, and will receive a monthly stipend of Cartel Coins for purchasing additional gear and convenience items.

This free-to-play switch is certainly a major shakeup for EA's flagship MMO, but it's not exactly a complete surprise. In June, BioWare lead designer Emmanuel Lusinchi said that the studio was already looking at the free to play model as a means to boost player engagement.

And perhaps it's a good idea, as The Old Republic has seen subscriber numbers dwindle since its launch in December 2011.

During a recent investor conference call, EA executive Frank Gibeau revealed that "subscriptions have been on a declining trajectory and have now slipped below 1 million," down from 1.3 million subscriptions in May.

Things haven't gone too well for BioWare Austin itself, either, as the studio has been forced to lay off a number of employees since the game's debut. Even key staff like executive producer Rich Vogel are no longer with the company.

It seems BioWare sees the free to play model as the real trick to giving The Old Republic the boost it needs. The company claims that by switching to this model, it will be able to put out more frequent content updates to keep players engaged over the course of the game's lifespan.

In July, the company experimented with this model by making the game free up until level 15, not unlike the strategy Blizzard uses for World of Warcraft. This new approach, however, makes The Old Republic's free to play option less of a trial, and more of an essential element of the game's design.

Keep an eye on Gamasutra as the news develops, as EA will surely have more to say about The Old Reoublic in its investor conference call later this afternoon.


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Comments


Rob Wright
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And so it begins....or ends....or whatever. I fail to see how, without subscription fees coming in, BioWare will be able to deliver MORE content updates for players, especially given the recent layoffs. I hope I'm wrong.

Kenneth Blaney
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When EQ2 went F2P it saw an increase in monthly subscriptions in addition to the newer revenue streams of microtransactions. So going F2P can save an MMO and generate more money because of two major results: First, in an MMO other people are content. Free players provide content for paying players. Second, in a highly group based MMO like EQ2, many free players will feel significant social pressure to become paying players by their friends ("It's only $15 per month, and think about what you will get"), by groups ("Sorry, your DPS just isn't as good since you can't use legendary equipment") and by themselves ("I really want to carry more items/gold").

Not saying this WILL happen with The Old Republic, but it might.

John Trauger
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This is a combo loss-leader and stop-loss strategy. Keep players playing, maybe get some new ones before subscription numbers drop further. Ideally, the freebies'll spend a little here and there.

City of heroes uses about this subscription model on a much smaller base and seems to be holding its own.

It's the "firing people" part that's a little weird. You don't need that many people to deliver doo-dads like new apparel and such, but new zones, maps and missions...yes. It sounds like they're streamlining more than wholesale gutting the team. Cutting back to a team that they can sustain on FTP.

Aaron Fowler
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This change in model seems to have worked for LOTRO. Here's to hoping it can work for SWTOR as well.

Joe McGinn
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It's their only hope. Subscription was always madness, it never had the slightest chance of working.

Ron Dippold
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For what it's worth, it was a really fun single player game with some MMO stuff bolted on. I got two chars to max level - okay, and then I quit. Like a lot of other people.

Dave Ingram
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I'm very glad to see that they are planning to offer a mixed model: F2P to bring in newbies, and subscription service to avoid alienating today's loyal players. This will also give new players a choice between paying a set fee or signing up for an expense that cannot be determined up front. Freedom of choice is more powerful than any single payment model.

Aaron Fowler
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I agree. Players will be able to play the game for free and get hooked (or not). And by that point if players want to subscribe/purchase Cartel coins the players will have a better idea of what their money is actually going towards.

Ian Brown
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Interestingly they appear to be retroactively giving coins to players who have subscribed thus far, as well as a few other perks for having already given them money (eg bought the collectors ed.)

Nate Anonymous
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From everything I´ve read, Bioware will have to add more end-game content as gamers generally enjoyed the main storylines but quit soon after they hit endgame because endgame´s value was not worth the $15/month. Now that the main game will be offered free, Bioware has to add to endgame or else the game will not be able to monitize its subscribers.

John Trauger
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If they follow the model City of Heroes is following, new endgame content will be sub-only, perhaps also pay-to-play for free subscribers.

Alexander MacIntyre
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I actually think this is smart. Although I will admit that I expected to see TSW make this move before TOR ever did. I can't really share in the pessimism here or the "I told you so" flavor of comments. Mostly because I think that expanding game experience methods and potential payment models tends to be of benefits to consumers more than a a detriment.

The only question will be the rate of continued expansion, in terms of justifying full subscription. We know there's a fair bit of content that is being targeted for this year and I would not be shocked to see it timed full with the switch to include both game experiences. The question after that will be if future content can be generated at a fair enough pace. Depending on how this is done, I do not think it is impossible. Add a flashpoint here. An endgame quest chain there. Let it accumulate and let there be a lot of potential content and players will be inclined to pay for it or subscribe.

Nate Anonymous
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Well, they announced in June an increase in the level cap. So I wouldn´t be surprised if that is launched concurrent with the FTP to 50 being turned on. Or at least soon thereafter.

Alexander MacIntyre
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In reply to Nate:

Yeah, the fact that the press release stays implementation of new content as soon as next month makes me think their approach is shifting to sequential additions. Bits at a time as it were, rather than just having one big content dumb ever 3-4 months or so. If that's the case, it will probably be beneficial to the game.

Matt Robb
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How can they be surprised that people cancel subscriptions after completing what amounts to a subscription single-player game? They might as well have just chopped it into content packs of some kind and let people buy all the initial offerings for $60.

Michael Wenk
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I suspect TOR will turn off in the next few quarters, as long as EA lets it, IE doesn't cover its losses.

I don't see the F2P model working very well in The Old Republic to generate revenue. The meat of TOR is the story based leveling which has a very specific life cycle for most players. IF they give that for free, most players aren't going to go for extras.

I like TOR I really do. I'm still playing it. However, I really wish they had made TOR KOTOR2/3 with episodic content/DLC model.

Vincent Hyne
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It is highly likely that it will follow the ethos many other EA games have.

After 2-3 years, the servers will be shut down, and that will be that.

Mike Griffin
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It's interesting because TOR came to market far better equipped to tell rewarding narratives, compared to its MMORPG peers. But the demographic made their preferences very clear: Perhaps after over a decade of EQ/WoW MMO template propagation, MMO players now have strict expectations and patterns chiseled into their consciousness.

One of those is apparently the idea of an "end game" supported by a steady trickle of progression content.

Even with TOR's obvious quality and genre-leading narrative presentation, it still couldn't muster the "street cred" with hardcore traditional template MMO players due to its thin max level opportunities.

Even Rift still gets away with charging $15 a month. Granted it's profitable with less than half of TOR's current user numbers, and didn't have quite the same mountain of debt to re-coup, but the old EverQuest 2 vets at Trion knew exactly how to keep their traditional MMO template end game users engaged.

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A S
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I can understand why people can see this as a negative as it is a response to a troubled situation for SWTOR, but the interesting point is I don't think FTP has ever been done on an MMO with so many current subscribers, with a game that isnt that dated.

Previously FTP has been a way of squeezing the last drops out of value of a formerly premium product, but BW might do something amazing here. I think it's accurate to say you're not going to beat WoW doing what WoW does, you'll have to do something new. Well, this is something new. GL BW.

Ramin Shokrizade
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The major issues with SW:TOR, as I have published elsewhere are:

1. It is a massively single player game, and as such does not have the interactivity needed to drive continuing immersion in the product beyond the initial game content. As others have said the subscription monetization model was a complete mismatch done without any apparent forethought,

2. The SW:TOR economy lost 97% of its value in the first 30 days, as I documented during a controlled "SW Economy Deathwatch" I held at launch to demonstrate the importance of designing a strong game economy. Thus any content linked to the economy likewise became worthless, which was a large part of the game,

3. If EA had sought to monetize SW:TOR, they should have done so at least one to two years before launch, not one year afterwards. This indicates a lack of knowledge of how to produce a contemporary MMO. Such mistakes were fatal but at least understandable five years ago. Attempting to slap a weak monetization model now onto a game that has mostly been played out already, without the inclusion of any appropriate carrots or gates will hardly delay the inevitable end result.

Mike Griffin
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We've come to view EA as the company with regretful hindsight, not comprehensive foresight, when it comes to involvement with MMOs.

Take a trip through the company's history of internal efforts and partnerships in the MMO genre, and it's not outlandish hyperbole to claim that EA has the touch of death when it comes to sustaining healthy MMO products.

Motor City Online, Earth & Beyond, Hellgate London, Warhammer Online, APB, The Old Republic...

Who's next, Funcom and The Secret World? Even when the games and partners are legit, somehow the EA connection drags MMOs into hot water, gets them sold to other publishers, or outright *poof* pulled from service forever.

I'm not even slamming EA by bringing this up, deserving as it is. In some ways, it's just strange how one of the most powerful software entities on the planet can't square away a smooth, profitable and sensible MMO product -- without running into urgent declines within a year of release.

Well, I suppose Ultima Online had a nice run for them, and there's always FIFA Online...

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Norman Phelps II
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I may be in the majority especially in this audience but I for one enjoyed and still enjoy this game. This may be because this is my first MMO, so I didn't really know what to expect and I have nothing to gauge it with or maybe I'm just naive, I don't know. I am saddened by the decline of the game and the subscription numbers and I do acknowledge that it took way to long for the server merges or for the ability to transfer your character as this certainly stalled any momentum the game may have had.

Since day one though it appears that gamers have had it in for this game as all I have heard is just negativity about the game from day one. Sure the game had its fair share of hype (too much in fact) but it just seems that people went out of their way to criticize the game. Its almost like everyone was rooting for it to fail and it even became cool to do so.

Ben Rice
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Say what you will about F2P models, but when was the last time someone bought a Collectors Edition, and was retroactively rewarded for it a year later?
At the very least BioWare seems to be treating their existing customers pretty well.

Matt Cratty
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I hate to read about layoffs anywhere.

But, maybe this will finally begin to send the message that "if even Bioware can fail with its passive entertainment model, maybe we need to go back to making really captivating MMORPGs if we want lots of subscribers".

Look, I get it that MMOs are really hard to do. But, for long term sustainability, its community + gameplay. This had neither.

Charles Weng
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The last time I saw this transition happening was Funcom's Age of Conan, which also maintains a "premium" subscription base while declaring itself "free to play."

In my opinion, the F2P aspect in AoC is a complete sham. Character skills, PvE content and even inventory space are so severely limited and scaled down in F2P, it is practically unplayable. It is a cynical ploy simply to get players (back) on the monthly subscription model, and to spend money on its endless micro-transaction options.

A much better transition from monthly subscription to F2P is NCSoft's Aion. There is no more monthly subscription, ever: All players have full access to character skills, old and new PvE content, and just about everything they had when they were paying $15 a month. In-game purchases are mostly vanity items (outfits, item skins and pets, in bewildering varieties) and aid to reach character level cap.

I sincerely hope EA/Bioware realizes that, if you are going to go F2P, you have to go all the way. The half-and-half model can only be a disservice to players.

Jerry Curlan
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I think it's a smart move.

John Flush
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"And perhaps it's a good idea, as The Old Republic has seen subscriber numbers dwindle since its launch in December 2011."

Sounds like most people wanted to play KOTOR 3, 4, 5 instead... maybe they should have made that.

steve roger
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Wow. This means we are done with this game. I support two accounts for my sons and none of us have any interest in the pay as you go free to play option--for any game.

What disappointment.

Addison Siemko
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Don't fret -- it sounds like sub is still an option

William Johnson
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So, why go Free to Play?

Well, I think we need to look at what SWTOR is there for. Why did EA sink all that money in to a game which didn't look very profitable from the start? I think it wasn't really to make money, but to hurt World of Warcraft. EA probably thought to themselves they needed to do something about all the money being funneled in to Acti/Blizz's pockets.

So if SWTOR's sole purpose is to steal WoW subscribers. And they did that for a little while. But it wasn't enough. So if they couldn't get people to unsubscribe to WoW, what if they where able to split people's time away from WoW? I think that's how EA's going to try and attack WoW now. Get people's time, and hopefully their wallets will follow.

I honestly, don't think SWTOR was made to make money, but to hurt WoW. So if you offer a play experience on par with WoW but for free, how many people will stick to WoW for loyalty, and how many people will drop WoW to get an equivalent experience for free?

Aaron Fowler
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SWTOR didn't look very profitable from the start?

Really? I thought the fundamental idea of the Old Republic being set in a MMO environment looked really promising on paper. (In the beginning at least)

I really doubt EA did it just to disrupt WoW. EA was just trying to take a slice of the pie.

William Johnson
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@Aaron Fowler
It didn't look very profitable from the start. They had to buy the Star Wars license and split the profits with Lucas Arts, on top of which the absurde development costs which looks like EA totally shouldered. A lot of people were saying how they didn't understand how EA was going to recoup their losses.

@Daniel Steckly
Hurting WoW hurts Acti/Blizz which is EA's biggest competitor. I don't think EA really cares about making money right now as much as they are interested in hurting their competitors. I think EA thinks they can weather the storm because they are the largest game publisher.

An example of something that hurts their competitors but also themselves is online passes. Why have online passes? It reduces the value of your games which means there is less disposable income for people to buy new games. Well, I think EA thought to themselves, if they couldn't guaranty people would hold on to their games longer, then they'd make it so people get less value for their games when they sell them off, which is kind of a backwards way of getting people to hold on to their games longer. Online passes doesn't benefit anyone, but everyone adopted it because if they didn't they'd basically have a game that'd be used to pay for their competitors games.

So yes, I do think EA would be so petty they'd take a large loss just to spite their competition.

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Dan the gaming Guy
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Well that was a waste of money. Next time I wont be so eager to pay for an EA mmo when I could have waited and saved $90

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Jeffery Wilson
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This is an opinion;
This need for "End Game" stuff, to me misses the entire point of playing an MMO, you are in a shared world, so more interaction with other players with people who all love the "World" you are playing, there should be tons and tons of stuff at all levels to do.
To me this shows a lack of effort to make the trip to the End game content interesting. I have played practically every MMO since Ultima Online and most all have the same problem, this LONG semi-interesting GRIND to get to where the cool stuff is. This shows the game should have started with everyone at level 60, 70 or 80 (what ever the level cap is) and then the fun begins as soon as you start.
In my opinion MMO developers should start focusing on the journey, not just the destination;

1. Lots and lots of things to do from the very beginning and at every step along the way. So that the entire process is a game not a grind.
2. Multiple ways to do things and very slow progression.
3. Completely different routes for different classes. So there is a reason and enjoyment for playing every class.
4. More things in the game that promote social interaction, for 100 million dollars you can make a great single player game. Why are we playing online? If not to interact with other players.

As to making AAA MMO's as free to play from the being, come on use your head. No investor is going to dump 100 Million dollars into something not geared to make as much money as it can as soon as its shipped.This is the only way the investment can be returned in the time period required by the investors/publisher.
This goes for all games, you want free 2 play you get a minimal game, with stuff you can buy to make it more expansive and larger, but it might take years before a f2p MMO is as expansive subscription model MMO and most of time it would not live long enough.

Aaron Fowler
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Tell that to all the MMO fanboys. Developers have been trying to do this. The problem is, players don't care and still rush to the max level without looking back. And then complain because there isn't enough "content".

The vast majority of MMO players already have their minds set up of how a MMO should be.

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Aaron Fowler
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I see your point Joshua. I agree. The problem with the majority of MMO's, at its core, is probably due to the design of the flawed MMO framework.

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John Gordon
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Seems like they are throwing in the towel kind of early to me even considering their huge budget. Before WoW came along any MMO would have been happy to get a half million subscribers. If they've got about a million then they still have a good base to work with. They just need to fix the problems.

Subscription just seems way more profitable that F2P. Square-Enix recently announced that their most profitable game was Final Fantasy Online. That is really impressive when you consider each single player Final Fantasy seems to sell many millions. But Final Fantasy Online has at best a half million players. The key to MMO's is simply to stick with it long enough. I think if they just fixed the problems they'd have a very profitable game even with only about a million subs.


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