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In its quest to quickly push out a free-to-play model for its flagship MMO, has BioWare burned all players -- both subscribers and the new free crowd? MMO consultant Simon Ludgate takes a look at what the developer has really wrought with its adaptation of the game.
When BioWare created Star Wars: The Old Republic, the developer intended for it to be a huge blockbuster MMORPG, with millions of subscribers dutifully paying their fees for years and years. However, BioWare spent most of its money on single player story content, wrapped up in all the worst time-sink tropes that pervade the MMORPG genre. Design elements that players suffer through in order to get to the parts of the game they really enjoy: the coveted "end-game."
SWTOR's "end-game" was anemic at best, especially compared to the well-received storyline content. Surprise, surprise; most of the people who paid for the game didn't continue subscribing after playing through the story once or twice. Between the annoying grind and the recycled content -- another one of those annoying MMORPG tropes -- the game's single player content ended up being even less fun than a normal single player game, never mind the subscription fee to keep replaying it.
Faced with hefty costs to recoup, and dwindling subscription numbers, BioWare did what everyone else does with a failing MMORPG: alter the game to be free-to-play (F2P), which lets players download and log in to the game without buying it or paying a subscription. These games usually impose some restrictions on free players and try to sell them items in-game or convince them to upgrade to a subscription.
This article analyzes the effectiveness of the current SWTOR F2P model and contrasts it with general principles of F2P design and the specific issues with SWTOR that led to its downfall as a subscription-based game.
To begin with, I logged in to my old account and checked the in-game market to find out for myself what it would cost to have a subscription-like game experience without a subscription.
That's what it costs to play Star Wars: The Old Republic as a free player.
And that's assuming you're going to plunk down $180 to unlock everything (including hotbars to put your abilities on so you can actually use those abilities) on only two characters. You can't actually get more than two characters (as far as I can tell), and there's plenty else you can't unlock, like getting quest rewards from completing quests or carrying more than a handful of credits.
This is what they're expecting free players to pay. And those players are "free players" because $60 for a boxed game and $15 for a subscription was ridiculously overpriced and not something they were willing to pay for. That's why they're in SWOTR now that it's F2P, as a free player, spending Cartel Coins like they're Zimbabwe's 100 trillion dollar bills.
The unlocks totaling $180 are a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculations, which weren't made any easier by the buggy in-game Cartel store, which refused to show me the price for most account unlocks vs. individual unlocks. But since you only get two characters anyway, we'll just take the individuals and double the values; close enough.
The real shiv-to-the-gut is the ongoing weekly cost to play SWTOR. SWTOR has five main content avenues: the single player story, the single player space missions, the group Flashpoints (four-player dungeons), the Warzones (PvP battlegrounds), and Ops (20-person raids).
You have to pay for four different passes to unlock four of the game's five content avenues (all but the story) and each weekly pass is 240 cartel coins. As each cartel coin costs a little over 0.727 cents USD each, 240 per pass, four passes per character, two characters, four passes a month = 7680CC, or $55.84.
Now obviously, no sane person is going to actually pay $56 a month for SWTOR. They're going to pay the $15 subscription fee, or they're not going to pay at all. Which makes one thing very painfully obvious: SWTOR's F2P isn't meant to be a free-to-play MMORPG; it's meant to be an excessively contrived demo to get people to sign up for subscriptions.
Now, F2P games aren't really meant to be totally free. Duh. They're there to make a profit, like any other monetization scheme. But there's a right way and a wrong way to design an F2P/subscription hybrid game: You are either building a separate and meaningful way to play the game with the hope of turning a large profit from a small subset of paying players to offset the large number of non-paying players, or you are building an extended demo with the hope of turning F2P players into subscribers.
BioWare plainly went the wrong way with SWTOR. You don't have to go any further than the comments about how special and important subscribers are and how BioWare wants subscribers to feel special, even in the F2P environment. F2P is clearly just a demo; it's just that BioWare is changing the limit from "level cap 15" (the old trial, which also doesn't work) and instead applying every form of hindrance and impairment it can come up with, putting the Handicapper Generals to shame.
One has to question whether this makes any sense at all. The game was failing because people didn't want to pay for subscriptions. The choice was paying subscriptions or not playing at all, and people were choosing "not at all" over subs. How, then, does replacing "not at all" with "kneecapped" change things? How does that help net new subscribers, and how does that help keep existing subscribers?