Earlier this week, EA announced that the massively multiplayer Star Wars: The Old Republic is switching from a subscription-based payment model, to the increasingly popular free-to-play. As Erik described in an earlier post on this site, players will have the option to continue to pay the traditional $14.99 a month in order to receive total access to the game’s features and content.
There are plenty of questions that still remain. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. So far, we know that players who aren’t subscribed can only access content like space missions, PvP warzones and PvE flashpoints a limited number of times per week. How many? For a casual gamer (who will make up the majority of players taking advantage of the free service), five dungeons or warzones might be enough in that stretch of time. As long as the rewards for completing them are the same, that’s most likely all the time the average person would have to invest anyway.
The in-game currency, Cartel Coins, is another quandary. Players who were subscribed to the game from the time the game launched to the change-over will retroactively earn this currency and will continue to accumulate it as long as they continue to subscribe. Players who chose the free path can purchase quantities of coins in bundles for cash. So far, the rewards for turning these in are cosmetic items and boosts. The latter of the two has yet to be defined.
I’m wondering how big the motivation will be for non-subscribers to use these coins. I’ve seen other games make similar promises in terms of delivering content for free, but hold back on features you wouldn’t expect. Throttling back experience gains and forcing players to grind or shell out cash for certain class abilities are two tactics I’ve seen in the past. They aren’t fun, and make you really resent the developers for trying to take advantage of you. It’s certainly a slippery slope.
What I’d love to see, instead, is large groups of players trying out the game, dabbling in PvP and dungeons, and hitting max level. Once there, we’re told they won’t have access to Operations, SWTOR’s versions of raids. Could the Cartel Coins be used to unlock tiers of raids? Maybe even on an instance by instance basis? The same could even go for Warzones. It would be an a la carte content buffet. That sounds great, right?
The trick is keeping both sections of players happy. Subscribers need to feel their investment and loyalty are being rewarded, while newcomers and gamers on a budget need to feel motivated to make the small purchases without feeling like they’re being taken advantage of or forced to buy.
BioWare is something of a contradiction when it comes to developing this game. The big news for weeks were the layoffs from the Austin-based team. With the player-base calling out for more tweaks and additional content, I don’t know how they could afford to lose the manpower. Now that they’ve clued us all in to their new direction, BioWare is promising more content at a faster pace. With the way MMO gamers consume said content, they have their work cut out for them.
The suggestion from BioWare is that subscribers will always gain access to this new content , while non-subscribers will either have to pay to unlock it, or simply go without. As I’ve said in the past, I like options. Options are always good. I just can’t help but see a few problems that could rise out of what is being proposed.
Let’s say the free-to-play tier of people have at their disposal four warzones. BioWare releases a handful of content patches over the course of a few months, giving subscribers access to two more warzones. When a subscriber queues up for a match, the odds of he/she getting into one of the old maps is much greater than one of the new ones because the pool of players queued for those includes both sets of players. The same issue could be said for the group finder for flashpoints, if it’s even available to free to play members. A subscriber attempting to queue for the new content individually would have to wait for subscribers of the same level to do the exact same thing.
This isn’t as much a problem for players who are in large guilds with friends who are consistently signed on at the same time. Sadly, that’s not possible for everyone. The server mergers helped this situation by bringing up the population per server substantially.
This new free model may only get BioWare so far. As a business, they want to retain customers as much as they want to attract new ones. The issue is that they seem to continue to bank on the level 1 through 50 experience. As great as it is (my favorite in any current MMO), it’s not something that will keep players around forever. I know very few people who get the bulk of the value from playing these games just from leveling.
This may be a bold step in the right direction for BioWare, but there are core issues they need to deal with when it comes to what gamers expect after they reach the max level. The true test for the developers is how they handle the more frequent content updates and even more so, how the community responds to it. I’m looking forward to following both.