Published on August 11th, 2012 | by Gary Kirwan
Free to Play…Mostly
Everyone loves free-to-play. We’re all cheapskates, I know you thought your secret was safe, but you’re fooling nobody. We’ll all buy anything that’s free, and in the world of MMOs where everything comes at a cost it’s rare to see anything of the sort. The fact that Star Wars: The Old Republic has now gone free-to-play is therefore good news for the gaming community.
The game has had its share of problems, launching with what many would consider an incomplete package, endgame raids riddled with bugs and then the magical 1.2 patch which was to fix everything but perhaps arrived too late. It’s also lost a percentage of the original subscribers over the course of its six months on the market, a natural occurrence in the fickle world of online games, but it seems no press is good press for the EA-Bioware space opera. In fact, removing the subscription fee has been mentioned a number of times in the industry as the best hope for SWTOR (pronounced swi-tor? Sew-tor? Sweater maybe? Let’s go with sweater) to survive the launch of the two upcoming behemoths. So the fact that they’ve now announced the adoption of the model that’s easy on the wallet is perhaps not unexpected. The interesting part is Bioware’s approach to which content is, and isn’t actually free.
There are two pitfalls commonly associated with F2P games:
- the game becomes a whirling time vortex in an effort to stretch the content as far as it will go before breaking even the most iron-willed of seasoned gamers – thus giving the illusion of more content than there actually is and maintaining a player-base for longer periods with minimal development costs associated with new content.
- the game becomes pay-to-win, rewarding those with disposable income and willingness to spend the same on power boosts to gain an unfair advantage over those without the same inclinations, creating a divide between the haves and have-nots and alienating a portion of the playerbase. This method can stem from the only real accepted model which is micro-transactions for purely cosmetic items (i.e. Sparkle Ponies) or anything which grants no statistical advantage over anyone else.
Bioware have chosen to retain the subscription model for those who feel the game justifies such a fee and for them the game remains pretty much as is. For the F2P adoptee, access to aspects of the content is to be limited. Flashpoints and Warzones, the game’s primary PvE and PvP options respectively, will come with a certain number of chances to play per week. This, in my opinion, falls into both of the pits on the “What Not To Do” list.
By limiting access the content is artificially extended and it takes much longer to get anything done. It’s not unlike social games which limit your game time with energy or action-point mechanics which, once consumed, take a certain amount of time to recover. In my experience people don’t like being told how much of a game they can play. This shifts the balance of power between the subscribers and those who choose not to subscribe, as the latter will take longer to achieve anything that the former set out to do. The poor fool who can’t meet the subscription costs is also shut out of the endgame raid content entirely, which is arguably the most appealing thing about the game at max level. If you look at the developers post announcing the freemium model you’ll see mention of the following:
We have a great lineup in development including: a new Operation, Terror From Beyond, a new heroic mission series on the planet of Belsavis; a set of level 50 space combat missions for those looking for the ultimate challenge mode; introduction of a dangerous new Companion to accompany you; and for our PvP fans, a new warzone, Ancient Hypergate!
Notice anything? Of those five things in development, three either have restrictions for or are completely unavailable to one area of the future playerbase. I get that the idea is for people to get a taste of the game and then fork over the cash to play it properly, but isn’t that what a free trial does? Is what’s really happening is that the current twenty-level trial is simply being extended to fifty? This could all have been avoided by separating the two groups but instead they all can play on the same servers. From a business point of view the hope would be that the free players see how good life is on the other side and decide to pay the fee. The flip side is that looking at what the privileged have access to alienates the former.
It’s not all doom and gloom luckily. One of the things that set The Old Republic apart from other games in the genre at launch was the levelling experience – specifically the personal story unique to each class. These are well-written, entertaining, often challenging and break up the typical “Kill 10 Rats” procedure. Regardless of payment or unpayment (totally not a word) model you get access to all of the story content. This is great for anyone that enjoyed the single-player prequels to SWTOR, you get all of the single-player content free of charge and without the need for all that troublesome socialising. There’s really no downside to the 1-50 part of the game now, I would recommend that everyone try it out. The game changes completely after that anyway and the fact that almost every gameplay avenue available once your story ends is restricted may mean you never get to it and therefore don’t know what you’re missing. Regardless of the pros and cons, the game going free-to-play is good news for us as gamers and should hopefully allow Bioware to continue producing content.