Gamescom: SWTOR's Jeff Hickman on Free-to-Play

We spoke to BioWare's Executive Producer for Live Services about introducing a free-to-play option, future updates and the impact of Hero Engine.

When I met Jeff Hickman at Gamescom earlier this month, I got the impression that the look of focused determination he wore would be more suited to a battle cruiser captain. But for BioWare’s Executive Producer for Live Services, and the man at the helm of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), such attention is warranted. In navigating his team through the rapidly shifting MMO landscape, Hickman hopes to attract newcomers to the game while offering subscribers a premium experience.

Besides a long look at payment models, Hickman and the team have also reassessed their approach to new content. While content updates will be slimmer than the large patches we’ve experienced previously, BioWare now hopes to deliver fresh gaming fun every six weeks. He also suggests that players should look closely at these updates if they want a hint of where the SWTOR story is heading.

I started off by asking about where the idea for SWTOR’s free-to-play option came from, and what influenced the team in deciding to offer it alongside the existing subscription. Hickman explained that, while they’ve been aware of what other MMOs were doing, it was player feedback that encouraged them to choose this route.

“We knew that there were other models out there, and they’ve been successful, and it’s kind of been that question in our minds. And so, after we launched, we analyzed the data and watched what our player behavior was. 

“It was obvious to us that there was a set of people who wanted subscription, not just were OK with it but actually wanted it. They want the convenience of it; they want to know that they’re locked in to the game and not worry about this whole thing.

“And then there was another set of people, a pretty big set, mostly our younger gamers, who have a completely opposite opinion on this. They don’t look at it like many of us do, who came through the subscription MMO in the early days. They look at it and go: I don’t want to pay a single thing until I’ve tried it out, until I know that I like it, and even then I don’t want to have to pay for a giant package of stuff. I want to pay for the things that I want, and only the things that I want.”

Armed with this insight, Hickman decided to act. Even so, SWTOR wasn’t about to head into completely uncharted space. He added that the team had drawn inspiration from other games that had tried a similar approach, such as Lord of the Rings Online.

“As we looked at this stuff, we could stay the course just like every other MMO has tried to do, and take two or three years, and continue to analyze this stuff, and cater to our subscribers, and not think about anybody else. Or, we could try to be both options. We could still cater to our subscribers, we can still make sure that they’re treated as premium players, with all the benefits that a premium player has. And at the same time, we can make an offer to those players who don’t want to commit, because that’s generally what it is.

“And so we sat down and did a big analysis of this about three months ago. And it became clear to us that, once we laid it out on paper and sat back and looked at it, it’s actually pretty obvious. We can, I think, have the best of both worlds. Our players can have the best of both worlds.”

Hickman went on to explain how the free-to-play approach would differ from the premium subscription, although he was eager to stress that these were examples and not anything definitive. There was a significant emphasis on adjustability, allowing players to flex options as they wanted.

“For players like you or me, here’s the subscription, you get everything, have a great time, no worries.

“For other players, we’re going to have a restricted but deep experience, where you can come in and play some of the best of what we offer: our story. And our hope is that by playing the story, and interacting with all the other things that are going on peripherally - warzones, flashpoints, crafting, legacy systems, all this stuff - those players will start to reach out and grab the other things that they like.

“Think of it as an a la carte offering. If you’re a person who wants to play PvP this week, you can buy out of the PvP restrictions. If you want to play flashpoints next week, buy out of the flashpoint restrictions. Whatever you want.”

Although subscribers can step down if they would like, Hickman hopes that by treating them to a premium experience, they’ll decide to keep their monthly membership. For those that do decide to step down, he explained that most of the account restrictions would come into force. How far those restrictions extend is something the team is currently working on, although he suggested that players are likely to retain access to all their characters.

With BioWare forging ahead incorporating a free-to-play option, I then asked how the team planned to release new content. Hickman felt that there was too much time between previous major patches. Looking forward, he hopes that content updates will be smaller but much more frequent.

“What we’re trying to do is commit to a six week update schedule. It’ll mean a little bit smaller updates, but they’ll be significant. And its stuff like what you’re talking about – it’ll be a big event, or a warzone, an operation, maybe a flashpoint, maybe some space missions – you guys should expect to see some hard mode space missions coming. Our commitment is that every six weeks, the players are going to see something come out.”

The discussion around creating new content for players to chew through led to Hero Engine, the bedrock upon which SWTOR is built. After receiving a substantial amount of player ire since the game’s launch last year, I asked if Hero deserved the amount of criticism leveled at it. 

“I think every game engine – I’ve worked with three or four MMO engines – has its limitations and its strengths. There are certain things that hero Engine does magically, like magically, that we couldn’t have imagined doing with, let’s say, the Dark Age of Camelot engine. And there are other things that it just doesn’t do as well. So with every engine, you have to find one that matches the goals that you have, especially for content development, [but also] for performance, or ease of deployment, there are so many criteria. 

“Try to match the best you can with what you need, and then identify the strengths, play to them, identify the weaknesses, try to bolster them or overcome them. Hero has those, just like every other engine does. I think that in general, it plays to the strengths that we need. There are some things that we struggle with, just like with any engine; weaknesses that we look at and go ‘Crap, well, we’re just going to have to focus on that.’ And it does cause difficulty sometimes. But I don’t think that’s anything to do with ‘is Hero Engine good or bad’ - any engine is going to have that thing. Any MMO developer that says ‘No, our engine’s perfect’, they’re not being forthright.”

After being a long-standing fan of space combat classic X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, I asked Hickman what he thought of providing such a mode as an alternative to space missions. While he confirmed that he’s a fan of the original, he wouldn’t be drawn further on the concept, apart from confirming that there’s a dedicated space team working on “lots of interesting things”.

As we wrapped things up, I mentioned that whenever I logged in, I was reminded of being in an ‘interlude’, so I asked Hickman when we’d see our characters progress beyond this point. Although he reminded me of BioWare’s approach to story – “when it’s done” – he did point out where we can find hints on where the story is headed. 

“If you’re looking at the Chevin event right now, once it’s done, look back on the event from start to finish, and analyze it, hopefully you’ll see that it’s full of foreshadowing. It’s starting to tell the story that’s going to be happening later. And so you’re going to see that in some of the events a little bit.”

With several chunks of content coming soon, from imminent arrival of the new Ancient Hypergates warzone to more distant new Operation and revelation of the planet Makeb, there’s certainly a lot to look forward to for existing subscribers and free-to-play newcomers. Beyond that, Hickman’s looking to make sure there’s always an interesting destination on the horizon.

Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer, Staff Writer


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