SWTOR: Unfair-to-Play?

Are free-to-play gamers welcome in BioWare's flagship MMO? Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer shares his opinion on SWTOR's recent transition.

Editorial: When I first heard about Star Wars: The Old Republic moving to Free-to-Play, I cheered BioWare on for making a smart move. As it became increasingly squashed under the weight of a number of summer releases, the switch to free would breathe new life into the game just as Christmas approached. At least, that was the theory.

What actually happened was an onslaught of concern and criticism over what would generously be described as “overly aggressive monetization”. When patch 1.5 went live on the public test server, and we were able to try out life as a free-to-play newcomer, I was stunned. Lower XP rates and no rested XP? No ability to hide an equipped helm? Only two hotkey bars?

So what was BioWare’s original plan? When I spoke to Jeff Hickman, BioWare’s Executive Producer for Live Services, at Gamescom earlier this year, this was the reason he gave behind the move.

 

“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, 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 could make an offer to those players who don’t want to commit, because that’s generally what it is

 

 “For [free-to-play] 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.”

The end result is the three-tiered model SWTOR now has. But BioWare’s flagship MMO wasn’t the first game to launch with this system – Sony Online Entertainment had been using something similar for DC Universe Online, EverQuest II, and more.

An Incorrect Ethos

While it’s easy to point at the list of restrictions on free-to-play players and describe them as overly onerous, I wanted to look at precise reasons why. What is it that made the revamp and relaunch feel like such a miss-step?

One important motivation behind the free-to-play movement is this sense of being fairer to players.  David Williams, Lead Class Designer at FireFall, had this to say on the subject when I spoke to him at Gamescom earlier this year.

 

“I think [free-to-play] is generally a stronger model; it has fewer restrictions and it’s easier for players to try out. It’s egalitarian, because if you’ve got a good game, people will play, and if you do not have a good game people will not play. And I am totally fine with that.”

There’s more to it than just a sense of fairness – there’s also a chance to develop a growing community. GamersFirst Associate Game Director Joseph Willmon described how veteran players in Fallen Earth would help free-to-play newcomers, in an interview with ZAM last year.

 

“Really, though, Fallen Earth has always had one of the most helpful communities in the MMO world, hands down. There’s a Help chat system, and I have yet to see a question come through there that wasn’t answered both quickly and accurately.”

Yet, looking at the restrictions BioWare has introduced, free-to-play gamers aren’t welcome as part of that community. Despite SWTOR having a heavily fragmented experience already, free players are prevented from using general chat channels once they finish questing on the starting world. They’re also blocked from trading, or using particular types of gear. While some of these restrictions can be lifted by buying Cartel Coins for use in the item shop, other limitations, such as mount usage and no rested XP bonus, remain.

It doesn’t end there. Part of an MMO’s questing design is ensuring that there’s enough content for a player to hit a specific level by the time they’ve finished the zone. But with free-to-play gamers gaining XP at a reduced rate, they’re going to be hitting regular speed bumps as they play through the story. Taking away field revive just makes leveling even more painful.

If the idea behind free-to-play was to showcase the best BioWare has to offer, free-to-play gamers will probably feel browbeaten and penalized, rather than welcomed into a community that badly needs a fresh injection of new blood. And even if they do buy a bag of cartel coins and move up to Preferred Status, the level of support they’ll receive is still very much second class.

The nickel and dime approach doesn’t even seem to make a lot of business sense. Why ask players to pay for more UI hotkey bars, or to hide a character’s helm, or to get a better deal from NPC vendors? Why not tempt them with items they want to buy, instead of strong-arming them into paying for unlocks they feel compelled to purchase? Focusing on desirable vanity items is something that worked surprisingly well for EverQuest II, as Laura Naviaux, Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing told ZAM earlier this year.

 

“Well, we knew that mounts would be popular, but we didn't think they were going to be almost 25% of our revenue! There are a few things that created more volume than we necessarily thought. The expansion - Age of Discovery - is selling tremendously well. There are also a few things that come up on the boards where we go, "Oh yeah, that'd be cool to add in!" Colors are another big thing. Often times we'll make something and someone will say "Oh, I'd really love this in another color!" Nine times out of ten, we can accommodate that!”

Can bad monetization damage an MMO? Richard Corbett at Eurogamer certainly seems to think so, with their recent re-review lowering SWTOR’s score from a respectable 8 to a disappointing 4 out of 10. While it’s clearly more sensible to start off with an over-aggressive plan and then scale it back, the lengths that BioWare has gone to are likely to put off any potential new customers.

Fixing a Hole

There were some things about the transition that BioWare did right, like rewarding existing and former subscribers, and offering account-wide ability unlocks in exchange for cartel coins. I also think it’s a nice touch that many of the unlocks can be sold on the Galactic Trade Network. Beyond that, the team really needs to address some significant shortcomings in order to convert reluctant gamers into fans.

To start with, I’d drop a whole batch of restrictions to enable new players to join in chat and ask for help, regardless of level. I’d also drop many of the pettier restrictions, such as hiding a helm or having a lower XP rate. I’d preserve restrictions only where it made sense to do so, such as credit and crew skill limits. All of this would be done with the aim of rolling out the welcome mat to newcomers, instead of barely tolerating their presence on the server.

I’d introduce account service packs to the Cartel Store – character renames, server transfers, recustomizations, character slots and so on. These are services that both full-paying subscribers and non-paying newcomers would be interested in picking up.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I would integrate that massive yellow coin with the rest of the UI. At the moment it’s a neon yellow wart on an otherwise wrinkle-free interface.

Finally, I’d pull apart the cartel packs and relist the mounts and pets individually. I’d still introduce cartel packs every month or so, possibly with exclusive color items, but I’d look to get a mount and pet store up and running as soon as possible. I’d also add a barrage of cosmetic items – more new clothing sets, new items for my ship, and possibly even ship resprays. After all, every new vanity item is something that can be sold to subscribers and free players alike.

Ultimately though, BioWare need to move quickly. Without some bold and significant movement, the initiative is likely to be lost to other free-to-play games that are making a grab for the market. Without change, I’m doubtful that the current incarnation of free-to-play will pull in the new players BioWare hopes to get.

After all, you catch more gamers with honey than vinegar.

Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Senior Contributing Editor

Comments

Root Thread
Free to Pay
# Dec 03 2012 at 11:37 AM Rating: Decent
21 posts
Pardon the pun

You make a lot of good points Gaz, but I think I disagree on a fundamental level about what a F2P experience vs a paying experience should be.

I've been around the block a couple of times with games that switched from subscription based to a 'free' model. DDO, LTOR, STO, EQ, and EQ2. I think everyone would probably agree that the most successful transition from pay to 'free' was DDO. Turbine really seemed to get the concept of there are gamers with discretionary funds that will drop one or two dollars here and there and that there is a slimmer population of gamers willing to drop a few hundred. Take a look at WoT; in my opinion, they are aiming at the latter group with their free to play system. If you want a premium tank that is competitive at high tiers, you're going to drop more than $20 on it. If you want to play any tank over tier 7, you're going to almost have to have a premium tank or a premium account to pay your repair bills. If you aren't paying attention to your PayPal, you'll find yourself in the hole by a couple hundred dollars every couple of months. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I'd look at EQ2. Upgrading to 'silver' (Much like SWTOR) gets you access to some perks for a tiny monetary amount that will allow you to complete the story arcs through Sentinel's Fate (At that point, many rewards and drops are 'Legendary' and cannot be equipped). SOE is constantly running promotional deals doubling and tripling your SC contributions and many of the store items translate to $2 or $3 purchases. Sure their mounts and cosmetic sets are pricey, but for the most part, you can game your butt off for minimal investment. Cryptic's STO transformation is similar to Bioware's in that it added annoyances for subscribers without making a significant play experience difference between the paying and preferred-free tiers.

Having a free experience that is equivalent to a paying experience alienates your paying customers and rewards nonpaying users with entitlements. I don't think I need to go into how 45% or so of the population of America feel about entitlements. I think Bioware was right to want to make freeplayers feel that they are missing out on some things, but I think they chose poorly on how to implement that. The cosmetic 'no hat' is just silly. The crafting limitation was almost smart. Basically, for $5, you can become a crafter using two characters to round out your gathering skills. The no secure trading is a fail. The goal of a F2P switch was to increase server population and interaction, which should include a player based economy. By preventing freeplayers from participating fully in the player economy, they are defeating one of the goals of F2P. Freeplayers can't craft much themselves, so giving them full access to personal trading should provide a boon to the value of green and blue crafted items. The Credit cap limit makes sense to discourage gold farmers/sellers. The no sprint til 15 is just asinine. That will turn players away more than anything else. After making the run from the volcano on Ord Mantell to the closest travel hub at a walk once, that will be a shelved character. The UI limit.. also asinine. I will agree that the cartel UI button is off style. It should have been implemented as an additional hot button in one of the existing UI bars.

Here's where I get called troll; what bioware should have done is embraced their paying members by giving them something unique to subscribers. (i.e. summoning 2 companions after lvl 35 or 40; 1.5x inherent xp boost, cartel stims stack, triple legacy exp) Preferred status only happens if you pay the cost of a box game, like all of the subscribers pre switch did. Preferred status gets you all the content, but you have to pay for the end game operations, no social or valor xp granted. F2P goes WoW mode. An F2Per gets all the story access up to Chapter 3. If you want to see the chapter 3 content, gotta buy the game. No crafting access period. Green and Blue gear only, ala EQ2. No social or valor xp.
Then they need a store like EQ2. Something where you can spend $1 or spend $100. The people interested in spending huge money on games is out there, just look at kickstarter. However, most people looking for something f2p that can't get into a free beta might not spend anything, so there has to be items in the store that are cheap enough to be an impulse buy.

Free account required to post

You must log in or create an account to post messages.