As we all know, SWTOR is going “free-to-play” this fall, hot on the heels of the long anticipated 1.5 patch. For many, this transition was inevitable, the obvious next step for any MMO that doesn’t have Warcraft in the title. For some games, the move away from a traditional subscription model has been enough to breathe new life into them. Games like Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online experienced revitalization in the hands of moochers and teenagers whose parents were remiss to give up their credit cards. For both games, the shift tended towards “adventure packs” that included dungeons, extra races and classes, and generic boosts to experience gains alongside the traditional vanity items that dominate most in-game cash shops. For the incoming player, the experience stayed relatively unmolested, the crushing grasp of freemium only coming once the player was suitably invested.
In the model used by both LOTRO and DDO, players are given the option to become a subscriber, maintaining the same access to content as before, or they can use the in-game currency to buy access to various features. The various levels of fiduciary dedication to the game generally allow a player to work within the game at whatever level they want. Start as a free player and invest however much you want as you go along, knowing that for the most part, you’ll be experiencing the game as it was intended at launch.
The entire system is microtransaction driven, hinging on the fact that “free” players will be willing to dole out a bit here and there to access content as they get to it or is released. There’s a trust implicit in that, trust that the players will enjoy the game enough to invest in it. I can see how that would be absolutely terrifying for a MMO developer: to trust in their players to not be complete douchebags. I’ve read MMO forums, the stuff those people spew would make Dante Alighieri blush. For both LOTRO and DDO the transition came at a point where it was the only option, when the developers were beyond fear, firmly rooted in desperation. It’s this trust, both in your product and your players, that drives the entire thing.
Based on what we know so far, it’s looking like EA trusts their players as much as a creepy uncle who just got out prison for the second time. Currently, “free” players of SWTOR will be forced to purchase weekly passes to access content beyond the most basic level. You’ll be able to do 3 warzone PVP matches or 3 flashpoint dungeon runs per week without shelling out cash, but after that you either need to set up a monthly deduction or “rent” the content. Instead of trusting free players to have enough fun with the game to purchase content packs to expand their experience, EA is demanding that they subscribe. There’s no middle ground between free player and subscriber, it’s fork over $15 a month or go home. EA isn’t hoping to shift the paradigm of the game, it’s just looking for another way to force players to sign up.
Most of the limitations are there to harass and annoy people, many of them being directly related to quality of life. Free players will run slower, have smaller bags, and be able to resurrect less often than subscription players. That’s right, SWTOR is literally become a pay2live game. The game free users play will be significantly less enjoyable than it was initially designed to be. Do you really expect people who are playing a game that attempts to hamper their enjoyment at every turn to want to throw more money at it?
What’s most surprising about this is that it’s not like EA isn’t familiar with a content delivery system similar to other successful F2P games. Battlefield 3 uses a very similar system in delivering map packs at intervals for a price. Old players have a reason to come back while new players are given a reason to try the game out in the first place. Replace maps with planets, flashpoints, and classes, and you’ve got a proven method to deliver content while giving players the space to experience the game enough to justify buying more. Imagine if, while playing BF3, you were given one of the maps 3 times and then told you had to pay $5 to unlock it for the week. You’re probably posting a video of your rage on Youtube just at the THOUGHT of such a thing. What’s different when it’s applied to SWTOR?
It’s almost as if they’re applying the Farmville model to a MMORPG, where you can only do so much per week before you have to invest. Problem is, MMORPG players are much more saavy than your aunt who keeps asking for carrots on Facebook.
This isn’t to say that some limitations aren’t necessary. Looking at both DDO and LOTRO, free players are given rather harsh limitations to currency storage and chat capabilities, but many of these are relaxed or outright lifted the moment the player buys some in-game currency. They’re there to prevent scamming and rampant real-money-trading, not to harass actual players into subscribing to the game.
Here’s some free advice EA, stop referring to this as F2P and call it what it is: a trial. Even Blizzard refers to its “free-to-play” level 1-20 experience as a trial, and they could probably have their game kick players in the genitals every 20 minutes and still be in the black. Under this system, new players will find a game that’s attempting to block their enjoyment at every turn, dangling the carrot right out of their reach while nickel and dime-ing them at every step.
On a personal note, I’m really sad to see this go down like it did. I was really excited to have the game go F2P, if only to log back on and spend a little time with Corso and company again, blowing up some droids and running space missions. I probably would’ve even tossed $10 at the game to buy the new operation and space missions, but wouldn’t re-subscribe for many of the same reasons that I cancelled for in the first place. As it stands, I’d rather throw my money at a game that’s willing to give me a bit more before it yanks the rug out from under me and demands payment. I hear there’s something cool going on in Tyria this Halloween totally for free.