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SWTOR Going Free To Play

HE TOLD ME ENOUGH! HE TOLD ME WE HAD MILLIONS OF SUBSCRIBERS!

It was foreshadowed for quite a while, and today EA finally made it official: SWTOR is going free to play.

The matrix listed at first glance is fairly reminiscent of SOE’s offerings – theoretically, you could play the entire game for free, but realistically, you run up against walls pretty quickly that ‘encourage’ you to switch to a subscription plan. The site is light on details (and most likely rushed out in time for EA’s earnings call to be held soon) but the cash shop items listed seem to run towards the intangible and not, say, unlocking a race or warzone.

So, as SWTOR players (which, by the way, I still am, to a fairly frightening degree) we still don’t have a lot of information on how this pending change will affect us. As industry pundits, though, it’s fairly easy to draw conclusions:

The subscription model is rapidly becoming the “new car price” initial markup of even the largest budget MMOs – once you get past the first year, that markup devolves to the default free-to-play model quickly. Even The Secret World, this year’s Most-Successful-MMO-Shipped-Until-Guild-Wars-Two-Consumes-All release (which, by the way, is launching as a free-to-play title), is already straightforward about how in a couple of years it will be a free to play title as well. The number of MMOs that do not have some free to play element are limited, indeed. And if you think World of Warcraft is some kind of exception? Well, they certainly don’t want you to think so judging from ads aimed at people who don’t play World of Warcraft (all seven of them):

Everything is free to play, because the financial barrier entry for MMOs is fiercely competitive and in the end it’s very difficult to compete with zero. However much grognards may grumble, the vast majority of players prefer that revenue model. They’ve voted as such with their pocketbooks, and MMO developers who fail to recognize this (all six of them) are committing malpractice.

The other conclusion, which somewhat contradicts the above: going free to play is seen as a sign of giving up. Would Bioware prefer to be making $15 from millions of people every month? Of course they would. Will they make $15 million a month in microtransactions from millions of free players? No one knows.  It’s a risk. And with a title as heavily weighed down with budgetary requirements and licensing fees as SWTOR? Risk is not something you easily sell. Which makes this decision all the more important: at this point there are X hundreds of millions of dollars in budgetary outlays to make back up, and clearly someone at EA saw the trend of subscriptions going down and said “uh, let’s try something new.”

2012, without a doubt, is the year of The Old Republic. And it has not been a good year.

  • adam

     “We’ve really been looking at this since the first day we launched. It really, for us, became a question of ‘when.'” 

  • Joe Ludwig

    Based on what we’ve seen with TF2 (and what Turbine saw with their games), I would say that Free to Play is the best way to go for any online-only game. Anything else just introduces too many barriers to new players. SW:TOR should have just launched that way and saved themselves a huge amount of pain (and negative press).

  • Matt Mihaly

    In other news that may be equally shocking to publishers still living in the 90s, the internet is pretty big these days too. 

  • VPellen

    I’m fairly sure GW2 is going to require you buy a box, which makes it technically not free to play, but that’s just an aside.

    People may not like paying subscriptions, but I still think cash shops carry a certain negative stigma. People don’t like that nagging feeling that they’re being bled for as much as possible. With the subscription model it was a fee, which is a barrier to entry, but there was some guarantee of stability there.

    But frankly, my biggest concern is that this really, really can’t be good for gameplay. The biggest advantage of the subscription model was that it took monetization out of the picture; You could just focus on the game and the moneymaker was the moneymaker. Cash shops have this habit of worming their way into gameplay; Having to design your game around your revenue model does not lead to happy places, least of all for the players.

    And of course it’s not going to stop, is it? Publishers aren’t going to get a sudden attack of conscience and realize that their business model may be restricting the potential for innovative growth.

    My only hope is that this kind of bleeding is ultimately unsustainable and that the industry will just sort of collapse in on itself. At least in that scenario, there’s a chance of something good rising from the ashes.

    But probably not.

  • Aufero

    So duct taping a standard grind-tastic MMO endgame onto your story driven single player experience doesn’t encourage people to keep subscribing once they’ve hit max level? 

    Who knew?

  • Greg Huegerich

    I’d say some of SOE’s offerings, not all, since what they’ve been doing has actually been fairly diverse and changing a bit with each game release.  Bullet Run has a fairly intriguing F2P model, worth peeking at if you haven’t already.  Its an FPS, so things are different there, but they’ve found a way to make the “fluff” count towards your fame/hype, which improves your advancement. Subs remove level restrictions on the fluff, and kick in advancement modifiers.

    What you can do with a game that launches Paid Sub, and converts to F2P later tends to be very limiting compared to what you see in a game that’s planned to go F2P right away. 

    I think that’s apparent with SOE in particular, as DCUO, EQ and EQ2 follow a certain type of model that likely aligns well with SWTOR will try. 

    Free Realms is a bit different because that was their first attempt at an F2P launch, and I think the change in where the old “velvet ropes” were placed after the first 6-10 months showed that the original mark wasn’t monetizing as well as it could have.

    Clone Wars, again, different kind of game, but seems to have a reasonable F2P model, that’s different than the others.

    Planetside 2 and EQNext …. it will be interesting to see how monetization gets handled, but they’ve certainly shown a strong leadership role in this area and a willingness to try new things.

    The real business question comes down to one of momentum. When you look back to original EQ and WoW (like EQ, only add zeroes and multiply by 5), these titles thrived on momentum and seemed to have steady, and even sharp growth before starting to descend a bit after several years.   If you launch a new F2P title, can you get enough growth momentum with a box cost and optional sub?   Is the MMO market becoming a slow version of the facebook game market where you have to monetize like mad in the first 6 months to recoup your investment in the title?

  • Let it all burn

    Before I begin, I must make the distinction between f2p games and p2p that goes into f2p. My rant has very little to do with games that start out as f2p. This mostly covers p2p that goes f2p:

    So are they going to redo all the voice acting in spanish to accommodate the millions of brazilians that are going to be flooding the servers? Or will they maintain the industry standard of not offering support to nonenglish speakers while taking their money and pretending they are the smartest businessmen in the world. Because that is basically the trick to most f2p transitions. Let all the third world rabble in, take their money, but never support them.

    And shame on you lum for implying “players” voted with their wallets. There was no vote. My 15 dollars a month for game x will never compare to my rich counter part willing to spend a grand a month for the same service.

     F2p is no different from our current international view on unchecked immigration. Flood 1st world countries with illegal immigrants (in this case, third world free to play players) and take advantage of their best (the handful of wealthy gamers who are willing to subsidize the rest) while letting the citizenry (old community) personally deal with their worst (12 year old brazilians who have a radically different idea of how the game should be played and how people should act).

    It’s all nonsense. The profit boosts from f2p transitions come directly at the expense of the existing player base and they are almost always short term. Very few people want to invalidate the time and money invested into the game by suddenly letting it go f2p  but there is nothing they can do to stop it, since game death is directly the fault of the company running the game and not the players inside it. f2p always means less support and less content. The people fired pre-f2p don’t magically come back. And since the majority of the population now doesnt speak english, there’s no reason to keep the remaining support teams around. It’s not a contradiction to say that p2p -> f2p is a sign of the company giving up. They pretty much dump their current community and support teams when they do so. You can put makeup on that pig and call it restructuring but to everyone else it’s quitting.

    If you so called industry experts had simply allowed us to trade in game gold and items for real life money in the first place, none of this would have happened. Instead of forcing us into f2p, you could have all added cash shops onto p2p and we would now have a happy medium. Instead, you so called professionals spent time and money attacking your player base for over 10 years.  For 10 years you blamed all game problems on your players and we predictably got sick of it. The secondary market has always been bigger than the primary market in mmos, and it’s understandable that you would get jealous of that. But instead of working with us, you worked against us. You trained an entire generation of players to think that trading some gold for some dollars was the same as working for the chinese mafia. But now you want to do that exact same shit? Hillarious. Even more so now that you are effectively killing the witnesses (older players) and replacing them with not just new ones, but new ones from an entirely different culture. Now, you want to abandon us and collect peasos from Jose and call it a success? Maybe. But give it another 10 years and they too will see through your bullshit. Already we have f2p communities demanding things like spanish support and abandoning games when they dont get it. Eventually they are going to wise up on this supposedly successful f2p scheme.

    The only future this industry has, it seems, is from the east. Time to learn korean.

    • Absor

      “f2p always means less support and less content.”

      This is just plain false.  I have a bit of first hand experience at this, and it’s not true in all or even most cases.

      Consider that for the game I work on, litterally nothing has changed since we became free to play from a day-to-day standpoint.  Just as many people working on the same things.  The only thing that has really changed are decisions about how the product of our labors is delivered.  That mostly revolves around what is to be free and what we need/want to sell.

      Of course it is true that some games may have had less support after going to a free to play model.  I would suggest to you that the reduction in support would have happened anyway.  In some cases I would even suspect that moving to the new model provided enough income to keep that reduction to a minimum.

      Look, I’m about as old school as it gets in this industry, and I have been one of the loudest advocates against change (read: whiners against change).  But I was wrong.  It works.  I’m not sure if free to play is the path to the future, but it certainly does what it is expected to.  It gives your game a broader audience.  It give people ways to pay you more or less what they think your game is worth.  It forces game companies to try harder. 

      If you can’t make huge profits off selling a box to people based solely on the quality of your advertising campaign, then maybe you actually have to make a game that is worth paying for.

      /shrug

      Alan

    • Luk

      Portuguese is the main language of Brasil, not Spanish

    • Aw, poor gold farmer, did someone ban your bots this week again?

      Your rant is hilariously racist and even more hilariously wrong. I’m leaving it up for its instructional value and humor.

    •  So are they going to redo all the voice acting in spanish to accommodate
      the millions of brazilians that are going to be flooding the servers?

      Brazilians speak Portuguese.

      So it’s still possible that EA might localise it into Spanish for this Portuguese-speaking country, it would be on a par with some of their other decisions.

  • JuJutsu

    “So are they going to redo all the voice acting in spanish to accommodate the millions of brazilians that are going to be flooding the servers?”

    Lol. Millions of Spanish speaking Brazilians eh? Don’t you realize that all the people in Latin America speak Latin? 

    • Oy.  Employ a bit of Google-fu and check your facts there.

      *ah* sarcasm can be hard to detect. Desculpe!

  • @5ac1be0c22ff599e21514505f582bddc:disqus  – and you have to say it “Brah-seel!”

    So, if we take EA’s word that they need 500K subscribers to make money, what is the free to play population going to have to be to get that same level of revenue?  I know some people will stay subscribed, but when free is an option it is, as has been said, hard to compete against.

    And what sort of cash shop atrocities is EA going to have to come up with in order to keep the Cartel Cash flowing through the system?  I am picturing Clone Wars Adventures writ gigantic.
     

  • Mandella

    I don’t have any philosophical problem with f2p, but I’ve seen implementation go horribly wrong. I’m speaking of Turbine with LOTRO, of course, and I find it sad that this example is often held up as the success story of microtransaction based MMO’s. They took a game that has at it’s core a particular atmosphere and story, and they stuck a Store in it. Everywhere you turn, you are bombarded with reminders and pointers toward the all important Store. It’s run some folks off (including me), and I have no idea if it’s gained enough to compensate.

    As for SWTOR, I guess we get to wait and see if Star Wars fans will think it’s as much of an intrusion.

    Oh, and they speak Portuguese in Brazil.

  • Tinman_au

    They’re going to a kinda hybrid model from what I can tell, if you take/keep subscribing, there will be no change to how you play the game pretty well.

    • Mandella

       So did LOTRO, in theory. In practice, it’s like paying for cable and still seeing all the commercials of network TV. Your subscription means you don’t have to buy any of the basic stuff or areas, but at the same time you still get all the ads and store links.

      I wish someone would set up the game (any game, LOTRO or SWTOR or whatever) to where, if you were a paying subscriber, you would get an ad-less playing experience. Sure, keep the store accessible, but remove the billboards, so to speak. Pipe dream, I know, as that is certainly more trouble than any dev wishes to take, at least so far.

      But speaking of devs, one of the biggest flaws in the microtransaction model is in how it puts marketing on the development staff. With the subscription model, advertising is something done outside of the game — once you are in you are already a customer, and the best way to keep you is to keep you having a fun time. Once we go f2p just because you’re playing doesn’t mean you’ve bought anything, which is something that marketing must correct! So we get quests and stories that dead end until you pull out the wallet, game content that is doled out by the nickel and dime.

      tl;dr version. I’ve tried f2p, but if I actually give a rat’s ass about a game as an immersive  experience, I didn’t like it.

  • Sanya

    I was prepared to hate LOTRO’s store.

    Turned out what I really hated what was F2P did to the Bree/North Downs chat. 

    But I’ve seen enough numbers from enough places to resign myself to the obvious – subscriptions can still work, but on niche games with an audience that buys into the necessity of a subscription. Preferably one that is willing to pay closer to 20 a month or forgo live customer service.

    Fortunately, the nice thing about F2P is you can try it and find out whether the designers are milking you, or simply untethering you from commitment.

    •  I’ve always found the most offensive part of the LotRO store to be how bloody awful the interface is.

      Everything else involved in the F2P transition either occurred as expected (Bree turning into a cesspit, advertising everywhere, a shameful lack of good cosmetic items for dwarfs and non-casters in general) or turned out to be a pleasant surprise (2 expansions in 2 years and lots of sorely needed improvements to various bits and bobs of the game.) But the damn store interface…

      It baffles me why they seemed to go out of their way to implement a store that acts in ways contrary to every browser I’ve used in the past 15 years. It’s slow, has a damn near useless search feature, a back button that erases your filtering options, and a pathetically tiny non-resizable window among other issues.

      I always walk away from the thing with the feeling that I’ve spent far longer than I probably should have doing whatever I was trying to do. Going through the lists of cosmetic gear and mounts seeing if they’ve added anything that is new or interesting probably takes 15 mins. Followed by another 10 mins of me bitterly complaining to my friends about how Turbine wants me to either look like a pillock or a midget bearded woman.

      I wonder how terrible the SWTOR storefront interface will be. Given that the general game UI looks and behaves like something someone cooked up to look good in a rushed e3 demo I do not have high hopes.