SWTOR: Free to play doesn't mean we're doomed

It would be easy to look at Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s free-to-play announcement and write an article with a disparaging bent. Even before the announcement it was becoming generally accepted “wisdom” that the game was on its deathbed and those pronouncements are only going to grow more strident. Some may even extend this to the death of subscription based MMOs entirely, perhaps even predicting the mighty World of Warcraft is soon to follow.

It would be easy to do that. And it may even be accurate. But it’s BORING. I’d rather talk about what this change will mean for the game.

I’m a subscriber to SWTOR and I have been since release. I wrote a pretty glowing review for it back in January and, in my opinion, the game has only gotten better since. Switching to a subscription-optional model doesn’t have the same meaning for me as it might for others. It’s not an opportunity for me to reach level 50 or revisit a favourite dungeon or engage in some casual PvP. I can already do all of those things.

Bioware‘s plans for the near future of the game, both prior to the changeover and thereafter, have been spelled out in the official announcement. Things like a new companion for players as well as new group content and PvP Warzones have been “revealed” as if they were not already known or planned long before this. It’s an MMO, of course they’re going to keep adding new bits to it. It’s one of the genre’s greatest strengths.

What the devs are not talking about is the less tangible benefits of this change.

The primary benefit, for them, is that the swap to free to play will probably prove much more lucrative than continuing the purely subscription based system. The model Bioware have chosen, an optional subscription with optional perks purchasable with real money regardless of subscription status, has proven wildly successful for a number of other MMOs. After the initial fuss over Lord of the Rings Online‘s switch had settled down, Turbine reported a consistent tripling of their revenue compared to their old model, for example. EverQuest II followed a similar pattern when making its own switch to free to play.

It’s by no means a certainty that SWTOR will see the same sort of result, but even Team Fortress 2 jumped on the “free” bandwagon and has made stacks of cash, despite there being no real drive behind paying for those items except looking a bit cooler than the guy next to you.

[img_big]center,5446,2012-01-11/ss04_full.jpg,Star Wars: The Old Republic[/img_big]

The benefits for the actual fans are many and start with the big influx of players, both those returning to the game and those who never tried it in the first place. More bums on seats means it’s easier to find groups for content that requires it, easier to get enough opponents for meaningful PvP, guilds become more active… Even a game’s Auction House equivalent is improved, since more players equals more potential customers and more people selling more items you might be interested in buying in turn.
The only time more players is a problem for an MMO is when the servers aren’t capable of handling the heavier load. SWTOR has already shown it can handle huge numbers of players without any serious issues beyond the occasional server queue, so common to modern MMOs.

Beyond having more people to play with (or against) the increased revenue pushes the developers to create more content. They could, of course, create a new companion for subscribers as part of the regular update cycle of the game. That was probably the plan for HK-51’s introduction.

But with the introduction of real money transactions, BioWare now has a choice – does the company offer a new feature or piece of content only to subscribers? Is it provided free for subscribers and at a nominal fee for everyone else? Or is everybody charged the same, either as a microtransaction or via an expansion?

Obviously that last one isn’t going to endear them to gamers if it comes in the form of a microtransaction on top of their subscription, but the extra options gives Bioware a lot more latitude when it comes to expanding the game. If they want to add a speederbike players can paint, they no longer have to charge players purely in in-game currencies. Maybe the speeder itself costs in-game credits but the paint tins can only be bought with “cartel coins” that come from real money transactions.

Maybe you buy the speederbike with real money and the paint is crafted by other players, with whom you could trade in-game items, currency or cartel coins…

Guild Wars 2 is going to let you trade in-game gold and/or items for the crystal currency you buy with real money, so it’s definitely something that will be on Bioware‘s radar going forward.

The success, or lack thereof, of the shift to a primarily free to play model for such a big game is also going to be of great interest to the other major players in the MMO market. Trion has not yet announced whether Defiance (the company’s joint venture with SyFy) will require a subscription, but if Bioware proves it can work, well…

[img_big]center,5446,2012-01-11/operations02_1600x900.jpg,Star Wars: The Old Republic[/img_big]

For existing players of SWTOR, this is simply excellent news. More content, more often and more people with which to explore that galaxy far, far away.

And for everyone else, this is an opportunity to try one of the best new MMOs completely risk free. This isn’t a sign the game is being abandoned, it’s actually quite the opposite.

*waves hand* You don’t have a bad feeling about this.

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