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SWTOR’s F2P is an unsatisfying compromise

(Sorry for the radio silence; I’ve been away with my tabletop gaming group. Gaming holidays ftw!)

So, SWTOR’s F2P patch has hit the test servers, and finally we’re starting to see the details people have been wondering about ever since the F2P announcement first hit.

One recent Google search term that hit my page: “swtor horrible f2p implementation”. Sadly, I’m forced to agree with the anonymous searcher. The best I can say about it is that it’s less horrible than it could have been.

Dulfy.net has, as usual, a good round-up of the facts. Of particular note is the fact that SWTOR will indeed have a premium feature level, applicable to anybody who’s ever spent money on the game (either as a former subscriber or via the cash shop). This is common among F2P games; SWTOR’s version is called “Preferred Status”.

So let’s have a look at SWTOR’s F2P implementation in detail, shall we?

The Restrictions

Character Creation

  • Free players: Human, Zabrak and Cyborg are your only options, for a maximum of two characters per server.
  • Preferred Status players get to keep species they’ve unlocked via Legacy.

This seems fairly reasonable – it’s restrictive, but not unduly so. Presumably you’ll also be able to access a character created as a subscriber even if they’re another species, though I haven’t seen confirmation of that.

Communication & Social

  • Free players get 1 message per minute in public channels, can’t send mail at all, and can’t use /who. (Say, ops, groups and tells are unrestricted.) They also can’t hide head slot, unify armor colours, show a title or legacy name, use most emotes.
  • Preferred Status players have a higher quota for public channel messages, can use /who, and can send mail with up to 1 attachment.

Again, fairly standard practice, although limiting free players from using /who seems rather excessive; it’ll make it harder for them to actually meet up with their friends, thus making the game less appealing. The lack of emotes is a giant WTF, at least to me. I can understand selling some ‘premium’ emotes separately, as LotRO does, but not being able to /cheer at the person next to you is just ridiculous.

Items and Money

  • Free players can’t expand their inventory using credits, no access to the Cargo Hold (bank), vendor items cost 25% more credits or tokens, no trading, only 2 sale slots on the GTN (sales network), can’t equip purple gear or event gear, Cartel Coin items are locked for longer, capped at 200k credits, caps on all commendation types.
  • Preferred Status players can trade, can use the Cargo Hold, retain any inventory or Cargo Hold expansions they’d purchased, get 5 GTN sales slots, and have a higher credit cap.

These are fairly standard limitations, although the lack of a bank is a bit restrictive. (The trouble is that the basic Cargo Hold is pretty generous even before you expand it; there’s no half-measure they can offer a free player.) I’m ambivalent about the restriction on artifact-quality gear, too, especially given that it’s very expensive to unlock.

Travel

  • Free players can’t use Fleet Pass, Quick Travel cooldown is 2 hours.

Inconvenient, but not unexpected. This will likely be a huge annoyance to former subscribers, but F2P players probably won’t mind it too much.

Combat

  • Free players only get 5 field revives total, and must buy more when they’re used up. Free players also only get 2 quickbars (increased from 1 due to community outcry).

Even 2 quickbars is horribly limiting for ACs like the Jedi Sentinel/Sith Marauder. Ugh. This seems like such a petty restriction.

Companions & Crew Skills

  • Free players can only deploy 3 companions, and only get 1 crew skill. Lockboxes from crew skill missions aren’t received.
  • Preferred Status players get an extra crew skill.

This is pretty reasonable — it’s the kind of thing that won’t be horrible for free players or former subscribers, but is still a good carrot to get people to subscribe as they get more involved in the game.

Content

  • Free players don’t get access to Section X (the new content coming in Patch 1.5); only 3 space missions per week, only 5 warzones per week, no Operations, no lockboxes from mission rewards, only 3 loot rolls per week.

The lack of lockboxes, as with crew skill missions, is another one of those petty restrictions that just chafes without seeming reasonable. I think it’s a mistake to restrict free players from Operations content – this seems like something that would be ideal for Preferred Status players. As it stands, restricting Operations to subscribers doesn’t really encourage anyone to subscribe other than those who are regular raiders already — it doesn’t give free players a chance to sample an Operation or two and get hooked. Then again, they couldn’t wear the purple loot from an Operation anyway.

My Thoughts

As I’m sure you can tell already, my thoughts aren’t complimentary.

A good F2P system, in my opinion, doesn’t force people to subscribe — it lets you unlock most game features piecemeal, so if subscribing looks like a bad deal for you (because you’re not interested in some content, or because you have limited time to play) you’re still encouraged to spend money in microtransactions on the parts of the game you do want.

SWTOR nearly hits this mark — it allows you to spend RL money (via their Cartel Coins currency) on unlocking content, but it’s only on a periodic basis. You can buy weekly content passes to remove the limitations on warzones, space missions, flashpoint loot rolls and operations (although if you win any epic gear on those operations, you’ll have to pay 1200CC for an Artifact Equipment Authorization to actually wear it). 1

But there’s not enough incentive to purchase these passes in the first place, in my opinion. Raiding is a particularly egregious example – without the weekly pass, you can’t do a single Op. Who’s going to spend 240 Cartel Coins just to see if they like Operations? Far better, I would think, to allow Preferred Access players one Operation per week for free, to whet their appetite and encourage them to spend more or subscribe. This would also have the side benefit of making server communities healthier, by providing a larger pool of potential Ops recruits.

Ultimately, I think the most offputting thing is the pettiness of some of the restrictions. Some make sense – limited chat, trade and cash caps, for instance, to stop the potential floods of spammers and scammers. Restrictions on bag space, crew skills, and the like? Fair enough. But too many of the restrictions are offputting, not enticements — massive restrictions on emotes and moods? Can’t use /who? Can’t use extra quickbars? These come across as unreasonably petty, nickel-and-dime nonsense, and I think a lot of people will find them hostile and offputting. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to a game that restricted even the most basic emotes, or stopped me making UI customisations.

And yet they’re steadfastly refusing to restrict access to their greatest selling point – their story. If they let you do Act I for free, to get you hooked, and then sold permanent access to Acts 2 and 3 (separately), they’d be drowning in players throwing money at them. As it is, they’re giving you all the good stuff for free, and then putting really annoying obstacles in front of you that you have to pay to remove. Just skip the obstacles and charge for the stuff we want to spend money on — the content that’s what Bioware is best at.

In my experience, successful and enjoyable F2P transitions involve more carrot than stick. Don’t punish the free player for being a free player – encourage them to spend by showing them the tasty goodness that’s out of their reach, rather than taking away the staples most players have come to expect as part of the basic play experience. If you give Fred the story content for free, but make him pay to do all the trivial stuff, and you give Jane the trivial stuff for free and make her pay for the story, I’m willing to bet that Jane will spend just as much as Fred, and she’ll be a lot less annoyed to boot.

Carrot, Bioware, not stick. Please.

The trap of linearity

Tobold is experiencing Mists of Pandaria largely spoiler-free, and is concerned that MoP is shaping up to be just as linear as Cataclysm.

Blizzard is making most of their money from people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.

Mists of Pandaria might well turn out to be the worst expansion ever to level alts in. It has the linearity of Cataclysm zones, but where Catalysm had two possible zones to start in, Mists of Pandaria only has one. The Jade Forest might end up being more hated than Hellfire Peninsula, because in Hellfire at least you could skip the quests you didn’t like. All the talk you heard about Blizzard making MoP more casual-friendly is going to come to nothing if those casuals become bored of leveling alts due to linear questing.

An SWTOR mission

This is exactly the problem I encountered with SWTOR. The class quests are unique to your class, but the rest of the zones are incredibly linear, with very little room for deviation. The best you can do is try to get ahead on XP and skip side quests, but you can’t just ignore a zone planet completely even when you’re totally burnt out on it.

This pretty much killed any desire I had to play alts in a serious way in SWTOR, despite my interest in the different classes and their individual stories. It is, I think, probably the single biggest flaw with SWTOR: the replayability is very low1, which means that there’s little motivation to continue subscribing2 after you’ve played both factions to level cap. Even raiders need something to do outside of raid times.

Tangentially, The Secret World has the same problem — however, it’s less of an issue in TSW because you can do everything on one character (except experience the very small amount of faction-specific content), so a) there’s less impetus to play alts, and b) you’ve got a lot more to keep you busy on your main character anyway.

Totally linear quest progression is, I think, a design mistake for a traditional MMO. It may enable the devs to tell more interesting, engrossing and epic stories, but it’s at the expense of replayability, and replayability is where the MMO money is.

  1. Relative to most other MMOs.
  2. For most people.

F2P: SWTOR, you’re doing it wrong

Inspired by the recent discussion of SWTOR’s move to free-to-play in the blogosphere, I went looking at F2P offerings from other MMORPGs. While implementing F2P is often a good move for an MMO’s revenue, I think Bioware have got the wrong end of the stick with SWTOR’s model, and I’m honestly concerned that it’s going to do more harm than good to the longevity of the game.

(I’m not actually obsessed with F2P MMORPGs, contrary to the recent spate of posts. It’s just a hot topic right now, and there are a lot of interesting discussions happening thanks to SWTOR’s recent announcement.)

If you look at the different games with F2P options (shown in the table below, or neatly formatted on a standalone page), you’ll see a lot of similarities. Almost all games restrict your character creation options, for instance, usually in terms of access to classes and number of character slots. We’ve got no information about SWTOR’s plans in that arena, but there’s been no mention of such limitations yet. And most restrict at least some of their levelling content (which is the meat and potatoes of what a game has to offer to all except the most involved players), yet SWTOR has promised to give all theirs away for free.

Free-to-play, as a concept, exists to get money from customers who aren’t willing to commit to a subscription. A good implementation of F2P will encourage non-subscribers to give you their money. A bad implementation will encourage current subscribers to stop giving you their money. If current subscribers are looking at your upcoming F2P and deciding they can afford to unsubscribe, it rather suggests that you’re giving away the wrong stuff for free. And I’ve heard a lot more people saying they’ll go from subscription to F2P than the other direction.

SWTOR’s publicity and advertising all focused around its impressive quest content, story and character development, and fully-voiced-and-animated NPC dialogues. And yet Bioware has decided that that’s the stuff they’re going to give away for free, while restricting the raiding and PvP endgames (which are, let’s be honest, the parts of the game that are most interchangeable with other MMOs) to those who pay up.

Unless Bioware plans to implement extremely stringent limits on the number of characters a free account can have, 1 I don’t see this ending well for their balance sheet.

Other thoughts from the blogosphere on the same issue:

Financial analysts, on the other hand, seem to think this change could make SWTOR more popular than WoW. Good luck with that.

Follow the link for the full table of F2P comparisons.

  1. Which will be seen as a bait and switch as any mention of it has been omitted so far, and will thus provoke a lot of unnecessary hostility

SWTOR and the F2P tango

Well, today’s big news in MMO Land is that Star Wars: the Old Republic is going free-to-play. That will gratify all the doomsayers who predicted failure for the game, and said “see you when it goes free to play in six months” — whether or not this represents a failure, it will certainly be perceived as one by many commentators.

Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place. Few big releases these days don’t include at least a cash shop of some kind (as TSW does), if not an entire free-to-play or buy-to-play model (as GW2 does). SWTOR was very much an “old school” MMO, and at the time of its launch many commentators claimed that if it failed, it would signal the demise of the subscription model MMO altogether.

I’m not actually convinced about that. The people who make those claims are, I suspect, those for whom $15 a month is a substantial purchasing decision. But that’s always been a factor; a monthly subscription hasn’t stopped WoW from succeeding. Most of us feel that $15 a month is worth it for the amount of entertainment we get from a good MMO, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree; the buy-once-play-forever model of Guild Wars 2 will suit them down to the ground.

But contrary to public perception, a game going free-to-play isn’t necessarily failing. The value of F2P isn’t in luring cash-strapped or thrifty customers (because let’s face it, they’re not particularly valuable customers); it’s in giving enthused players more ways to spend money.

The LotRO cash shop

As Tobold argued a year ago, MMORPGs are “too cheap”. The average American 1 spends $58 a month on their hobbies; for a dedicated MMO gamer, there’s just nothing to spend 75% of that leisure money on, without a cash shop. If you give people an outlet to spend their money, they will – when LotRO went free-to-play in 2010, its revenues tripled. Now, LotRO’s implementation of F2P was one of the best I’ve seen 2 and these days there are a lot more MMO cash shops competing for their share of player dollars, but the principle still stands: if you give gamers a way to give you more money, they will.

Along those lines, I’m personally a fan of the F2P + subs + cash shop model, because it lets me choose how invested in a game I want to get. I’m far from alone in this, but there are many gamers who cry that cash shops are terrible things and even their mere existence is an indicator that a game is terrible, especially if the cash shop exists as well as a subscription fee. It’ll be interesting to see just how much negative feedback BioWare attracts for their decision.

The thing that strikes me in all this is that SWTOR going free-to-play now looks like an admission of failure, whereas if it had launched as free-to-play, it would have looked like a canny business decision. SWTOR’s inability to succeed at the old model doesn’t prove that the old model is dead, but it certainly gives the naysayers a lot more ammunition.

  1. Okay, I’m not American, and neither is Tobold, but it’s a handy metric to use.
  2. …but that’s a post for another time