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.


Game
CompanyBioware/EATurbineTurbineSOESOEFuncomPerfect WorldPerfect WorldNCSoft
SubscriptionsYYYYYYYYY
Premium Level (1)YYYYYNNNY
Free PlayYYYYYYYYY
Vanity Microtransactions (2)YYYYYYYYY
Functional Microtransactions (3)YYYYYYYYY
Subscriber Stipend? (4)YYYYYYYYY
CHARACTER CREATION
Restricts racesYNYYN/AYNN/A
Restricts classesNYYYN/AYNYY
Limited slotsYYYYYYYYY
GAME CONTENT
Restricts questsNYYNNNY
Restricts zonesNNYNYNNY
Restricts levelNNNNNNN
Restricts character abilitiesNYYY
Restricts equipmentYNY
Restricts instancesYYYYY
Restricts raidsYYYNY
Restricts PvPYYYNN
UTILITY
Restricts inventory/bankYYYYYYY
Restricts cashYYYYYYY
Restricts sales/tradeYYYYYYY
Restricts chat/VoIPYYYYYYYY
Restricts travelYYY
Restricts mailYYYYYYYY
Restricts guild creationYYYYYY
Restricts cosmetic optionsYYYY
Restricts customer support and/or forum accessYYYYYY
Other restrictionsRestricted space missions, UI, crafting, emotes, Restricted rest XP, limited crafting optionsShorter AFK logout, restricted buyback historyRestricted quest journal slotsRestricted DLCRestricted alternative advancement, mounts, veteran rewardsRestricted mission creation, respecs, veteran rewardsRestricted veteran rewardsRestricted guild access, server transfers, mission creation, veteran rewards

Notes
The listed restrictions are in comparison to a full subscription account. If a subscriber doesn’t get the feature for free, I haven’t listed its lack for F2P accounts as a restriction.

  1. “Premium” options generally apply to players who’ve spent money on the game in the past but who don’t have an active subscription.
  2. Vanity microtransactions are wardrobe items, non-combat minipets, titles and other non-functional cosmetic items.
  3. Functional microtransactions are items that have a gameworld effect (eg “experience potions”, equipment, etc) or an effect on your account (eg extra character slots, access to new content, etc.)
  4. Games with a cash shop for microtransactions almost always offer subscribers a monthly stipend of store currency.

It’s also worth noting that almost all F2P MMOs promise “priority login!” for subscribers, which is pretty much a non-event as login queues are very unusual in almost every game, so I didn’t bother listing it as a real limitation.

  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

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12 Responses to “F2P: SWTOR, you’re doing it wrong”

  1. August 9, 2012 at 16:41 #

    I agree with you. I find SWTOR’s F2P model eyebrow-raising. It’s like they don’t want money, or that they still don’t understand why they lost subscribers. It’s not because of the high quality of their endgame and their operations!

    I fully expected them to sell story acts or planet packs, and would have thought that’s a smart plan. The only F2P game I played for a while is LotRO, and the only things I bought were a mount, and access to quests in additional zones.

    If you want to encourage people to subscribe, you don’t give away the one thing most people agree on is the best part of the game: the storytelling.

    • August 9, 2012 at 16:48 #

      Your reply made me think of a quote from Zero Punctuation, where Yahtzee described a bunch of game developers as “presumably allergic to money and success”. It seems to apply depressingly well in this instance.

      Speaking as a raiding guild leader, this is going to make it harder for us raiders, too — none of the influx of F2P players will be recruitable for our purposes, and one has to assume that some segment of current raiding subscribers will unsub and just play quest content. At a time when many guilds are feeling the pinch of numbers, this is really not what we needed…

  2. Kerlon
    August 9, 2012 at 18:35 #

    They did so many things wrong, that this just will be logical continuation.

  3. August 10, 2012 at 02:16 #

    There will be restrictions on bag and bank space. There was a discussion on what would happen if you went from Sub to F2P and one of things the dev talked about was moving stuff around so you could get what you needed from the limited bag and bank space. That thread has since been removed from the forums.

    I’ll just reiterate what I said on Tobold’s blog. They are giving away the best part of the game. If I want to raid, I’ll do that in WoW where the developers have much more expereiene designing raids. If I want to PvP, I’ll do that in WoW, where the classes are a bit more balanced for PvP.

    Plus with all the Cartel Coins they are giving me for my sub time, I’ll be able to buy back bank or bag slots pretty easy. Plus you can always send your companion to sell your grey vendor trash, so even bag slots aren’t that big of deal.

    I’m having a hard time seeing why I would maintain my sub when they go F2P.

    • August 10, 2012 at 10:14 #

      I’m having a hard time seeing why I would maintain my sub when they go F2P.

      And that is the surest sign that their model is wrong.

      As for the restrictions on bank and bag space, I’m not surprised that they haven’t mentioned them yet — given BioWare’s fairly terrible history of communicating with SWTOR players and fans — but I do think it’s going to cause unnecessary outcry and criticism that could be averted if they gave a bit more detail about their F2P plans.

  4. August 10, 2012 at 13:36 #

    The announcement had the exact effect on me that you described. I was a paying subscriber, and now I can casually level through the class story content for free. I’d already grown bored of the flashpoints and operations in the game – the story in them was barely interesting the first time through, and it was an impediment to loot and badges/tokens the subsequent times.

    I canceled my sub and will wait patiently for the servers to let me on as a freeloader to level alts and see the bulk of the writing that BioWare put into the game. That is, if I can stomach playing the same planet/world quests over again to get to the class content, and I don’t get swept up by Guild Wars 2 or some other game in the meanwhile…

    • August 10, 2012 at 21:25 #

      Absolutely. I’d be really interested to hear just how many subs they lost in the immediate wake of the F2P announcement, actually. Not that we’re ever likely to find out those numbers, but I’d be very curious to hear just how many people made the same analysis you did — and came to the same conclusion.

  5. August 17, 2012 at 11:35 #

    I’m a little late to the comment box here, but lotro absolutely does restrict travel. Their “swift travel” options are limited to between the four “capitals” if you are F2P, which is highly inconvenient, because without it travel takes longer and you often have to make intermediate stops between where you start and where you aim to end up.

    ;) Just pointing that out.

    • August 17, 2012 at 21:20 #

      You are so right! I’ll fix that immediately — I’d forgotten about that!

  6. Zahia
    August 20, 2012 at 23:21 #

    Or maybe they just want more people playing the game so that planets don’t feel empty anymore ? A lot of people complained that the servers were empty, and Bioware merged servers. Maybe it wasn’t enough to solve the problem, and they think making a big part of the game F2P will bring a lot of players in those deserted planets ?
    Then they can hope these new F2P players will meet suscribers and want to be part of a raiding/PVP guild.

    • August 21, 2012 at 12:09 #

      Well, certainly more populated servers will help the game feel more lively and satisfying for its players. That said, two possible counterpoints:

      a) most complaints about ‘empty servers’ boil down to ‘I can’t find people to do stuff with me’, which (given how soloable the quest content is) means instances and PvP and raids. Until we know how restricted free accounts will be in those areas (and we know there will be restrictions), it’s hard to judge how much difference a free-player population boost will make.

      b) free players come with a cost attached, particularly in terms of customer support. Unless they’re going to restrict customer support for free players (which some other MMOs do), I can’t imagine that adding free players just to stop paid players feeling lonely is worth the cost of supporting them.

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