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Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place.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

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7 Responses to “SWTOR and the F2P tango”

  1. August 5, 2012 at 09:10 #

    I don’t like F2P myself, so I guess that places me in the “hater” camp? I don’t see much problems with SWTOR going F2P, though, as long as it doesn’t turn into some sort of advertisement heaven. The game has some great content, and I intent to stay playing it.

    • August 6, 2012 at 16:09 #

      Oh, I don’t think that makes you a hater — the haters are the ones who gloat at others’ failures, real or perceived.

  2. The Guilty Party
    August 8, 2012 at 09:11 #

    I don’t understand the thought process that says that you can decide the quality of entertainment based on the manner in which you pay for it.

    “I don’t like intrusive ads” is a valid complaint. “I don’t like lots of tiny charges that add up” is a valid complaint. Neither of those are necessarily true of F2P games.

    • August 8, 2012 at 18:58 #

      I agree. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have issues with specific implementations of F2P, but the concept as a whole is really no intrinsically better or worse than any other payment model.

      And, too, implementations vary so widely from one F2P game to the next that it’s hard to generalise accurately anyway.

  3. SimonF
    September 25, 2012 at 04:24 #

    SWToR isnt going F2P. Its going F2Try. Big difference since the end game is locked out unless a player subs. It seems like Bioware just fails at everything MMO, from PvP ballance, to Social tools (still no X-server?) to now F2P model (cant even copy LOTRO?). They will fail at F2Try just like they failed at everything else…my 2cp

    • September 25, 2012 at 12:18 #

      Actually, as you can see in this table, nearly half the big-name free-to-play MMOs restrict F2P access to raids, so SWTOR is hardly alone there. As for the rest of your comment – well, SWTOR certainly disappointed a lot of people – including me, to be honest – but failure is in the eye of the beholder, and they do still have hundreds of thousands of active subscriptions. I’d characterise SWTOR as disappointing, yes, but not a failure.

      (Edit to note: there are also plenty of players who don’t care about raiding, and locking them out of raiding won’t matter a bit. To assume that “playing” has to involve raiding or it doesn’t count is irrelevant to most players’ interests.)

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