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Star Wars: The Old Republic Column: The Butterfly Effect

By Eric Barnett on June 09, 2010

Due to the abundant lack of news this week in The Old Republic universe (aside from a new chapter in the Blood of the Empire comic), I'd like to play the role of chaos theorist. We've seen the F2P market creeping up on us for some time now, and it seems that many companies are starting to become the little spoon in its bed. With more companies trying to copy the "Golden Formula" of MMOs we have seen a major lull in retention and heck, over all fun. I have found myself re-subbing many old accounts just to see if I could rekindle some sort of spark, only to cancel them a few days later. Have certain games caused a ripple effect that has made studio heads worry more about quarterly revenue numbers, than the actual fun factor of their games? This week, let's take a look at how these "popular" design tactics could both positively and negatively effect The Old Republic.

Neither of these two scenarios is likely to actually turn out to be the case, but leading up to E3 where there's nothing much to talk about, it can be fun to think about.

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1. Free 2 Play

This word stings many gamers ears like the sound of a silent whistle to a dog. This HEAVILY debated topic generates emotions that feels almost palpable across many MMO forums. I stand in the middle ground on this topic, I think that the F2P model is ideal for some games and a death sentence for others. Let's see how it could pan out if The Old Republic adopted this payment system.

Pluses:

  • A free play model would open up the game to a much wider audience of players, allowing for a much greater surge in people inside the game world.
  • New and interesting item systems could be designed to fit into a cash shop scenario. This could also make for an interesting character customization system. I for one hate looking exactly like everyone else in an MMO; you lose a sense of identity and it quickly deteriorates my sense of immersion. If a games cash shop allowed for new costume pieces or facial customization options, I feel that this would be a great way to increase revenue, while not "breaking the game" in any way.
  • Games that have endless free trials like Warhammer Online, have seen a resurgence in their player populace due to new customers trying out their game. When people feel like they can try something risk free, chances are if your game play is good enough, they will stick around and ultimately pay for the product due to the fact that they are actually having fun. Most jaded gamers now a days won't buy a game based off of clever marketing or promises (I'm not saying all, I'm just saying the salty MMO vets). The honest way of having your game do well in many cases is as simple as allow your community to self promote! If you allow your player base to play your game with a balanced micro-transactions system and engaging game play, they will promote your game for you.

    Minuses:

  • Many F2P companies get in over their heads in development costs and try to make up for it by introducing a micro-transaction system, with bloated prices. Allods Online is a prime example of how a company slam its hand in the proverbial car door. With a huge development price-tag now hanging over its head; I'm not sure that if The Old Republic went free to play at launch, that it would have enough capital to cover its costs.
  • This type of model could easily alienate many die hard anti-F2P players and create negative hype for the game. This is often a slippery slope for developers; a few poor reviews from a couple of gaming communities and your game could slip into a downward spiral that it may never fully recover from.
  • If a cash shop is balanced and introduced poorly, it could severely throw off the games balance and economy. This could then make many key systems like crafting and PvP feel cheap and pointless.

2. Ignoring your niche and going for mass appeal.

Many games have tried and failed to replicate World of Warcraft's massive success. Dubbed as the "Golden formula for making games", many gamers today will accuse most mainstream MMOs as "WoW clones". This can destroy a game even before it launches; once your niche community turns its back on you, your chances for high subscription numbers have become dust in the wind. Star Wars Galaxies suffered this fate when they completely changed their core game play to try and appeal to a larger market. What followed was a HUGE dip in their player base from their outraged community and massively horrible PR. The game never regained its former strength and many players have simply blacklisted the company responsible as a result. Bioware has a strong track record however, yet many Star Wars fans worry that in trying to appease their target audiences, they might end up watering down their game.

Pluses:

  • If the game play is as fun and engaging as they are hyping it to be, then the company could acquire many more customers than just their original niche audience. Taking liberties with an IP can often work out in a games favor if done correctly and presented in an unobtrusive way. This often creates a sense of lightheartedness during game play and can present a new flavor palate for players. One reason why Warcraft was so successful was its ability to make fun of itself and include pop culture references.
  • More players equals more revenue for the company, which usually equals continued content additions and new game play features. Without a steady flow of revenue, no company can keep up with its operating costs, which usually causes a grinding halt to any new development. You don't need a business degree to tell you certain things about releasing a game. Once your subscriptions taper off and you settle into the golden years of your launch; if the numbers aren't in the black, you won't be able to afford the gas in your diamond encrusted Aston Martin let alone continue to pay for new development.
  • With a much larger audience, companies can afford to take new risks with their development. This doesn't mean changing old systems completely, but allows for new and visceral features to be developed without time line restrictions. This allows developers enough time to perfect their creations, rather then having them slop them down in front of us and tell us to start eating.

Minuses:

  • Ignoring your niche is like ignoring your brain telling you that your pants are on fire. Sure your eyes could just be playing a trick on you, but do you really want to risk it? In most cases, the niche players will remain long after the initial window shopper gamers have passed on to their new "this minute" fixation. Spurn them and companies risk losing the anchor to their ship.
  • A wise person once said, "Never bite off more than you can chew." Many companies need to heed this advise; The Old Republic is promising many things to many people, they need to be careful that they don't pinky swear on something that they cannot fully deliver on. Full voice acting is all well and good, but do not supplement that for an open world environment and engaging combat.
  • All in all I think many Star Wars fans are hoping for something more than they are already used to. Giving us Warcraft with Star Wars art smeared across it are not the droids we are looking for. Sometimes you need to do right by your core before you can spread the gospel to others. As Whoopie Goldberg said in The Color Purple, "Till you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna' fail."

This is all conjecture meant to provide us all with some food for thought and discussion, until Bioware decides to grace us with more information. What other systems do you feel could both negatively and positively effect The Old Republic? Do you have anything you would like to add to either sections of this debate? In the end, MMOs need to be the vehicles in which we explore new realms of fictional reality, allowing us a brief reprieve from our daily lives. As of late however, I can only quote Ashton Kutcher in saying, "Dude, where's my car?"

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