SWTOR is going F2P this fall. It launched just before Christmas in 2011. That means it will be less than one year since BioWare’s massive investment stormed the sales charts… and then promptly saw its subscription numbers falter. The answer? As is the current trend: make it a hybrid F2P game and drop that pesky purchase and subscription barrier. If you can get players playing your game for free, by the thousands, chances are you can get a few of them to buy something for a small fee once they’re hooked. When I spoke to Jeff Hickman and Matt Bromberg this week, one of the things they were completely open about was that SWTOR should have been F2P all along. But is the conversion coming too soon, too late, or just in time?
I’m going to use SWTOR as my whipping boy in this editorial because they’re the most recent (and highly visible) example. But this applies to all games that launch with a sub-model and then switch to some sort of F2P revenue stream instead. I personally don’t think it will be long before we see TERA go this route, and one can certainly argue that TSW’s cash shop is indeed just Funcom preparing for the game’s inevitable switch to an AOC-like model.
Now, back on the topic at hand. How soon is too soon for a subscription game to go F2P? Is there a limit? Would people have balked if BioWare waited just three months before announcing plans at the end of 2012 to go subscription-free? As servers seemed to empty, the writing was on the wall that the nearly 2 mln box sales weren’t going to translate into the sort of subscription numbers EA and the good doctors might have hoped for. What would it have hurt? Well, I suppose chances are that a lot of folks would have stopped subscribing sooner and just waited for the F2P model to come along.
I actually find SWTOR to be a perfectly fun theme-park MMO. I loved my time with it. But, like many theme park games these days, that time came to an end and there wasn’t enough content coming at a steady pace to keep me subscribed. Now, as a F2P game? I’ll gladly pony up every time SWTOR launches some new content and see what the fuss is about and if it’s something I’d like to sink my time and money back into. I’d rather it be a “taste-test, then buy the whole pint” sort of experience than have EA and BioWare force me to pay for 30 days when I might only need one.
I am glad that Jeff and Matt were so candid in saying SWTOR should have been a F2P game from the get go. I believe most every game should be. I even wonder if there will be a time when ArenaNet offers the client for Guild Wars 2 for free down the road a bit. If your game is good, people will pay for it. But as the market continues to roll and churn in a post WoW world, it’s clear that a Blizzard-sized bolt of lightning isn’t going to strike again anytime soon. So why hinge your game’s success on a model that is increasingly becoming dated and irrelevant?
I don’t think SWTOR’s F2P transition is too soon. I personally think it couldn’t come soon enough. Just as DCUO thrived far better as a F2P offering, so too will SWTOR in the long run. What I’d rather see though? I’d like to see games start releasing that give us a reason to subscribe every month. And if they cannot do that, when there are so many options on the market, I’d like to see them have the courage to launch from the gate as F2P, and let us decide when and how we want to give you our money. If you give us a reason to, most of us will gladly pony up.