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Star Wars: The Old Republic Previews: Digging into Free-to-Play

By Michael Bitton on November 08, 2012

We recently had a chance to tour Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Game Update 1.5, which is currently on the public test server, along with BioWare’s Cory Butler and Blaine Christine, who were on-hand to field any questions we had. The update brings a host of new additions and changes to the game, including the option for players to acquire HK-51, a companion character clearly inspired by everyone’s favorite assassin droid from the Knights of the Old Republic series, HK-47. While HK-51 is sure to be an awesome addition to any player’s crew, the real marquee feature coming with Game Update 1.5 is the Cartel Market, SWTOR’s ‘cash shop’.

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Months ago, amidst news of several rounds of layoffs and clearly declining subscription numbers, BioWare announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic would introduce a free-to-play option sometime this fall. Well, that moment is now upon us, as Game Update 1.5 will launch next Thursday, November 15 along with the free-to-play option and Cartel Market.  All players can enjoy the game from levels 1-50 without having to spend any money. All classes (but not all species) will be unlocked for everyone to play, but BioWare has split players across three different tiers: Free, Preferred, and Subscriber.

Free players are players that have never spent any money on the game – period. Restrictions for these players are generally outlined here, but purely free players can also expect reduced experience and Valor gains, reduced Crew Skill slots (with reduced advancement speed), later access to Sprint and Speeder Piloting, five Warzones per week, two Quick Bars, and other limitations.

If you’ve previously purchased the game, subscribed, purchased a physical SWTOR key fob, or if you spend a minimum of $5 in the Cartel Market, you will be upgraded to Preferred status. Preferred status players will see most of the aforementioned restrictions lessened to some extent, among other things. For example, you’ll be able to use Sprint at level one, you’ll gain the ability to trade with other players beginning at level 10, already bound Artifact quality items and mods will remain available for use, you’ll retain your inventory and cargo hold expansions, your Legacy unlocks or perks, and so on. 

For subscribers, the experience is pretty much the same as it is now. The main difference is that subscribers can enhance their experience via the Cartel Market and will be given a stipend of a minimum of 500 Cartel Coins for each month they are subscribed. Players who subscribe for 60, 90, or 180 days at a time will receive additional Cartel Coins as part of their monthly allotment.

Now that we’ve got most of the basics out of the way, let’s talk about the way BioWare has set up the Cartel Market and what players can find available for purchase. At first glance, the offerings found on the Cartel Market should be pretty familiar to those who have played a variety of free-to-play games in the past. The standard fare of XP boosters, cosmetics, mini-pets, feature and content unlocks, are all available.

As mentioned earlier, there will be a number of restrictions on Free (and to a lesser extent, Preferred) players and I have to be honest, I was initially put off by some of the features players would have to pay to unlock under these restrictions. At first glance, at least, it appeared less like BioWare was really giving players a value and was instead looking for just about any feature that wasn’t bolted down in order to put it up for sale. For example, if you want to do something as simple as display a title you’ve earned, unlock additional Quick Bars, equip an Artifact quality item you’ve found, or even toggle off your head slot, you’ll have to pay for that unlock. True, titles and hiding your head slot are cosmetic and thus unnecessary, but forcing players to purchase a license to use Artifact items or add Quick Bars seemed a bit much. 

Fortunately, when I dug a bit deeper, I learned of some of the more interesting things BioWare is doing with the Cartel Market. For one, most of the aforementioned unlocks and other unlocks available on the Cartel Market can be purchased both per character and account-wide, offering players some additional flexibility.

However, what really eased concerns for me is the fact that just about all these unlocks generate physical items in your inventory that must be consumed to actually unlock the feature. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, this means that, yes, the Cartel Market items and unlocks interact with the actual in-game economy. Players can, for example, buy a Weekly Warzone Pass and trade it to another player for credits or items, or even put it up for sale on the Galactic Trade Network. Theoretically, players could remove quite a few of their restrictions by simply playing the game and earning enough credits to purchase unlocks from players that have bought them on the store.

 

There is one catch, though. Free players are limited to having 200,000 credits (350,000 for Preferred players) in a given character’s inventory. With only two character slots per server, this means that you’ll only have access to a maximum of anywhere from 400,000 to 700,000 credits at any given time as a Free or Preferred player. At this time, it does not appear that there is a way to pay to remove credits from your escrow without actually subscribing to the game. Hopefully BioWare will address this issue and offer players the ability to remove credits from their escrow without having to shell out a full $15 for a month’s subscription. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if players created their own system to deal with this, perhaps something along the lines of the use of Ectos in the original Guild Wars to get around the game’s currency cap.

There are numerous pure value offerings on the Cartel Market, too. On the unlocks side, players can choose to purchase Legacy Perks and Unlocks via credits as they do now or with Cartel Coins. Want to unlock a species? No problem. Want to be able to train speeder piloting earlier? You can do that, too.

BioWare is also offering a number of adaptive armor sets and individual pieces on the Cartel Market. Personally, I’m not a fan of the fact that you can essentially buy these pieces and look like entirely different classes from entirely different factions. It’s true; this is possible to a certain extent right now. Generally speaking, a Trooper can look like a Jedi Knight at the moment, since they can both equip Heavy armor. My issue is that the offerings on the Cartel Market are both armor class and faction agnostic. This means it’s possible to run around looking like a Bounty Hunter while playing a Jedi Consular. I realize I may be in the minority here when complaining about this, but class identity is already an issue from a gameplay perspective in SWTOR due to the mirroring of classes, so I can’t say I’m much of a fan of these items’ potential impact on visual class and faction identity.

Finally, BioWare is also offering special item packs that remind me of some of the packs offered in the Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer store. You won’t be able to unlock these with credits, mind you, but the two packs available (Black Market and Crime Lord) offer players a chance at earning some special items, with the assortment guaranteed to grant a number of specific items as well (such as Artifact quality companion gifts, XP boosts, or crafting materials). The Crime Lord pack in particular has a chance of rewarding players with Super Rare items such as the mask of Darth Nihlus from KOTOR II, a special lightsaber with unique visual and sound effects, an Emperor’s Throne ‘vehicle’,  and quite a bit more.

Cartel Market updates are currently being targeted for a monthly cadence and this will include new Cartel Packs and other additions that BioWare has in mind as well as keeping the door wide open for additions coming through player feedback.

 

The initial offerings in the Cartel Market appear sufficient overall, but there is definitely room to grow. Notably lacking are ‘service’ unlocks, such as character renames, Legacy renames, server transfers, or outright character re-customization, but BioWare is already considering a number of these features for addition post-launch.  It’s hard to say how MMO fans will view the restrictions on Free or Preferred players at this point, but I’m mostly encouraged by what I’m seeing on the Market. While functional unlocks such as the Artifact license and Quick Bar unlocks do concern me, I don’t feel the setup and offerings as they stand constitute a “Pay-to-Win” scenario by any means and that was probably the most important thing to be wary of at this point.

Have you played around with the Cartel Market on PTS? What do you think so far? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!


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