It’s been less than a week since Star Wars: The Old Republic launched Game Update 1.5 alongside its free-to-play offering, and we’ve seen some interesting reactions to the F2P update throughout the web and within our own community here at MMORPG.com. We recently had the opportunity to discuss the free-to-play option and associated concerns with BioWare senior producer Blaine Christine.
Before having this opportunity, I had planned to pen this week’s column on what I feel is a reasonable free-to-play option in Star Wars: The Old Republic that is currently being held back by several issues. Since I was able to pick Mr. Christine’s brain on said issues, we’ll be weaving his comments in with our thoughts.
Let’s first cut to why Star Wars: The Old Republic even went free-to-play to begin with. According to Blaine, SWTOR was designed as a subscription-based game early on and while BioWare did notice the obvious shift towards free-to-play games in the run up to launch, the game simply wasn’t designed for that business model. However, BioWare was looking to possibly add some sort of microtransactions to the game post-launch. As it turned out, the free-to-play landscape made it much harder for BioWare to not only keep players, but also attract new players, and so the team fast-tracked retrofitting the game in order to facilitate the free-to-play model we now see.
The foundation of BioWare’s free-to-play model is sound, in my opinion, but there are definitely a couple of popular F2P features I feel would help enhance the experience. I mentioned two of these features to Blaine, one, was some sort of Cartel Exchange where players could trade credits for Cartel Coins and vice versa. I also inquired about BioWare's stance towards a feature that would allow players to purchase subscription time that could be traded in-game a la EVE Online’s PLEX or TERA’s Chronoscrolls. Blaine didn’t necessarily shut down the idea, but neither of these features are something BioWare is currently working on. Blaine did point to the ability for players to trade the Cartel Market items and unlocks via the Galactic Trade Network and in-person trading as their way of offering a similar solution.
One of my main concerns with the free-to-play implementation as it stands has to do with the dearth of services available for purchase. For example, there are numerous standard fare F2P restrictions found in SWTOR, such as the credit cap and a limit on the number of character slots. The problem with the lack of services is that players can’t buy their way out of these restrictions without outright subscribing to the game.
Blaine did admit they had to make some concessions in order to get free-to-play live in the timeframe they were aiming for and the aforementioned services just weren’t able to make the cut for launch. Fortunately, we did get some good news here. Blaine revealed to us that a number of these services will go live with Game Update 1.6 (which is now on PTS), so it shouldn’t be too long now.
While I was glad to hear these services were coming, there was one major issue on F2P that we had yet to discuss and that is the significant amount of feedback throughout the gaming community on BioWare’s particular set of restrictions for free-to-play and Preferred status players. Subscribers certainly benefit a great deal from the free-to-play option, but ironically, it’s those free-to-play and Preferred players that are feeling a bit shortchanged right now. Specifically, players have been crying foul over the sale of UI elements such as quickbars, the Artifact quality gear license, and more. What I’ve heard from many of you and even from some of my own friends who wanted to join me, but were ultimately put off by these restrictions, is that the game basically isn’t really viable to play seriously as anything but a subscriber without ponying up some a decent amount of cash. Blaine explained that BioWare has put considerable effort into taking feedback into account when coming up with the current restrictions, often involving focus groups, former players, and the like, and I was assured that the ultimate goal here is to get players to come into the game and have a good time. With that said, BioWare is continuing to pay close attention to what fans are saying and they're open to making adjustments where necessary.
For what it’s worth, the reason I mentioned the PLEX-like feature and the ‘Cartel Exchange’ earlier had mostly to do with these sorts of restrictions. Currently, it is indeed possible to buy unlocks for credits, which is a fair compromise, but given the credit cap and the lack of escrow withdrawal capability (outside of subscribing) it’s not necessarily going to be worthwhile for players to purchase unlocks for the sole purpose of selling them back to players for in-game credits.
Based on our conversation, we now know that BioWare is planning on at least dealing with the escrow issue and is keeping its mind open to other options, but in the interim, we essentially have a game where F2P players are unlikely to find unlocks available on the market in the price range of their credit caps. This hampers the ability for non-paying players to earn some of these unlocks through playing the game. Even if it takes considerable effort, many free-to-play gamers are comfortable with the option of having to put in time to unlock these sorts of things. Some people just have more time than money and BioWare still stands to profit even if someone buys the unlocks (for real cash), even if it does end up being sold back to another player (who otherwise would have not purchased them) for in-game credits.
In short, BioWare had the right idea in allowing these unlocks to be available for sale in-game, but this feature is being held back by the inability for players to either acquire Cartel Coins for credits or gain access to their own credits at a reasonable cost. If BioWare can manage to bring services such as escrow withdrawal online sooner rather than later, I’d argue that most of the concern over these restrictions is essentially moot.
In wrapping things up, I raised the issue of BioWare’s slow cadence of game updates since launch. Compared to games like Trion Worlds’ RIFT or even the newly launched Guild Wars 2, the frequency of game updates to Star Wars: The Old Republic is best described as glacial. Blaine noted that back in August, SWTOR creative director James Ohlen stated that the team was really looking to dial up the pace of updates and since then we’ve already seen two updates go out the door, with a third update, Game Update 1.6, tentatively slated to go out before the end of the year. Given the improvements we've seen thus far, BioWare is hopeful that fans of the game are seeing BioWare’s commitment to providing game updates at a quicker pace and we were reassured that this pace would continue going forward.
Have you tried SWTOR F2P yet? What do you think so far? Let us know in the comments below!