A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, an MMO had to save itself from utter demise by transitioning from a subscription-based format to free-to-play roughly a year after it launched. Other MMOs have likewise made the transition over the years, although probably not with as much desperate need to retain players and keep the doors open as Star Wars: the Old Republic. Since that time, the much-maligned game experienced a resurgence in population for a while, but things seem to have settled down to a dull roar.
When we first got the details for SWTOR's restrictions for preferred and free-to-play accounts in 2012, naturally there was a rather vitriolic uproar. In reaction to that, BioWare eased a couple of the restrictions, restoring a couple of quickslot bars and increasing character slots for preferred players and the basic ability to have a cargo hold (bank/vault) for free-to-play accounts, but for the most part BioWare stuck to their blasters and kept the limits intact.
Now, over a year past when I first published articles on the changes elsewhere, it's a good time to revisit how the free-to-play experience stacks up against being preferred or a subscriber. For those coming in late to the discussion, free-to-play users pay absolutely no money to BioWare to play the game, preferred users have either made a single real-money purchase for items or virtual currency to get promoted or are former subscribers, and subscribers are the ones who pay approximately $15 USD a month to get unrestricted access to the game. This chart lists what you get for each level of service. When the chart first launched, it didn't have the helpful tooltips to explain exactly where the limits were between the various levels, just the little circles that filled up depending on just how restrictive the options were and a less-helpful tooltip.
When I look at the chart, I'm immediately struck by this big long list of options and the half and quarter-filled circles. Even without hovering over the circles to see what the exact limits are on free accounts, it's a bit disheartening to scroll down past thirty-three options, thirty-two of which are only purchasable or in some cases not even available at all. Preferred accounts get two full-access items, eleven half-access items, and twenty low-access items. However, the chart violates the notion of 'show, don't tell'. On other game websites, when you look at their comparison charts, they show hard numbers right up front and also make sure more than one or two items on the list are the same for all three types of account. In this case, even with the helpful tooltips, some of the figures for SWTOR don't really sink in until you log in as a free-to-play account and find out when they say you can choose from three species, they picked the three least interesting ones in the entire game: human, cyborg, and Zabrak. So, you can be a human, a human with metal on their face, and a humanoid with tattoos and horns. Not a lot of variety there, I must say.
Now, when someone asks you whether a game's free-to-play options are too restrictive, their answer is invariably going to be yes, because it's human nature to want to get as much as you can for the least amount of time/effort/money. It's not even a fair question to ask if a game's restrictions are too tight if you only compare it with itself. It's even more difficult to judge this question in an unbiased fashion if one has been a subscriber in the past because you're already used to the enhanced experience of what is now a VIP account. Still, it's a good idea to get some outside perspective to truly get to the crux of the matter here. For the purposes of testing, I started a completely free account on Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, and SWTOR and then I used my former subscriber EverQuest II account to stand in as a median-tier account. In LotRO, my regular account is an ancient Lifetime subscription, so I'm a permanent VIP. In SWTOR, I'm a regular subscriber. I've never played STO before, so I have no previous experience to compare against.
One thing to clearly understand here is that these other free-to-play games do pretty much the exact same thing in terms of restrictions for both preferred/premium/silver customers and full-on free-to-play, as I noted in an article on TORWars in November of 2012. We see it in Turbine's games, Perfect Worlds' games, Sony Online Entertainment's games. Many of the restrictions that BioWare has imposed upon its two non-subscriber tiers are no more usurious than anything I've seen in LotRO, STO, and both EverQuests. In those games, we see very similar limits to in-game currency, character slots, classes, bags/storage, mail, trading/auction house, XP rate, availability of rested XP, priority in queue if a server is full, and customer service support amongst other things. Granted, it's not an exact one-to-one correlation, but the key points and trends are pretty much along the same standard. The biggest difference between the games was in character generation options and races.
In terms of actual gameplay, it's clear that BioWare's intention here is for the account to be an unlimited-time trial or starter account, a gateway to making that first purchase or becoming a subscriber. Given the severe limits on the account, I can't imagine that most of the free-to-play players are anything but children of subscribers, teenagers who want to kill a few hours playing Star Wars, or folks who simply don't have the time to commit to bother with a higher-tier account. It's not difficult at all to make that first purchase that will upgrade a free-to-play account to preferred, but what does it really get a player? Let's say you drop five bucks on some cartel coins and get bumped up. Ooh, suddenly you get Sprint at level 1. You can have another crew skill if crafting is your thing, higher priority in queue for login, cargo hold access without an unlock, 150k higher credit cap, access to sending mail but not credits, six character slots instead of two. Everything else, twenty items out of the thirty-three item list are exactly the same as a full-on free-to-play player. You still can't choose any of the more interesting races in the game without unlocks or subscribing.