I think the biggest problem that any free-to-play game will ever have isn't even which limits they impose, it will be how they present these limits to those non-subscriber players. Presentation is key in this business, and this is where I believe SWTOR actually fails the most in this sort of discussion. Again, the product itself is no huge difference from the industry standard other than a few cosmetic things that require unlocks, such as any of the halfway cool species and hiding a character's head slot, things that make me scratch my head with puzzlement. However, when you're a free-to-play player, a company's goal should be to encourage you to make even the minimum $5 USD purchase to get bumped up to preferred status if not actually subscribe. Subscribing is their penultimate goal – the ultimate one being, of course, for you to subscribe and continue to buy cash shop items or virtual currency on top of your subscription fee.
So, in my test, a down and dirty comparison between the three games I chose, each with a major well-known intellectual property as its theme, how did they stack up? Of the three, the least obnoxious about its 'subscribe now!' message was Star Trek Online. Other than the ticker scrolling along the top to announce the names of players who purchased some elite pack or ship from the cash shop, I was hardly aware that there were any restrictions for a free-to-play account or that there was a cash shop. Perfect Worlds didn't even prod me to subscribe during the entire time I played STO. There were no limits to factional or racial creation and a shocking amount of customization in a player character, a feature that the folks at Sony realized was important and put back into the two EverQuest games for non-subscribers after people complained a great deal about losing a number of class/race combinations. In Lord of the Rings Online, I noticed the things like the limit to bags and which classes I could choose due to the store coin icon, but all of the remaining hints to subscribe were subtle and only really showed up if I moused over something that was restricted. Interestingly enough, their XP bar didn't even point out the fact that a free-to-play account doesn't accumulate their current version of rested XP. The text of the reminders were the same colors and font size as any other text in the game.
In Star Wars: the Old Republic, on the other hand, a free-to-play player is continually bombarded with messages to subscribe and items and features are dangled in front of them that they can't have unless they subscribe. We know from reading the chart on the official website that a free account gets lowest priority when a server is surprisingly full and there's a queue, but the game actually says how many subscribers are ahead of you in bright red text. Just imagine if you're trying to log into the Harbinger server to go do your three weekly flashpoints with your friends and see '5 subscribers in queue before you' and then suddenly the number says 10. No one likes seeing folks cutting in line, even if they paid for the privilege. Repeatedly, anything that would need to be unlocked with a subscription is typically printed up in a different or brighter color of text to highlight this fact and make it indelibly plain that this player needs to fork over some real-world cash in order to have all the toys.
Now, don't get me wrong, I believe in the notion of limited access for free-to-play accounts and granting more privileges to folks who pay more, other than the concept of true pay-to-win. I am a very strong proponent of artisans and crafters and makers being paid reasonable wages commensurate with their work, and this is ultimately how they get paid. However, there's a fine line between encouraging your players to drop that five bucks for their first packet of cartel coins and doing a bit of browbeating to get them to fork it over. Between a few restrictions that are tighter than industry standard (such as the in-game barber shop being cartel coin only) and cartel market this, cartel market that, the game doesn't really present a very welcoming atmosphere unless you have money to give to them.
While it might be easy to trot out the same old accusations that it's BioWare's parent company EA or Lucasfilm's new owner Disney at work here more than BioWare itself, I'm not sure that such commentary is entirely fair either. Every publisher out there is out to make a profit, whether it's EA or NCSoft or Warner Brothers, because shareholders aren't happy unless the game studios are throwing money they've earned at them. Everyone knows the adage about honey getting better results than vinegar, but if everyone's using vinegar, why is SWTOR's model so much more distasteful than anyone else's? Food for thought.
Jean Prior / Jean Prior is a video dame who specializes in playing melee DPS characters and has the bad habit of actively playing multiple MMOs because she's an altaholic. Don't send help. You can follow Jean on Twitter @druidsfire.