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Star Wars: The Old Republic Column: Four Reasons BioWare Really Should Consider F2P

By Michael Bitton on June 20, 2012

This is almost like beating a dead-horse for me at this point, but the possibility of Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play seemed just a bit more likely due to comments made by BioWare’s Emmanuel Lusinchi in a recent report over at Gamestm.co.uk.

Unfortunately, that report seems to have been taken down since making the rounds in the press last week. Even so, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing. After all, the report was taken down quietly and without any comment from BioWare, which is pretty telling in its own right!

The gist of the report was simple, according to Lusinchi, BioWare is “looking at” free-to-play. Did he misspeak? Who knows? But even if he did, BioWare really should be looking at free-to-play, and given all the recent events, I wouldn’t be surprised if they indeed are.  With that said, I’ve got four reasons in mind for why BioWare should be looking at free-to-play for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and that’s what we’ll be discussing in this week’s column.

Options are Better for Players (and Developers!)

Face it, this is why the F2P model has been taking off in the West in recent years. The F2P model is a boon for both players and developers from a financial standpoint. Of course, you can offer a subscription “VIP” option in addition to allowing players to play for free. In fact, it’s this particular setup that is incredibly popular in the West. The popularity really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone:  consumers like options.

A lot of people enjoyed their time in Star Wars: The Old Republic, they just didn’t necessarily feel like it had enough content to warrant shelling out $15 from month-to-month. You can have that debate if you want, but the point is, players with options are more likely to play. And players playing are more likely to pay!

The Pure Subscription Model is Dying

The writing has probably been on the wall for subscriptions for years now. In fact, I’ve sort of felt that MMOs, at least in the Western market, were headed for a downward spiral before the free-to-play model began to take off here. I can’t say I’m surprised BioWare didn’t go free-to-play from the get-go with Star Wars: The Old Republic, after all, even the dismal situation that Warhammer Online is in hasn’t warranted a fully embraced switchover to the F2P model.

I’m not really sure why EA has been so slow to read the tea leaves on this, but the company seems to be increasingly warming up to the idea.

Competition is Looming

Even if SWTOR were doing much better than it is now, the above two reasons combined would have likely meant serious attrition for the game in face of the launch of many upcoming competitors.  The last two years have been fairly stale as far as the MMO genre goes, but this year and the next couple seem absolutely packed, and most of the titles will be free or buy to play.  It’s hard enough keeping the attention of MMO gamers with a subscription-based game going up against other existing and newly released subscription-based games, but you’ve got to make a pretty hard sell to convince someone they should pay $15 over the low price of free when they can get a comparable (or maybe even superior) experience elsewhere.

Game Population is in Decline

A couple of months ago there was some merit to debates over the veracity of BioWare subscription number claims, but it’s pretty clear by now that the situation has changed significantly in the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at SWTOR’s server status list to assess the situation. The majority of servers are Light in population, even during peak hours. Server transfers are helping consolidate the population and give the game a shot-in-the-arm. But why settle for that?

Star Wars: The Old Republic is an AAA Star Wars MMO. It can do better than that. The game has improved since launch in many ways and I still feel there is a solid amount of content in the game.  Bust the doors wide open and lower the barrier to entry. I feel the free 1-15 strategy will work in the short term, perhaps achieving a one or two-month spike, but the fact of the matter is that most of the players are at endgame levels and this is where you need to keep the game thriving.

Free players, even those that never spend a dime on your game, make the game feel alive and encourage those who are willing to pay to do so because they feel they’re investing in an experience that is more likely to be healthy in a couple of weeks, months, or maybe even years down the line.

Is BioWare ‘considering free-to-play’? I sure hope so.

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