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A Look Back at the First Month of Free

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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It’s been a month since Carbine Studios flipped the free-to-play switch on WildStar. Since then, the sci-fi MMO has seen a surge of new life – newcomers have surged into Nexus, servers have been inundated with players, and most seem to love the changes. By all accounts, dropping the mandatory subscription and dramatically improving the in-game experience has been a win on all fronts.

That’s not to say it’s been an easy month. Following the switch, WildStar groaned under the strain, with players experiencing queues to get in and lag while playing. Carbine’s response was to open new servers and frequently deploy and hotfixes, getting the gremlins under control by the end of the first week. Competition has also been heating up – SWTOR and Guild Wars 2 both have new expansions, and betas for Blade & Soul, Black Desert and Overwatch have been gunning for our attention.

It’s why Carbine can’t take its foot off the gas. Although significantly improved, WildStar still has a few experience-jarring issues, both new and old. In this week’s column, I’ll be looking at some of the most positive changes to hit the free-to-play incarnation. On the flipside, I’ll also be looking at where fans are clamouring for change, or where improvements are still to be had.

Attention Seeking Missile

In the time since WildStar went free-to-play, Carbine has done an astounding job at keeping me interested. The increased population and rejigged content finder made it much easier to find groups, whether for PvP battlegrounds or PvE instances. After being relegated to solo content for much of last year, the change gave my characters a new lease of life. The subsequent PvP weekend event maintained that momentum, helping me to gear up a character surprisingly quickly.

When I eventually paused for breath, that’s when the subtler changes became apparent. There’s a daily login bonus, with a spacefaring dog companion pet as one of the early rewards. There’s the rebalanced story content, and the new Alpha Sanctum story instance that peels back the lore even further. There’s the tweak to Challenges, where points are awarded that stack up to unlock impressive rewards. And there’s contracts, which help to nudge players into doing similar types of content, ensuring that there are groups for dungeons, world bosses, and more. It’s all very synergistic.

And then, there was a double whammy of holiday events. Shade’s Eve - WildStar’s first proper holiday - finally opened on live servers, bringing fresh new content to play through and new rewards to earn. The Hoverboard zPrix was a completely new experience for me, and had me racing across zones as I followed a course laid out with giant rings. Both were huge amounts of fun, and I’m hoping that both are expanded on in subsequent years. Yes, there were a few glitches caused by both events overlapping, but Carbine resolved them quickly. There’s more to come as well, with the Protostar Winterfest Extravaganza due to open before the end of the year.

Fixing the Missteps

While most of WildStar’s free-to-play changes have been embraced with open arms, a couple have been more than a little jarring. The main reason relates to the NCoin item store, where most purchasable mount and companion pets can only be bound to a single character. When compared to Warcraft (where most purchases are account bound) or even SWTOR (where mounts can be unlocked across an account for a nominal additional fee), Carbine’s choice feels particularly unreasonable. The problem is compounded for housing plot FabKits, which are single use, and would be destroyed if you choose to redecorate. It’s an area that’s crying out to be addressed, especially considering the existing support for account-bound and multi-redeem items.

Outside of the free-to-play changes, there’s one major component of WildStar that’s still begging to be overhauled in a major way, and that’s Runecrafting. Despite undergoing several iterations since launch, it remains the most cumbersome and impenetrable gear enhancement mechanism I’ve seen. With almost everyone I’ve spoken to, it’s been a major source of confusion and annoyance, forcing them to go hunting for guides or forgetting it completely.

The idea behind runecrafting is simple enough, and it’s a premise that I completely get behind. Instead of placing interesting stats and set bonuses on gear directly, players can craft runes and then apply them to the gear they have, giving us complete freedom in how we want to tune our gear so that it works with our play style. Great, except certain runes only work in certain slots (slots can be changed for a fee), and crafting top-tier runes is very expensive. Each piece of gear can have several runeslots (with more that can be unlocked), and sets only work when all the runes are in the same item. Oh, and all this gets more expensive as the item quality improves.

It’s a complex problem, which makes it hugely popular with the minority of theorycrafters that embrace this sort of challenge, and have the in-game platinum to throw at it. For everyone else, it creates an ‘analysis paralysis’ – the risk of making a mistake is high, and the cost (in terms of currency) is significant, which has the unintended side-effect of pushing players into doing nothing and ignoring the system completely. The whole thing would benefit hugely if the financial cost of runecrafting plummeted (encouraging adoption and experimentation), or if the complexity (intellectual cost) was cut back to make expensive choices straightforward and obvious. Personally, I prefer complex but cheap systems, but I can see the merits to both. Either way, as Carbine hopes to steer more of us into endgame content, the runecrafting system is likely to become more of a pain point to an increasing number of players.

Watching the Future

Rants aside, WildStar’s free-to-play conversion has brought significant improvements to the game, flinging open the doors to both newcomers and older veterans. From what I’ve seen, most players have embraced the vast majority of changes. Aside from a few gripes, the core game is proving to be significantly enjoyable to a growing number.

But, as I’ve said, this isn’t a time for Carbine to kick back and relax. The MMO market is intensifying, with more games than ever vying for our attention. Just as the content train needs to keep rolling, those creature comforts and system improvements need to keep appearing. The free-to-play update was a huge step in the right direction, but more need to follow. As we look past the holiday season and into next year, here’s hoping that future updates maintain that momentum.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.