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Free-to-Play and Schadenfreude

Michael Bitton Posted:
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Yesterday, BioWare made the ‘dramatic’ announcement that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be going free-to-play this fall. The writing has been on the wall on this for a good while now, and I’ve only been yelling about it constantly in this column for the last couple of months, so let me first get this out of the way: it’s about damn time!

The reaction to the news has been mixed. Many gamers have responded well to the announcement and appear to look forward to checking the game out once it goes free-to-play. On the flipside, the self-congratulating and practical foaming-at-the-mouth rush to get one’s “I told you so!” in has been nauseating, to say the least. I realize schadenfreude is pretty popular around these parts, but some of you are reading the wrong signals in this announcement.

To some, it would seem, Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play in less than a year is the ultimate vindication. This news, some would believe, is clear proof that Star Wars: The Old Republic has been an abject failure, validating the various criticisms that have been leveled at the game for some time now.

I disagree wholeheartedly.

Star Wars: The Old Republic hasn’t necessarily experienced a decline in subscribers as sharp as we’ve seen  solely due to any particular failure on BioWare’s designers to create a solid MMO but more on Electronic Arts’ failure to recognize (and perhaps significant levels of arrogance) of what is clearly a strong trend away from subscription based MMOs. I know this sounds like I’m using a scapegoat to excuse the game for all the myriad deficiencies of which some of you are clearly convinced, but honestly, EA’s biggest mistake with Star Wars: The Old Republic was a financial one, not necessarily a design one.

I’m not saying this to discount anyone’s criticisms of the game. You’re more than welcome to them. But the reality is that SW:TOR should have never launched as a subscription based game. Even in my excitement for the title prior to launch, I knew this was a huge mistake. Even if SWTOR did well, in my mind at least, there was no way the subscriber base would hold against the pressure of a quality buy-to-play title such as Guild Wars 2, nor the increasing number of other quality free-to-play MMOs on the horizon. It appeared to me that EA was either arrogant or tone deaf to the market trend. It’s Star Wars, after all. It’ll just print money, right?!

Clearly, EA didn’t learn much from the history of Star Wars MMOs. SOE made that money-printing bet with Star Wars Galaxies and the game peaked at 250,000 subscribers before SOE panicked and cannibalized the game’s playerbase in search of fresh new blood. Yes, the Star Wars IP, enough marketing, and BioWare’s history with the Knights of the Old Republic franchise were always going to move a significant amount of boxes, but the underlying issue is the same now as it was 10 years ago: getting people to consistently pay a subscription fee for your game is pretty dang hard.

I’m sure some of the perceived deficiencies in design many like to highlight precipitated the collapse of subscribers to some, maybe even a large extent, but this ultimately would have happened either way. With the exception of World of Warcraft, the subscription MMO is on its deathbed and no game could illustrate that better than Star Wars: The Old Republic. And no, I’m not discounting Trion Worlds’ RIFT. I simply feel RIFT has done as well for Trion has in spite of its business model and not because of it.

So, why is this news actually good news and not worthy of the chants of “I told you so!” we’re seeing around the ‘net?  In the simplest terms? Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. To this day, WAR is stubbornly a subscription-based game, one whose population has continued to dwindle. I’ve always thought EA to either be arrogant or stupid in not attempting to relaunch WAR along the lines of The Lord of the Rings Online or DDO. The fact that EA is not waiting until TOR hemorrhages so many subscribers that it’s barely worth saving is actually commendable. Keep in mind, while we’re officially hearing about this news now, this process has clearly been in development for many months now. There’s only so much that can be rushed with a changeover like this, so I’d say EA is reacting in a timely manner.

Keyword: reacting.

Again, that’s the real failure here. A solidly run business is proactive and can read trends well enough to get ahead of the curve. EA failed on this front with SW:TOR, is paying for it dearly, and they’re now in the process of course correcting. Some people just love to watch the world burn, but for those that would’ve liked to be able to justify continuing to play SW:TOR, this is good news. Of course, the same is true for the current subscriber base.

Still, no one can accurately predict how this switchover will ultimately impact the health and future of Star Wars: The Old Republic. However, the precedent set by other titles that have since relaunched in the same manner has been a positive one to say the least. One thing we’ve heard consistently, and something I’ve even heard in my own circles, is that SW:TOR is actually a really fun game to play, many have simply felt that it wasn’t necessarily worth putting $15/month into.

SW:TOR’s endgame Operations (raids) were plowed through with pretty exceptional speed and the game’s open world PvP ended up a travesty to say the least (with still no clear solution in sight), so I wouldn’t fault those who said to themselves, “Well, that was fun, but what do I do now?” It’s a legitimate criticism. Fortunately, one of the main benefits of the free-to-play business model is that it removes that pressure from both developers and players. Players can play whenever they feel like it without worrying about justifying the cost of their subscriptions and game developers don’t have to focus on shoving repetitive and tedious content (*cough*dailies*cough*) into the game to pad it out and maintain subscription numbers. 

The ideal result is that the cash shop (along with those who choose to subscribe) brings in enough revenue to justify more frequent and, more importantly, interesting content for players to consume. Dungeons & Dragons Online just received its first expansion in six years of service, no doubt enabled due to the game’s transition to a hybrid title, and other relaunches of similar or identical nature have also reinvigorated their respective games and have often lead to a quicker cadence of meaningful content updates.

While it’s unfortunate that SW:TOR had to go through this downturn before EA figured out the right course of action for the game, I’m more encouraged than ever that the future of Star Wars: The Old Republic is brighter for this announcement than some would seemingly like to believe.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB