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The Evolving Free-to-Play World

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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In general, MMOs follow a well-established lifecycle. They surge with activity at launch, plateau into middle age, and then gradually dwindle into closure. Some successfully regenerate themselves, Doctor Who-style, through expansion packs, new content updates, or even a change in business model. Others, like Tabula Rasa, become notable for how quickly they crash and burn.

These days, MMOs have several ways of finding their niche. For WildStar, there’s the switch to free-to-play, the new holiday events, and the upcoming launch in China. But how is Carbine’s MMO actually doing? That’s a harder question and, depending on who you ask, you’ll get wildly different answers.

In the absence of hard numbers, there’s the temptation to rely on anecdotal evidence – how busy the zones are, the length of dungeon queue times, and the amount of spleen venting on official forums to name a few. There are other, subtler ways of carving this turkey – has everyone you know bought the latest item store mount, for example? How many people are streaming WildStar, making podcasts, or running fansites about it? In short, how invested is the community, and what does that community look like?

That’s why, for this week’s column, I’m taking a look at some of the fans out there making WildStar-shaped content. What they’re talking about, and what it says about WildStar’s success. And if that success can truly be calculated at all.

Open for Business

Possibly one of the more controversial parts of the free-to-play switch, WildStar’s in-game item store has attracted a mix of excited interest and consumer concerns. On the one hand, there’s a regular flow of new mounts, pets, costumes and housing décor, all timed to accompany the holiday events. Carbine’s even been using the system to give away in-game items, partnering with a wide number of sites (including yours truly) to distribute item codes.

That controversy comes from two parts – instead of giving subscribers a monthly stipend of NCoin to spend in the store, WildStar offers Omnibits as an alternative currency with which to buy most items. Subscribers get a boost to the Omnibit drop rate, but it still has to be earned through play – you can’t just log in and pick up a bag of swag (like SWTOR, for example). But that’s only a minor wrinkle compared to having (at first) mounts and pets being character bound only, although account-bound variants are now available for the most part.

But are people buying in? WildStar doesn’t have a fansite like Dulfy showcasing what’s new on the store, but Mayor DasMoose is using videos to fill that gap. WildStar Datacube is a new site that’s plugging away on the item collection side, building a database of pets, mounts, dyes, and toys, along with instructions on how to obtain them.  And on a personal note, I’ve spent a significant amount of my own cash on mounts, pets, and housing items – particularly for the Space Chase.

Even so, it’s likely that spending on the item shop is tailing off at this time of year, after a flurry of excitement at Halloween. After all, we’re all spending our hard-earned cash on presents, and food, and travelling to relatives. Right? It’s this seasonal variation that makes MMO numbers hard to predict, as some of us have more free time, while others are spending the next few weeks travelling, shopping or cooking. Happy holidays.

Taking Residence

If there’s been one standout feature that’s captivated fans, it’s player housing. Streamers like Kal Scattergood and Kaeret have been touring housing plots and showcasing player creations, and the same goes for GGChestnut and her ‘Yardcore Nexus’ YouTube series. There’s even a (slightly outdated) list of housing items at Living in WildStar, along with some screenshots of player plots for your own inspiration.

That upsurge in housing has been matched by a sustained interest in roleplay, especially considering the new costumes and dyes that are hitting the item shop. Players are using their plots to host events – even contests and scavenger hunts – for others to take part in. And one of the oldest WildStar fansites – WildStar Roleplay – is still going strong.

Even under the skin, player creations are still going strong. WildStar’s addon community is still toiling away on refining, updating and adapting the interface, with the majority being hosted over at Curse. There’s even a fresh attempt to document the Lua API for any new coders over at WildStar Docs. Far from being abandoned, addons are being added and updated on a seemingly daily basis.

Player Versus Existentialism

Beyond this, how is the core game of WildStar doing? The big features – questing, raiding, dungeons, battlegrounds and arenas? While the PvE side is doing well, the PvP side is, well, questionable.

On the small-scale side of things, holiday events have helped maintain interest in Expeditions, WildStar’s flexible group-size content. Whether it’s shiphand missions as part of the Space Race, or the new instances accompanying the holiday events, players are teaming up in the name of new content and/or shiny loot.

Even raiding is enjoying a resurgence, with guilds like Venus Rising (shameless plug) streaming their raid nights. Progress is being tracked on fansites like Raid Ops. Action set and AMP builds are being traded on WS-Base. And there’s a general chatter about raid progress and boss kills over at the WildStar subreddit. Even though there’s a ravenous hunger for new raid content, there’s a healthy chatter about the scene.

Unfortunately, that’s in stark contrast to the PvP scene. Walatiki Temple, once my favourite battleground, has now become infested with bots. In fact, despite numerous ban waves, WildStar’s PvP bot problem seems to be notoriously persistent. That’s not the only reason for the drop in popularity though – class imbalance, itemisation curves, and other reasons have all combined to make WildStar PvP unappealing. It’s not surprising that veteran player Oxtube claims ‘WildStar’s PvP has failed.

Finding the Niche

Depending on which yardstick you use, WildStar’s switch is hugely successful, holding steady, or continuing a downward spiral. For housing, roleplay, and lore fans, there’s an embarrasment of riches with the new holiday events and item store goodies. For raiders, the business model switch has likely helped with some rostering pains, and there’s new content to look forward to next year. But for PvP players, it’s the lack of meaningful change that’s coloring perceptions and creating despair.

But there’s always something happening. Podcasts such as Strange Tales from Outer Space, WildCast, and Geeks of Nexus, are still reporting on the news around Carbine’s MMO (although all three are sensibly taking a break for the holidays). And Carbine themselves are still plugging away week after week on their own Twitch channel, sharing updates and responding to questions.

If community interest is anything to go by, WildStar is gradually falling into a niche. It’s one shared by two groups of players – the lore-loving, roleplaying, cosmetic-hunting social player, and the PvE action-combat and occasional raiding fan. It’s a fair distance from the banner-cry of ‘HARDCORE’ that accompanied the original launch, but it’s a broader and more sustainable base from which to build on. And as for PvP, I’d suggest an end to shouting into the wind, at least for now.

Have a good holiday everyone, and I’ll be back in the new year.


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.