It's happening, and sooner than you might think. BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic is going F2P with a hybrid business model this fall. Players have been wondering about it, journalists have been begging for it, and it seems that all this time BioWare's been listening and reacting. After being informed of the then embargoed announcement this morning, I had the rare opportunity to sit in on a call with BioWare's Jeff Hickman and Matthew Bromberg (who recently took over as GM of the Austin studio. We talked about the timing, the reasons, and the way in which they believe SWTOR going F2P is just finally giving the players what they've wanted, and breaking down the barrier into the Old Republic once and for all. The call was brief, but this is what I've learned.
CARTEL COINS - A NEW SORT OF CURRENCY
All F2P games wind up with some sort of RMT currency, and SWTOR's will be "Cartel Coins". Basically, all subscribers (still at $15 a month after the conversion) will receive a not-yet-set cache of coins to spend on goods each month, while free players will have to open up their wallets to get some bank in this new type of intergalactic money. I asked the guys what sorts of stuff CC will buy, knowing just how terrified we all are of Pay-to-Win models, and they assured me they have been paying close attention to what's okay business practice with RMT and what's not. Essentially, Cartel Coins will buy a few things: actual in-game content (beyond the 1-50 experience that comes with the game now), vanity items, and convenience items (bank slots, bag slots, character slots, etc). There will be nothing you can buy with CC that will give you an advantage over other players in a competitive arena.
CONTENT UPDATES ON AN AGGRESSIVE SCHEDULE
One of the chief things Jeff and Matt expect folks to spend money on if they're not subscribed (subscribers will always receive every bit of new content, regardless of CC) are content updates. They plan on releasing these every six weeks, and they'll include different sorts of content each time: warzones, operations, public events, and so on (even a mix of all three might be possible). And while there's no set price point for each update, they plan to break it down into different options enough so that PVP folks can focus on buying the content they want, and dungeon folks can focus on what they want, while others can buy everything in one package if they want as well. Again the goal with this model, they stress, is to give options to everyone and to open the game up to get the most people playing.
MAKEB AND OTHER CONTENT = FREE?
I asked Matt and Jeff then if the planned content we learned about at E3 would be some of the first "Content Updates" to be purchased, and they couldn't go into much more detail than "yes and no". For instance, HK51 is something they really want to get in the game sooner rather than later, while Makeb is further down the line. They also have a brand new event for all subscribers coming in August which is a public world event like the Rhakgoul Invasion. I asked if HK51 would then be free for everyone, if he came before the F2P launch, and Jeff said they really haven't decided because they're not even sure when he's going to launch just yet. The goal is to work on the content and get it out as soon as they can, and if some comes after the F2P transition, then they'll evaluate what is free and what is paid.
STAFFING AND CONTENT OUTPUT AS F2P?
I didn't ask the guys directly about layoffs, as it's a bit of a tough subject, but indirectly I asked how the transition to a F2P hybrid model is going to affect their staffing and their content output. Are they equipped to meet a seemingly more aggressive content push? Their answer was simple: any shift in staff they've made over the past few months has been to sort of rebuild the studio for this new F2P venture. They have more focused content teams in place now than they did before, and they're more confident now that they can meet their goals with this altered approach.
DOES BIOWARE THINK F2P IS THE FUTURE?
I then asked Jeff and Matt if they knew now, what they had known then about the MMO market in the West, would SWTOR have been built as a F2P game to begin with? Their answer, in so many words was yes. They freely admitted that hindsight is 20/20, and that they were wrong in predicting the sub model would be perfect for SWTOR, because such things are difficult to gauge over the long multi-year pre-launch lifespan of a project as massive as an MMORPG. Both gentlemen agreed that they see the F2P and hybrid models as the way the market is going, and they feel that this change for SWTOR is reactive and timely to change now rather than later. Matt said, "We're reacting because the players want it this way. There are folks who have been telling us they want it F2P since trying it, since buying it, and they see the subscription as a needless barrier... and we agree. In general, consumers today want flexibility and we're going to give it to them."
DID BIOWARE LOOK TO OTHERS FOR GUIDANCE?
When I asked the gents whether they looked at companies like SOE, Turbine, and so forth for guidance on how to make this transition, the answer was simply: "Of course." But they also said they're being very careful in making sure that they take the good things others have learned before them, while still realizing that SWTOR has things which make it unique and can't be translated as blankly. They feel the content updates are a perfect way to entice folks to either a.) subscribe if they want it all or b.)buy some Cartel Coins if they just want a little bit here or there. They also want to make sure the entire base game is playable from 1-50, so all classes and story content are free to everyone. The idea is that they hope folks want to spend money on the cosmetic additions, the new content, and convenience stuff to supplement their experience.
BEST THING OF F2P AND WORST THING OF F2P?
Lastly, I tossed the guys an easy one in what's likely to be a very up and down week-long news cycle. I asked them to tell me the best part they see when it comes to transitioning to F2P and also the hardest or worst part. The best was a clear choice: they're finally going to be able to tell everyone that the game's wide open and waiting to be explored. When the F2P version launches, there will be no more barrier of entry to get in and explore the continuation of the Old Republic mythos. The worst part? The not so easy part? It's a whole lot of work changing the entire game's business model around. Both on the back end, out front where the players see and interact with it, and in the development cycles they are now going to be working with. But Jeff and Matt both sound superbly optimistic that when the dust settles on the announcement and all is said and done... Star Wars: The Old Republic will be better off and so will the players.