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Free-to-Play Opens for Testing

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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About 4 months ago, Carbine Studios announced that WildStar would be going Free to Play. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about what the transition would look like, including a sneak peek at E3, and a deep dive into character stat refactoring.  But the studio was also eager to get fan feedback, promising a beta period for new and existing players to give feedback on this reloaded version of WildStar.

The great news: closed beta testing starts today. Current subscribers can log into beta and try out the changes for themselves, but anyone can sign up for the closed beta over on WildStar’s official site. Once you get a beta key, you’re all good to go. Carbine’s also provided a summary of all the features that made it into the update.

During Gamescom, I was fortunate enough to go hands-on with the new update, under the guidance of Product Director Mike Donatelli. We also chatted a little about what’s gone into the changes, and why they’ll help to make WildStar a success following the business model switch.

My first reaction? So very, very good.

It starts with the new character creation process. The factions and races have short biographies to perk a player’s interest. Classes and paths have short videos explaining their play styles. It’s partly because WildStar is a little different from your run-of-the-mill fantasy MMO, but also to help educate players from the start. After all, as Donatelli reminded me, nobody’s going to pay for a game that they don’t know how to play.

The new starting experience is much, much better, teasing the lore of Nexus from the very beginning. There are three different tutorials, including a novice mode that teaches the basics to new MMO players, and an intermediate mode that covers some of the elements that are unique to WildStar. It’s all done with the aim of making the game more accessible straight from the start, but it also feels more engaging and much more polished.

That arkship experience has slimmed down from about 45 minutes to roughly 15, in order to get players involved in combat Nexus-side earlier. The planetary starting zones are still there to welcome players to the MMO proper, and veterans can choose to go straight to planetfall as part of character creation. We’ve been able to do this before, but it’s now being presented in a much better fashion.

From there, the studio’s focus has been on maintaining player interest all the way through the levelling experience. Donatelli mentioned that smoothing out the dungeon difficulty curve had already helped improve player retention, particularly with the new Protogames Academy at level 10. I’m told that it’s possible to level from 6 all the way to 50 purely through group content.

On the story side, the studio decided to introduce the world story of Nexus much earlier, with Alpha Sanctum opening up at level 15. It’s a change that I’m personally very pleased about, as I felt that the Drusera instances started very late in the levelling experience, and that fleeting glimpses of a ‘ghosty lady’ weren’t a big enough hook. For PvP players, the new Cryo-plex is a battleground with more of a vertical component for bait-and trap combat. Donatelli added that there are also new quest chains, world bosses and public events out there for players to discover in the open world.

Beyond the content, Carbine has been working on cramming in quality of life features, both in response to the pleas from players, and to prepare for free-to-play. Auto-sprint out of combat and a vendor junk-selling button are just two of them, but the biggest boon for existing subscribers is the new loyalty programme, which rewards players for spending money on the game, both through the subscription and item shop currency. The loyalty programme is also retroactive, giving a boost to those who have been in-game since the early days.

Ultimately though, there seems to be growing interest in WildStar, now that the free-to-play transition is drawing near. Donatelli tells me that subscriptions have grown every month since the announcement was made, and hundreds of thousands of players have signed up for the free-to-play beta. The game even won an award for ‘Most Anticipated MMO of 2015’ for the upcoming China release.

With all the updates arriving in the free-to-play transition, you can be sure that I’ll be digging into the beta servers to bring you all the fine details. Until then, let us know your thoughts – are the changes enough to tempt you back to Nexus? Sound off in the comments below.


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.