In approximately a month's time, subscribers to Star Wars: the Old Republic will be playing the new expansion and no doubt blazing a trail through the nine chapters of the new story that will be released at launch. Whether you prefer to gobble it up in one sitting or take your time and savor, there's plenty of new BioWare-flavored story to enjoy. However, let's take a look at what will happen if you're not a subscriber.
If all you care about is raiding, group content, and/or PVP - all perfectly acceptable playstyles to focus on - you're not losing anything you don't already have. Galactic Starfighter isn't going anywhere either. All of that is staying conceptually the same, more or less, as depicted on this chart on swtor.com. You'll even get access to the remastered Flashpoints that are more level-agnostic when they launch. However, one of the key selling points for F2P back in 2012 was that all players would get all bits of the story regardless of whether you were F2P, premium, or subscriber. Now that Rise of the Hutt Cartel has been made free to all accounts, you can now play the story through to level 55 without paying a penny. You still have to buy the Shadow of Revan expansion (currently $19.99 USD) to be able to level up to 60 and play on Rishi and Ziost, but you can still do this as F2P or premium.
The first and biggest difference to this expansion is that you're not getting the new story unless you're a subscriber. Unlike other games such as Lord of the Rings Online where you can buy quest packs piecemeal, this is the first time since SWTOR went free-to-play where it's required for players to be subscribers to get new quest content. It also raises the question about what happens when they release new Flashpoints and Operations that feature bits of the story, will players have to subscribe to get those as well if they're tied into the upcoming chapters?
To be fair, BioWare is best known for its story, and the SWTOR writing team has had some heavy hitters in the past even if they haven't gotten the same amount of accolades as their Mass Effect and Dragon Age compatriots. Some have left to be freelancers, and it's a testament to the quality of their work that at least one of them has written stuff that is part of the new Star Wars canon, Imperial Agent writer Alexander Freed twice over now. However, with the addition of shiny new BioWare writer Courtney Woods Ackland, Bounty Hunter writer Randy Begel coming back, Freed's freelancing for a chapter or two, Hall Hood back on the team after the sadly ill-fated Shadow Realms was canceled, and the recently-announced return of Drew Karpyshyn, it very much feels like a Blues Brothers-style 'getting the band back together' sort of situation. While the game still remains outside of current canon despite the mention of BioWare-created Taris in the recent novel Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, one cannot deny the simple fact that new story content in the game is officially stuck behind a paywall.
Let's break it down even further. If you're a subscriber at launch in October, you get the first nine chapters of the new questline. Then, starting in January 2016, BioWare intends to release one new chapter a month. Anyone who subscribes anytime thereafter will pick up all chapters up to the point they subscribe, but if they allow their subscription to lapse in, say, June 2016, then they get no more new chapters of the KotFE story until they resubscribe again and can then once more catch up. This isn't news. However, I'm sure it wasn't their intention, but with some of the tone of previous F2P verbiage seeming a bit off-putting, it can feel very much like the 'You get nothing! GOOD DAY, SIR!' speech from Gene Wilder in the original (and better) Willy Wonka movie.
Let's also set aside the unfortunately common opinion that gamers who don't subscribe to video games monthly are simply kids who want everything for free. Sure, there are some, but I would wager there's an equally large or larger segment of gamers who have legitimate reasons for not being willing or able to pay for a monthly subscription. It's not for any of us to judge someone else's situation, nor should any of us be gatekeeping by insisting on an explanation why not. For all of those players, they will suddenly lose access to the one thing that makes SWTOR something other than yet another themepark MMO.
Is this the correct decision for an MMO? Some might argue that lack of new endgame options (no new Ops mentioned yet, and only rehashing existing Flashpoints) is more important. Others will state that PVP needs to be improved. 'What is important' is up to each individual player to decide for themselves, and I'm sure there will be a large number of players who are unfazed about the story going behind a paywall, because that's not why they're here. As long as their class isn't nerfed to the ground and they can still hold their own in group activities, life is good. That's also a perfectly acceptable viewpoint when it comes to SWTOR, or any game, really.
Episodic content isn't unknown in MMOs, and if you look at how World of Warcraft's subscriber numbers rise and plummet with each new expansion cycle, it might make it sensible from a business perspective to try and ensure a steady stream of income through smaller but regular releases rather than one big splash every couple of years. I'm also the last person to suggest that creatives shouldn't get paid at least a living wage for their work. Still, I suspect this plan might backfire in BioWare's face when players who enjoyed the story but weren't able to maintain a steady subscription for whatever reason are suddenly left out in the cold.
Some have remarked that the even tighter singular focus on a player in the main game story and the lack of entirely-new group activities turns it more into a single-player game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. That's not an unfair assessment, especially if you consider each chapter of the new story to be like a DLC, but aside from the big launch drop of the initial nine chapters, it's one chapter a month. Is $15USD a suitable price for that new content? We don't yet know how big or involved each chapter is, but we'll get more of a taste of it this weekend at TwitchCon. BioWare has enlisted nine streamers to help showcase the first chapter, so we will all get a better idea then. The streams will run from 10am to 6pm PDT on both Friday and Saturday and will be featured on the SWTOR Twitch channel.
What's your take on putting the new SWTOR story behind a monthly subscription? How will it affect your gameplay if at all?